Kirkuk, Iraq - "Our next war is with the militias, probably not the Iraqi army but the fighters who want to kick us out of our own land," said the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier as we drove out from Kirkuk city and headed to the frontline near ISIL-held Hawija.
"This is my personal view," he added.
"I'm a soldier and I follow orders but my gut-feeling is that they do not want us to keep Kirkuk which is rightfully ours. You see, after the referendum we will stand by people of Kurdistan in all areas who vote for staying as part of Kurdistan," he said as the road got bumpier and we came closer to the outskirts of Kirkuk.
It's one of the contested places in northern Iraq where a referendum for independence is to take place on September 25.
Blast-wall barricades stretch as far as the eye can see on the banks of one of the small tributary canals, we drive on one of the only remaining bridges which connects the other side of the river bank.
As we drive past the destroyed bridges on the other side of the barricade wall, the Peshmerga tell us that ISIL fighters are a few kilometres from here and continue to mount attacks.
READ MORE: Operation launched to retake Hawija from ISIL
In May, two suicide bombers were able to traverse all these barricades and check posts and carry out an attack on a military base. That's where our Peshmerga military escort joined us. Sentries on an elevated post were on lookout duty at the last defence line between the Peshmerga and ISIL fighters.
The ISIL positions are about two kilometres away we were told as we climbed up the structure made of mud, probably just a visual defence against ISIL snipers. Bullet proof windscreens adorn the walls which were taken out of destroyed vehicles and some from the hardware abandoned by Iraqi forces in 2014 as they fled the ISIL advance.
Peshmerga soldiers here are very proud that they defeated ISIL and pushed out its fighters from military bases and the countryside of Kirkuk city with very limited outside help. They say they don't want a war but they're ready for it, if it's imposed on them. Hawija is the last remaining ISIL bastion but nobody's been able to govern this area for years.
We're offered water and tea as we went to multiple positions held by the Peshmerga, they have created a defence line a few metres high and dug up trenches on roads leading to these posts from Hawija. Iraqi troops and Shia militias or popular mobilisation forces are advancing from the south of the city and since this offensive began, the Peshmerga have not been involved.
READ MORE: ISIL shoots Iraqi civilians fleeing Hawija
There's a strategic significance to Hawija because it's the gateway between Salahuddin and Diyala to Kirkuk and Anbar. For many years the back roads in the nearby Hamrin mountain range provided smuggling routes – and that's what makes it difficult to control the area. Estimates are that less than 2,000 ISIL fighters remain in Hawija but it's the prospect of what comes after ISIL which is more daunting to the Peshmerga than the actual fight.
There's consensus here that ISIL's days are numbered but all future prospects are being redrawn.
Firstly, due to the sectarian nature of the forces who are going to replace ISIL and then there's the international political isolation that the Kurds have found themselves after insisting on a vote for independence. People here say oil-rich Kirkuk is mini Iraq because of the composition of its mixed population including Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and Arabs.
As we drive back through the open fields, the destroyed bridges and the barricades – one can't help but think that with rising ethnic and sectarian tensions it'll probably take a miracle for that rich, diverse tapestry of society to be able to survive.
Source: Al Jazeera...Read more