It takes roughly 45 minutes to drive from Mosul to Kalak, located 30 km northwest of Arbil, a Kurdish stronghold.

But it takes an eternity to cross the checkpoint controlled by Iraqi soldiers, according to Kurdish truckers, whose livelihood depends on small trade with Mosul, the nearest city under Iraqi jurisdiction.

"It is torture," says Asso Ali, who has been transporting cargo from Kurdish areas to Mosul for the past 12 years.

"They make us unload the entire cargo. They inspect everything, and they find silly problems. We must wait at least three hours. If we do not cooperate, or if we debate with them, they beat us up."

Ali sells his cargo, which usually includes wheat, barley and sheepskin, to merchants in Mosul. His monthly intake amounts to roughly 2,000 Iraqi dinars ($240).

Two Kurdish women crossing the Kalak bridge. ©Gulf News
"It is nothing, I know. This paltry sum is not worth all the trouble I go through, but do I have any other choice?" he asks.

A bridge that stretches over one kilometre joins the checkpoints for Kalak and Mosul. The Upper Zab River flows beneath the bridge. Iraqi military encampments are visible on the misty mountaintops.

The 200-metre distance between the Iraqi military positions and a Kurdish village called Shoresh, located 500 metres from the Kalak checkpoint, is "no man's land".

"Many shepherds and children have been killed by Iraqi snipers," said Kheder Pishdery, a Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) official. "The shepherds were tending their flock to graze in the fields, and the children were only playing! Many times, the Iraqi snipers have also shot directly at the houses."

Ashti Moussa, another truck driver who has been running the Kalak-Mosul route for the past eight years, can transport up to 10 tonnes of goods in a single trip. However, he bitterly recounts how Iraqi checkpoint officials confiscate part of his cargo on the way back from Mosul.

"If we want to bring back one kg of meat or household items from Mosul, they force us to leave it at the border," he says.

"We must also empty our fuel tanks and retain only the small amount we need to take us back to Arbil."

According to Pishdery, roughly 50 per cent of Mosul's population is Kurdish. The Kurdish traders mainly deal with Kurdish merchants in Mosul.

In addition to traders, there are busloads of mothers and daughters who pass through the Kalak checkpoint. They travel to Mosul for medical treatment, as the hospitals in Kurdish-ruled areas are not as well-equipped, said Pishdery.

The officer in charge at Kalak said the number of vehicles crossing the checkpoint has considerably decreased in recent months as restrictions have been tightening up on the Mosul side.

"Since the Americans began threatening to wage war on Iraq, it has been more and more difficult to cross the checkpoints between Kurdish-ruled areas and Iraq proper," said Pishdery. "We are sure the situation will improve after the defeat of Saddam."