A grave, freshly dug and adorned with pebbles, is the modest tribute to one more sacrifice in the long history of struggle for an independent Kurdish state.

Hogir Fathi was looking forward to home leave in his village in autonomous Kurdistan when the 24-year-old, a fighter in the Iraqi region's peshmerga forces, was killed by a bomb while on the frontline against Islamist militants who last month drove the Iraqi army from most of the north outside the Kurdish zone.

"I am proud my son was martyred," said his father, Mehdi, himself a peshmerga, who fought the army of Saddam Hussein. "There is no sacrifice too great for an independent Kurdistan."