Kurdish Peshmerga fighters honed their skills fighting for independence from Iraq. Now they are the front line against ISIS.
GOM JALIL, Iraq — The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham's forces are less than a mile away, across the flat, dusty plain dotted with concrete buildings. The militant Sunni group's flags can be seen waving in the distance above a checkpoint that, just days ago, was jointly manned by Iraqi government troops and Kurdish forces. But inside the dilapidated one-story building where Brig. Gen. Mahmoud Ahmed has set up a base, the mood is upbeat.
"Our morale is high," says Ahmed, a chubby, mustachioed veteran of the wars against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, who now commands the Second Zeravani Battalion, the Kurdish forces responsible for the Kurdish provinces of Erbil and Dohuk. Nearby, a young soldier with his chest crisscrossed by bullet rounds stands watch behind a Russian-made PKM machine gun mounted on a pickup truck. "We are here to defend our land and people with our blood," Ahmed says.
Ahmed and his battalion are Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces that have fought successive Iraqi regimes for nearly half a century in their pursuit of Kurdish rights and independence. In Kurdish, the word means "those who confront death." They are famed for their skills on the battlefield, and Ahmed says they are ready to fight again.
The Peshmerga are the first line of defense on the road between Iraqi Kurdistan's capital, Erbil, and Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, which was overrun on June 9 by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and former loyalists of Saddam's regime who had crossed the desert from Syria. Iraqi security forces abandoned the city after a couple of days of fighting; in the days since, ISIS and other Sunni insurgent groups have taken a number of other towns in Nineveh, Diyala, Anbar, Kirkuk, and Salahaddin provinces.
A few yards from Ahmed's base, an abandoned and damaged armored vehicle belonging to the Iraqi Federal Police stands as a testament to the defeat of the central government's forces at ISIS's hands. The inability of thousands of Iraqi security forces to defend Mosul took many by shock, not least the Peshmerga forces.
The Iraqi security forces were trained by the United States and Britain, and they are better equipped and paid than their Kurdish counterparts. But with Iraqi forces unable to fight in much of the northern part of the country after they surrendered their positions to the Sunni Arab militants, the Peshmerga are now the only force capable, they hope, of pushing ISIS back.
There are over 100,000 Peshmerga fighters, according to Halgurd Hikmat, a senior official at the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)'s Ministry of Peshmerga. They are either veterans of the Kurdish struggle against Saddam's regime or new recruits who have to go through an intensive training that lasts around 50 days. While they are officially under the command of Iraqi Kurdistan's president, Masoud Barzani, in practice they answer to leaders aligned with the competing Kurdish political factions, the Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. But when it comes to protecting Kurdish territory, those forces are united. Nearly 40,000 of the Peshmerga forces divided into 16 battalions are united under the KRG's Peshmerga Ministry. The rest have yet to be unified. All Peshmerga are now mobilized in the fight against ISIS.
Fighting between ISIS and the Kurds is already under way. Clashes erupted on June 11 between Peshmerga and ISIS fighters in the Kurdish-dominated towns of Sinjar and Zummar in northwestern Nineveh province near the border with Syria, Hikmat told Foreign Policy. Hikmat acknowledged that a number of Kurdish soldiers were killed and injured in the clashes but refused to disclose the number of Peshmerga casualties "so as not to affect our forces' morale."
Kurdish forces also battled militants in the southern parts of the oil-rich, multiethnic province of Kirkuk. Kirkuk has been at the core of Kurds' decades-long conflict with Iraqi governments. The takeover of much of Kirkuk province by Kurds now brings them a step closer to their long-held aspirations for independence. Kurdish officials have said they are not going to let go of Kirkuk as they cannot trust Iraqi forces to provide security for residents there.
And Kirkuk isn't the only strategic gain. Kurds now control the Rabia border crossing between Iraq and Syria and the disputed town of Jalawla in northern Diyala province.
But even before the recent clashes, ISIS and the Kurds had been in conflict. Last week, ISIS suicide bombers blew up local offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party in Diyala and Salahaddin provinces, killing around 50 people and wounding dozens. It also carried out an assault on the headquarters of the Kurdish security forces in Erbil last September, killing at least six people. In Syria, where ISIS has made major gains in that country's civil war, ISIS and the Kurds have been battling for months.
The Peshmerga and the Kurdish Regional Government are concerned about ISIS's dramatic rise -- and fear its tactics and ideology -- but they also see opportunity in the instability. It has offered a unique opportunity for the Kurdistan Regional Government to consolidate its control over large swaths of land labeled by the Iraqi Constitution as "disputed territories" -- land that Kurds have eyed for part of their future independent state.
Iraq's 2005 constitution grants the KRG jurisdiction over the three northeastern provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniya, and Dohuk. But Kurds also want to lay claim to parts of four other provinces, Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahaddin, and Diyala, which the government in Baghdad disputes. Most parts of the disputed territories are predominantly Kurdish while others are either dominated by Christians or have a mosaic of Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs, and Christians. But the territorial aspirations go beyond ethnic alignments: The stakes are especially high because those areas hold large reserves of natural resources, particularly oil and natural gas.
When thousands of Iraqi Army and police troops abandoned their posts in the face of ISIS's oncoming, it paved the way for the KRG to swiftly expand and solidify its control over those areas.
"We consider ourselves responsible toward the residents of those areas," said Hikmat. "We have seen this fragile army of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki. How can we leave the people of those [disputed] areas to an army that cannot even defend its own positions?" he added, summing up a sentiment prevalent among Kurds these days.
But seizing new, oil-rich territory is not the only benefit for the Kurds. The latest attack has shaken the Iraqi political system to its core. It seems like everything is up for grabs now. Relations between Maliki and the Kurdish government reached an all-time low in May after the KRG decided to begin shipping oil to international markets via Turkey -- without Baghdad's blessing. In response, Maliki cut off the central government's funding for the KRG.
Iraqi leadership convened a meeting on June 11, attended by Maliki, to discuss ways to confront threats from ISIS. Neither the Kurdish president nor prime minister attended the meeting, and only lower-rank officials represented the Kurds. The meeting reportedly ended without producing an agreement.
At the moment, the possibility of joint operations between Iraqi and Kurdish troops against ISIS militants seems slim. But with the danger posed by ISIS becoming more serious by the day, it is not unlikely that the KRG and Baghdad might in the coming weeks or months find common cause.
Unconfirmed reports circulated in Iraqi media alleging that KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani had reached a deal with Maliki in which the KRG will assist the Iraqi Army in the fight against the ISIS, in return for agreement to Kurdish oil sales. But the KRG's spokesperson, Safeen Dizayee, rejected those reports in an official statement.
As the ISIS war rages on, there does not appear to be any deal between the Kurds and Baghdad to jointly take on the group. In a statement shortly after ISIS's capture of Mosul, KRG's Barzani said the Iraqi government had rejected an offer of "security cooperation" from the Kurds before the fall of Mosul.
If the Peshmerga do unite with Iraqi troops, it will strengthen the hand of the weak Iraqi Army. At the moment, however, no deal for cooperation has been struck between the two sides. Most Kurds oppose aiding the Baghdad government and see the current conflict as a sectarian Sunni-Shiite fight between Arabs. For now, the Peshmerga are focused solely on defending their own territory and, when possible, expanding it. Their extensive combat experience and strong discipline mean they might be able to get what they want.
At the Gom Jalil base near Mosul, General Ahmed prepares for battle. He shouts instructions to a disciplined group of young Peshmerga fighters. He appears confident and calm, a battle-tested fighter ready for another round.
"Our plan is not to attack anyone," he says. "But if we are attacked, we will respond with all our force."
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