The Kurdish Are Coming

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."



Fight Club, Donetsk

Meet eastern Ukraine's emerging warlords.

DONETSK, Ukraine — On a recent sunny afternoon in Donetsk, Vadim Kerch was holding court in a dark office in the former headquarters of Ukraine's security service, which has been occupied since last month by a group of rebels who call themselves the Russian Orthodox Army. Kerch is one of their two commanders.

A local resident was appealing to Kerch for help. At the end of May, the man said, armed men claiming to be part of the pro-Russian uprising seized his car in the neighboring city of Makeyevka and then called him asking how much he was willing to pay for its return.

Between answering calls on his cell phone, Kerch told the supplicant to get to the point. One of the half-dozen Kalashnikov-toting rebels grouped in a loose circle around the desk spoke up, noting that at least 46 vehicles had been carjacked in Makeyevka. Finally, Kerch promised to go with the newly appointed "people's prosecutor" later that day to get the car back.

"Today is full of bullshit rather than war," he joked.

When pro-Russian protesters first occupied the Donetsk regional administration building in April, different rebel groups and units staked out each of the 11 floors. Since then, these motley bands have been eclipsed by three powerful, armed factions: the Russian Orthodox Army, the Vostok Battalion, and Oplot. Each is built around an influential commander who spends his time not only waging the ongoing guerrilla war against Kiev's forces, but also dispensing harsh justice and detaining civilians, sometimes for prisoner exchanges. Each group has several hundred men, including Russian volunteers, and heavy armaments. (During a recent visit to Vostok's base, I saw four fighting vehicles, two anti-aircraft guns, numerous rocket-propelled grenades, and surface-to-air missiles.)

Are these commanders the backbone of an emerging independent East Ukraine, or are they burgeoning warlords staking out their turf for whatever comes next?

So far, Kiev's "anti-terrorist operation" to take back eastern Ukraine has united the rebel leaders in the defense of the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk "People's Republics," even though each has his own vision of the region's political future. The rebels largely view the new Kiev government as an American puppet dominated by ultranationalists and "fascists" and have called on Russia to deploy troops.

Ukraine's Health Ministry said last week that at least 270 people have died in eastern Ukraine since the military operation began in April, though this number has since risen to at least 330. In the bloodiest day of fighting yet, rebels killed three border guards in Mariupol on Saturday, June 14, and shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane outside Lugansk, killing all 49 servicemen on board.

But President Petro Poroshenko's efforts toward de-escalation, including the promise of a cease-fire if rebels agree to lay down their arms, could soon test these commanders' willingness to submit themselves to a greater authority. Their real allegiances -- whether to the Russian government, a certain local oligarch, the people's republics, or simply themselves -- remain unclear.

Vostok is the most battle-ready group, led by Alexander Khodakovsky, a thoughtful man with a closely shaved head and goatee who was formerly the head of an elite special forces unit. The third major armed force in Donetsk is Oplot, a civic organization and mixed martial arts club espousing clean living and pan-Slavic nationalism that in Donetsk has been transformed into a militia under the command of Alexander Zakharchenko, a sardonic former mechanic with a potbelly and a deep tan.

But there are other emerging warlords too. Igor Girkin, who goes by the nom de guerre Strelkov and is alleged by the Ukrainian government to be a Russian intelligence agent, controls the besieged city of Sloviansk, where journalists have been abducted and two rebels from competing groups were recently executed on his orders. Last week, he arrested the "people's mayor" of Sloviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev. In the next region over, the city of Lugansk and several nearby towns are under the control of the Army of the Southeast, whose founder, Valery Bolotov, recently traveled to Russia to recuperate from an assassination attempt. "Only our army is preserving the safety of Lugansk residents," Vladimir Gromov, the head of counterintelligence in the Army of the Southeast, told me.

Several other small cities in the region are largely under the control of strongman commanders, from Igor Bezler -- a former lieutenant colonel in the Russian army and also an alleged intelligence agent -- in Gorlovka to a group of Russian Cossacks in Antratsyt. Bezler, who is known by the nickname "Bes" or "Demon," recently appeared in a video in which he appeared to execute two Ukrainian intelligence agents by firing squad. (Some analysts have said the video may have been staged.)

A symbolic moment in the transition from hodgepodge groups of men with clubs to a few heavily armed militias came at the end of May, when members of the Vostok Battalion kicked all rebels who were not members of the self-appointed government out of the Donetsk administration building. Many saw the tense showdown as a move by Vostok to establish itself as the premier power in Donetsk, but Khodakovsky said the "show of force" was a side effect. The real goal, he said, was to punish looters who had stolen alcohol and other goods from a supermarket that was abandoned during heavy fighting at the airport that killed at least 50 of Khodakovsky's men, including 31 Russian citizens.

A rash of marauding that has hit eastern Ukraine in recent weeks has positioned militia commanders as the ultimate arbiters in their locales. Strelkov even ordered the shooting of two of his men for "looting, armed robbery, kidnapping, [and] leaving battle positions," according to an execution order posted online that appeared to be stamped and signed by Strelkov.

These days, eastern Ukraine's countryside is largely a lawless territory dotted with checkpoints run by pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces, while the cities have retained a sense of order. But all three Donetsk militia commanders told me that criminality is on the rise.

"We catch several looters every day," Zakharchenko, Oplot's commander, told me. "They steal cars, rob people on the street, steal from stores, and commit other provocations." Most police have declared fealty to the new People's Republic and are powerless next to the heavily armed militants around the region. The regional head of police resigned after speaking with pro-Russian protesters who stormed his headquarters shortly after the start of the uprising in April.

Kerch said law enforcement officers have been "demoralized" by the rebel movement. "The police are used to working with criminals, but now there are many people with machine guns in the city, and far from all of those who started taking part in this movement think about their homeland first and foremost," he said. "Donetsk People's Republic bandits who weren't around before now wear the symbols and masks and rob people."

To crack down on such actions, rebel militias have conducted day and night patrols, sometimes working with police and volunteers. In Donetsk, violators are not shot, Khodakovsky said, though they may be publicly humiliated, such as two men in a recently published video who were forced to sweep sidewalks wearing signs saying, "I'm a thief." But Kerch said executions could be warranted in wartime.

The outbreak of kidnappings and detentions in rebel-held areas, however, reveals the darker side of vigilante justice, including that meted out by rebel commanders. Reports by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and Human Rights Watch have suggested that the number of abductions in eastern Ukraine is growing. Journalists, local citizens, and OSCE monitors have been held hostage. The local rights organization Prosvita recently estimated that 200 people are being detained illegally, a number that Kerch confirmed. Zakharchenko said Oplot alone is holding 40 to 50 prisoners.

An electoral commission member from Donetsk, who wished to remain anonymous, said he and three friends were seized three days before the May 25 presidential election and held for six days in the basement of the security services building where the Russian Orthodox Army is headquartered. They were interrogated, beaten, and tortured with electroshocks. Their captors shot live bullets into the wall next to them. The electoral commission member was later hospitalized with a ruptured eardrum, a basal skull fracture, and a kidney contusion, he said. Although the man was blindfolded, he said his main interrogator had a strong Russian accent. Another 20 to 30 people were being held in the basement with him.

Kerch said he was holding prisoners, including two "looters" who had stolen the man's car in Makeyevka, but declined to comment further. (Kerch said he had returned the car to its owner.) He said the Russian Orthodox Army is "actively searching" for Kiev agents.

The Russian Orthodox Army also seized Nikolai Yakubovich, a local pro-Kiev activist and advisor to Ukraine's security council, and exchanged him for rebel prisoners. In a video filmed during his captivity, one of Yakubovich's eyes is bruised shut and he shows signs of other injuries.

Dmitry Verzilov, an electoral commission member and district council member in Donetsk, said he himself was seized for several hours when he went to speak to rebel leaders about the hostage problem. He was thrown in the basement of the Donetsk administration building, where he says he counted 83 prisoners. A Donetsk People's Republic spokesperson denied that prisoners were being held in the basement of the administration building.

In another hint of the growing lawlessness, Maxim Petrukhin, an aide to Donetsk People's Republic chairman Denis Pushilin, was gunned down by a passing car in the city center in broad daylight on Sunday. Pushilin said "Kiev agents" were likely to blame.

Donetsk People's Republic leaders have said each militia will oversee certain areas of law enforcement and military operations. But the commanders say there is no clear separation of duties yet, and all remain a law to themselves, with their alliances hard to guess. All three major Donetsk units were suspected of working with local oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man and an ally of former President Viktor Yanukovych, after their fighters stopped an angry crowd from storming his residence and guarded it for days after. The militia leaders said their men were simply trying to prevent mass disorder.

Their ties to the Kremlin are also unclear. Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University and an expert on Russian security services, says that Khodakovsky was known as an officer of the "more close to Moscow variety" in Ukraine's special forces, where Russian agents were notoriously pervasive. Gromov in Lugansk was recently photographed in Moscow with Russian nationalist MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky. But the three Donetsk commanders denied direct links with the Kremlin and said they had obtained their weapons from captured military installations.

Kiev has accused Russia of sending men and weapons into eastern Ukraine, including a pair of tanks that it said had come across the border on June 12. Rebels said they had seized the tanks from a military warehouse. (I saw three tanks flying a Russian flag outside Donetsk later that day.)

If the rebellion's military leaders are receiving money from Russia, it is most likely from nationalist oligarchs such as Konstantin Malofeev, who previously employed both Sloviansk commander Strelkov and Donetsk People's Republic Prime Minister Alexander Borodai at his firm, according to reporting by the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and well-known journalist Oleg Kashin. Malofeev also funded a separatist leader in Crimea, Kashin reported.

The Donetsk militia chiefs say they are loyal to the Donetsk People's Republic, though those ties seem informal and in some cases tenuous. "There's no Donetsk People's Republic; this is all just some project that I don't understand," Khodakovsky said. "I didn't vote in the referendum [on independence]. I didn't vote for this. I just faced a choice: to be with my own people or to be against my own people. Russia is my country. I served there. My relatives live there."

Their end goal is also vague: Zakharchenko said he would be able to lay down his weapons when "no tanks or fighting vehicles are pointing their barrels at me." But for now they remain united in a conflict against what they see as an unjust, aggressive government in Kiev. "A Russian man invented this in World War II," Zakharchenko said, gesturing to a huge Simonov anti-tank rifle pointing out of a window next to his office below a Soviet-built television tower, "and Russian men are still using it to defend their homeland."

Although Poroshenko has pledged amnesty for rebels who agree to lay down their arms, he specifically excluded those who have committed grievous crimes. Given that Borodai and Pushilin were slapped last week with charges of terrorism and attempting to overthrow the government, militia leaders can more likely expect prosecution than amnesty if Kiev retakes the east. Their actions have also divided the local populace, a majority of which opposes the rebels' tactics. If the stalemate continues or if eastern Ukraine successfully separates from the rest of the country, will these men eventually relinquish their power and risk their personal safety? Or will they begin fighting among themselves?

"If we put down our weapons by agreement, there are always people who don't want to do so because they've gotten used to the power that weapons give them," says Khodakovsky, the Vostok Battalion's commander. "We will have to detain them and force them to."

Photo by VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images