Kurdish Peshmerga  

On the Front Line Against the Islamic State

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga_dpa
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, like these seen here near Erbil in Iraq last September, are trying to stop the IS advance.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Kurdish forces are a vital element in the battle against Islamic State in Iraq, but they are dependent on German and American equipment to keep fighting.

  • Facts


    • Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous ethnic region in northern Iraq.
    • The Kurdish fighters are known as Peshmerga. “Pesh merga” means “those who face death.”
    • Kurdish forces have been aided in their fight against Islamic militants by German Milan anti-tank missile systems and U.S. air strikes.
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Miktar Hassan is dazed. Six comrades surround the bed of the Kurdish Peshmerga captain, and one of them fans the wounded man with a board.

The captain recalls the attack that injured him. “Suddenly,” he said, “two suicide bombers were standing in front of us.”

His men shot one, but the other detonated his explosives and injured four of the overpowered defenders. Seconds later, as if from nowhere, a dozen more Islamic State fighters appeared, opening fire.

The house-to-house combat in the village of Sahl al Maleh lasted five hours before the Peshmerga, who urgently called in U.S. fighter jets, could oust the attackers.

“The liberation of Mosul is important for the future of Iraq and it is just as important for us Kurds. ”

Sayid Qadir Mustafa, Kurdish minister for Peshmerga

Officially, 10 Kurds were wounded, but no one wanted to talk about how many might have died. The bodies of 14 jihadists were left on the ground. On the evening TV news, dozens of captured men were shown, kneeling with their heads to the ground in the village square.

Miktar Hassan was hit by a bullet in his leg while trying to pull an injured comrade to cover. His wife, Nisal, works as a nurse in the ward where he is recovering.

The emergency station for Peshmerga fighters is an hour and a half drive from Dohuk, on the front. Relatives and doctors crowd between the 20 beds. A representative of the Kurdish president hastily makes rounds and pats each new arrival on the forehead. A badly injured man with a stomach wound moans, and is rolled to intensive care.

The semi-autonomous region of Northern Iraq, ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government, has been an important element in battling ISIS. And it is the Peshmerga forces, which have evolved from tribal defenders to nationalist fighters for an independent Kurdish state, to an army protecting Kurdistan, who are at the forefront of that battle.

About 1,200 Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers have been killed fighting the Islamic State, which has conquered large swaths of Iraq over the past year. Last summer, the terrorist militias drove out Kurdish and Iraqi forces, which ran away in panic at the first onslaught of “holy warriors” on the Nineveh plain.

Now the front has stabilized into daily battles, aided on the Kurdish side by about 60 German Milan anti-tank missile systems.

peshmerga fighters DPA
Prospects for recapturing Mosul in Iraq by the fall of this year, as the government in Baghdad has announced, are fading fast. Source: DPA


Germany, the United States and other Western countries are backing the Kurdish and Iraqi governments, providing weapons, training and air support.

Before Kurdish forces had the weapons, Islamic State fighters attacked with huge squadrons of armored trucks carrying bombs. They could not be stopped with conventional rocket-propelled grenades.  The Milan missiles, however, can hit targets two kilometers away – far enough from Kurdish lines to prevent damage from the deadly loads.

According to their own information, the Peshmerga and other Kurdish forces have recaptured 20,000 square kilometers since those early losses.

“This war came to us out of the blue,” said Kurdish minister for Peshmerga, Sayid Qadir Mustafa. He admits his fighters were not properly armed at first but now insists “We have adjusted ourselves better against the opponents.”

The 56-year-old has made a career in the Kurdish resistance, and for more than two decades helped to fight against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Last summer he passed his greatest trial by fire in defending Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, against jihadist battalions sent from Mosul, 80 kilometers away.

Now, in order to defeat the Islamic State and secure his people from further attacks, he has his sights on liberating Mosul.

The second largest city in Iraq after Baghdad has been in the hands of the terrorist militia for a year. The cities of Fallujah and Ramadi have also since fallen to ISIS. More than 3 million Iraqis have been driven from their homes, and half are looking for protection in the autonomous Kurdish region.

“The liberation of Mosul is important for the future of Iraq and it is just as important for us Kurds,” said the Peshmerga minister.

“Without German and American weapons, we wouldn’t have managed.”

Izadin Sadu, Peshmerga commander

Veterans like Sayid Qadir Mustafa have fought their whole lives in the mountains – with light weapons, many hideaways and support from the Kurdish people.

But young Kurds in uniform today are not as well trained and, even in the best case, little better than border guards.

The part-time soldiers can’t master military offense maneuvers, and the endlessly flat terrain of the Nineveh plain is unfamiliar. Sudden sandstorms or fog banks take away the defenders’ vision. Sometimes the Sunni population works against them – as in the village of Sahl al Maleh, where residents collaborated with the Sunni militants.

So prospects for recapturing Mosul by fall of this year, as the government in Baghdad has announced, are fading fast.

The Iraqi army is demoralized after Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, fell to ISIS last month. Without massive help from Shiite militias and U.S. air strikes, the national army has little hope.

On Wednesday the White House announced that it was sending another 450 American troops to Iraq to train and assist the Iraqi forces in the battle against ISIS.

Even in Tikrit, which was recaptured in April, the single greatest success against the Islamic State has amounted to little. Acts of revenge by Shiite militias have driven out the last Sunni residents, and city quarters lie in ruin. Today the birthplace of Saddam Hussein is an uninhabitable ghost town.

Meantime, Baghdad seems ambivalent about helping the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. On the one hand, the fighters are critical to battling Islamic State. On the other, Iraqi leaders aren’t keen to equip the traditionally combative Kurds with more and better weapons.

Iraqi Kurdistan obtained nothing from the national budget in 2014, a result of an ongoing dispute with Baghdad over sharing oil revenues, leaving a $12 billion hole in the Kurdish coffers. As a result, the Peshmerga forces have not been paid for months.

Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilisation_afp
Iraqi Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units ride on the back of a vehicle in the town of Baiji, north of Tikrit on June 10, as they fight alongside Iraqi forces against the Islamic State jihadist group. Source: AFP


At the same time, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi travelled with great pomp to Erbil, in order to get a military alliance pledge from Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, for the recapture of Mosul.

Along the front, however, it is clear how difficult that will be.

All villages in the former battle zone are destroyed. Screeching, dark swarms of birds circle the ruins. Wild rapeseed has overgrown depopulated areas – and everywhere in the yellow waves of flowers are hidden mines and traps set by ISIS.

Visitors must pass 10 control points to get to Peshmerga Command 12, south of the Khabur River. It’s the former homestead of a wealthy tribal sheik near the city of Rabia, on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Walls are full of bullet holes from battles shortly before Christmas, when Peshmerga fighters ousted Islamists from the area.

In the inner courtyard is a smorgasbord of vehicles – two U.S. trucks, a Humvee with Kurdish banners and a brand new heavy-duty Mercedes Unimog, in addition to a handful of private cars. The odd assortment points to where the Kurds are getting most of their help these days.

“Without German and American weapons, we wouldn’t have managed,” said Peshmerga commander Izadin Sadu, a tall man with a mustache and neat black hair.

For now everything is quiet on the 60-kilometer front he watches over. The majority of his 3,800 Peshmerga soldiers come on their own to serve 10-day shifts. Others are brought by taxis.

From time to time, the 54-year-old commander goes up to the roof, to look out over Syrian territory. Villages there can be seen with the naked eye. His son, who studies in Lübeck, bought him Steiner binoculars from Germany.

When conversation turns to the Iraqi army, the commander’s voice grows louder: “They have all the equipment, but no fighting morale. We have a fighting morale, but no equipment.”

Through contacts on the ground, the commander knows that the Islamic militants who hold Mosul are preparing for a possible offensive. But no one can say what is really happening inside the city, where many residents are stuck with jihadists under the same roof.

Islamic State in Syria and Iraq-01
Data as of the end of May, 2015


Ultimately, Mosul was always a stronghold of Arab nationalism and an important base of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. Without the cooperation of tens of thousands of former Saddam followers, the success of the Islamic State, under self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, would have been unthinkable.

That’s why military planners in Baghdad believe a large attack on Mosul will create a refugee crisis of massive proportions, at least 800,000 people – the latest in a nearly endless series of Iraqi tragedies.

“We did not want the war, the war was forced upon us,” explains Izadin Sadu, the Peshmerga military leader. “But when the command arrives, we will join the fight.”


This article first appeared in the Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

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