By Christiaan Triebert:
Christiaan Triebert recently returned from the frontline between the Kurdish Peshmerga and Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. This is his account of his time with the Peshmerga.
“Get the brothers ready for tonight’s position.”
“Yes I will, inshallah.”
A group of Peshmerga soldiers stand around a walkie-talkie. They listen to the Arabic of Islamic State (IS) fighters who are just a stone’s throw away. Another Peshmerga fighter scans the horizon with his binoculars. “There,” he points. Two cars drive off, leaving a cloud of dust behind them.
The question is whether the information is useful to the Kurds. The village where the IS fighters take their positions overnight is about 1.5km away. Close enough to clearly see it from the six-meter-high vantage point, but too far away to hit accurately. It would be a waste of ammunition. A cloth is draped around the barrels of a ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft gun for that reason. “We’ll take it off as soon as they move toward us.”
I stand here at the frontline in northern Iraq, between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Islamic State, east of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Oil is money, and there’s always someone who is willing to buy it, which makes this bit of land a target for IS.
In the nearby villages of Tel al-Ward and Mullah Abdullah IS flags flew six months ago. Now they have been replaced by the Alaya Rengin, the ‘Colourful Flag’ of Iraqi Kurdistan. The coalition’s air strikes have given the Peshmerga fighters the chance to recapture this territory from IS. Now they have created a new, more resilient defence line. A metre-high wall of sand separates the Peshmerga controlled area from that of IS. Every few metres a lookout has been built upon the defence line. On some of them sit sizeable guns.
The area between the old and the new defence lines is marked by previous battles. Major General (liwa) Wurya grabs the base plate and bipod of an improvised mortar system. According to him, chloride-loaded mortars were fired from the installation. He then points to a huge hole. Twisted steel lies in and around it. “An Islamic State suicide vehicle exploded there, luckily enough we managed to hit it just in time before it exploded at our lookout.”
These suicide trucks, so-called VBIEDS (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device), are nightmares for the Kurds: heavily armoured vehicles loaded with explosives that drive straight into the Kurdish positions and are detonated by the driver in exchange for a one-way ticket to paradise.
“Have you ever seen the movie Mad Max,” asks retired liwa Abozid Salih. I nod. “Such vehicles are also made by IS. But worse. One foggy morning, we saw an armoured harvester armed with heavy artillery looming towards us. Bullets and rocket launchers were fired — nothing helped. That day, we lost a lot of men.”
It is not surprising that many fighters emphasise how happy they are with the German supply of MILAN anti-tank-missiles, which have proved to be effective against these moving monsters.
Yet many Peshmerga soldiers complain about the poor condition of their weapons and their lack of ammunition. Most of their weapons were seized from Saddam’s forces during the wars in 1991 and 2003. There are also several tanks and other hardware, but none of it can compare to the modern American-made weapons IS militants have looted from Iraqi bases.
In addition to the anti-tank-missiles, Germany has provided around 6,000 assault rifles: 3,000 G3s (“old junk”) and another 3,000 G36s (the standard weapon of the Bundeswehr), as well as thousands of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
But still there are not enough weapons on the front. One soldier asks where the other weapons are. To which another responds, “In the hands of the KDP”. Others nod in agreement. Kurdish police officers had earlier said that Massoud Barzani, the current president of the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KAR), had a monopoly on arms distribution.
Despite the fact that the Iraqi Kurds are united in their fight against IS, the Peshmerga has always been plagued by internal division. The forces are still divided along political lines. Although they led the Kurdish resistance against Saddam together, armed conflict has broken out sporadically between the different Kurdish political groups, most notable in the bloody Kurdish civil war from 1994 to 1997.
On one side is the group that swears allegiance to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of the incumbent President Massoud Barzani and his family. On the other side are the groups that are loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani and his family. The two political parties together form the ruling coalition of the KAR.
The divide is noticeable on the frontlines. ISIS graffiti is often repainted with ‘PUK’ rather than ‘Peshmerga’. The KDP Peshmerga is mainly in the north while the PUK Peshmerga is stationed in the south. When Islamic State militants pushed an offensive on Kirkuk in June 2014, both factions sent too many troops to the region, leaving other strategic positions unmanned. At the moment, the Kirkuk front is predominantly staffed by PUK Peshmerga.
The main danger for the men at the Kirkuk front comes from IS mortars. Snipers are less of a threat: the walls of sand are tall enough and the distance is just too far.
Apart from the occasional mortar attacks, the front is quiet. Perhaps too quiet. In early August, Kurdish commanders said that many jihadists seemed to have been transferred from here to the IS stronghold at Mosul. But every so often there is a larger attack; recently 600 IS fighters attacked Peshmerga positions.
“I do not understand,” Wurya says. ‘Of those six hundred we killed, at least a hundred were foreigners. Why do Westerners, sometimes even with a university background, blow themselves up here? What is their right to fight here?”
This is the reason why Wurya and Saleh believe that Western countries should continue to support the Peshmerga and their fight against Islamic State. “After all, many of your compatriots are fighting here.”
There is debate as to what role radicalisation plays among the Kurdish youth. Certainly the motivation to fight is greater in the older generation than among the young. While defending their homeland is a source of pride – as demonstrated by the many British and American Kurds have come back to fight here – many youngsters talk openly about their desire to go to Europe.
They are tired of the front, or even find it boring. The boys keep themselves busy by playing FarmVille, cards, or watching ‘funny videos’. That gets boring after a while. They also denounce corrupt politicians and the little wages they receive for their efforts at the front. This explains the remarkably large number of taxis just behind the front. A lot of guys try to earn extra dinars as taxi drivers when they’re not at the front.
“The problem of the youth is that they have learned to fight out of a book,” Wurya says. “We, by contrast, have gained experience by fighting in the mountains.” Holding a cup of tea, he laughs with his old comrades about the things they did during previous wars, reminiscing about the time one of them was the first on top of a bunker of Saddam’s troops.
Together they fought many armed conflicts, especially against the Iraqi authorities in the sixties, seventies and eighties. After the Gulf War, they fought against the KDP between 1995 and 1998 in the Kurdish civil war. In 2003, they stood side by side with the American elite units.
Yet there has been little training since Saddam was ousted from power, especially for a fight like the current one. “The Islamic State is by far the hardest enemy we’ve ever had,” Salih says. “And that battle is far from over.”
As night falls, the Kirkuk front becomes even quieter. But the silence is deceptive. There is unrest within the political landscape of the KRG, and frustrated youths would rather go to Europe than be stationed there. Whatever the case, Salih will continue his fight. He is certain that “something big will happen soon”.
A few days later, the Peshmerga launched a massive offensive involving over a thousand men. The attack was successful: IS was pushed back over 10km and several villages were recaptured. Air support from the coalition was vital to the success of the attack.
Salih knows how important that support is. He refers to the greater powers of the region and the world, all of whom have a stake in his fight. But it does not bother him. He is proud. “Despite the external support, this struggle is, to me, a Kurdish struggle. And with or without support — I will defend my country till my last breath.”
Christiaan Triebert (1991) is a postgraduate student in Conflict, Security and Development at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He completed his undergraduate studies in International Relations and International Organisation as well as Political Philosophy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He has visited several conflict-torn regions, most recently Northern Iraq. You can find more of his work on his website www.christiaantriebert.com or follow him on Twitter @trbrtc
Thanks to Thomas van Linge for recognizing the ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns mounted on MT-LB’s.