Facing ISIS threat, Kurdish fighters favor US air power

Kurds have carved out a semi-autonomous homeland in northern Iraq that's now threatened by Sunni militants. Kurdish officials say they can help US warplanes spot targets.

By , Correspondent

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    Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions while a Kurdish flag flies outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014.
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Fresh Kurdish flags crown checkpoints all along the road from the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya to a frontline that hugs the contested pockets of Iraq's Diyala Province.

On the final stretch the Iraqi flag stands alongside the Kurdish banner in a nod to the disputed character of this arid land peppered with blue thistles, olive groves, and Arab villages.

“We are prepared to fight for every inch of that land that we feel is Kurdish,” says Ranj Talabany, a senior intelligence officer with the Kurdish "peshmerga" paramilitary forces.

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A sweeping offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has shaken Iraq to the core. Kurdish officials say they saw it coming and tried to warn Western intelligence agencies about the jihadi threat emerging from Syria's civil war, where ISIS and other Sunni militant groups found fertile ground to expand. 

Now they want to see the US military launch air strikes on ISIS forces – and are prepared to provide intelligence on targets.

“We know the locations of these fighters. We know their headquarters with their bombs and their missiles. It would be nice to have (international) troops but if not we would appreciate something from the air,” Rooz Bahjay, a senior security official of the Kurdish Regional Government, told journalists here

Upside to chaos

In fact, Kurds are well acquainted with the reach of US air power: NATO warplanes imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the first Gulf War. This allowed minority Kurds to carve out a mini-state in the 1990s in defiance of Saddam Hussein, who had killed thousands of Kurds in a 1988 chemical attack in Halabja. 

The current chaos also offers an upside: Kurds are moving to consolidate and expand their semi-autonomous homeland. At the same time, they must fend off ISIS, the militant face of a spiraling Sunni rebellion against Baghdad that also threatens Iraqi Kurds' hard-won stability and order. 

The peshmerga – Kurdish for “those who face death” – are no strangers to warfare. Mr. Talabany comes from a family that has been involved in the Kurdish resistance since the Ottoman era. Born in a Kurdish village, he spent much of his life in exile, and finished high school in England, where he dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Instead, he returned to Iraq to study at the American University in Baghdad, but didn't graduate. 

Now the peshmerga confront the threat of ISIS. The militant group seeks an Islamic caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria, and has support from disenfranchised Sunni Arabs and remnants of Saddam's Baathist regime. In cities like Mosul, ISIS forces have overrun Iraqi Army positions and plundered abandoned bases and ammunition depots. 

Mr. Bahjay says the onslaught came as no surprise and that Kurdish intelligence repeatedly warned its partners in Baghdad and the West.

“We expected the situation to worsen but for it to happen at such speed came as a surprise,” he says. “We’ve been shouting for years: the situation is not good; ISIS needs to get hit [and] what is happening in Syria will ultimately affect the whole world.”

A greater Kurdistan

The Iraqi army’s rapid retreat gave the peshmerga a golden opportunity to step in and seize what they have long considered theirs, including the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, part of a greater Kurdistan that only exists on paper. 

One of the peshmerga’s main command nodes now lies in Khanaqin, a Kurdish city in the Arab majority Diyala province, which borders Iran. Security is tight. Sunni Arab villagers have been known to fire at passing peshmerga forces.

Until last week, this was under the control of Iraq's army. After the fall of Mosul and the retreat of Baghdad's military forces, a US-trained peshmerga counterterrorism unit from Suleimaniya deployed here. 

In the shade of a dilapidated terracotta building, commanders and troops regroup after pitched battles with ISIS forces in adjacent Arab villages like Jalawla, which has long been a stronghold of Baathist and al Qaeda sympathizers and is now under ISIS control as it pushes south towards Baghdad. 

While the dream of a Kurdish homeland keeps spirits high in the trenches, there is also a growing concern that supplies and ammunition could run out unless Baghdad or the West steps in. 

“We are in it 100 percent but wars are not fought without ammunition,” says Polat Talabani, the commander of the counterterrorism unit with 160 commandos who received US Delta Force training in 2003. His men, Mr. Talabani estimates, can only hold out for two weeks in Khanaqin with current supplies.

More weapons than the Army

Although oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan has the money to purchase weapons and ammunition, such transactions are subject to Baghdad’s approval. And right now, Iraq's central government is too distracted by the threat of ISIS to key cities and facilities, such as the oil refinery in Baiji that was contested in recent days. 

Kurdish security officials estimate that ISIS fighters have seized enough Humvees, Howitzers, tanks, sniper rifles, and ammunition to keep on fighting for another year. “[ISIS] has more weapons now than the central government in Baghdad,” claims Bahjay, adding that the militant group captured two helicopters. 

US-led air strikes, these officials argue, would throw ISIS off its tracks. “It is not a matter of us trying to get the West involved in this war but we are fighting a war with ISIS. We cannot afford to lose,” says Mr. Talabani.

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