Kurdish fighters in Iraq take fight to jihadis. Can it last?

Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, thanks to help from US airstrikes, appear to have fought off an assault on Erbil by the jihadis of the Islamic State. The US is moving towards providing the Kurds more than air support.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
US and Kurdish flags flutter in the wind while displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community cross the Syria-Iraq border at Feeshkhabour bridge over the Tigris River at Feeshkhabour border point, in northern Iraq, Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014. Kurdish authorities at the border believe some 45,000 Yazidis passed the river crossing in the past week and thousands more are still stranded in the mountains.

Columns of smoke rise toward a golden supermoon after a day of fighting in and around the Iraqi town of Makhmour. Here, Kurdish peshmerga fighters have routed Sunni militants from the self-styled Islamic State and, with the aid of US airstrikes, driven them back from the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil.

After the successful advance, hundreds of Kurdish civilians and volunteer fighters rush euphorically to lend support to the peshmerga, clearing the streets in Makhmour, 30 miles southwest of Erbil, and surrounding areas in Nineveh Province.

“The Kurds will win with the help of God and Obama’s air strikes,” says Asaad Othman, a volunteer fighter who hails from a nearby village still under the control of the Islamic State (IS), a Sunni jihadi group that through capable military tactics and liberal applications of terror has seized significant territory in Iraq and Syria in recent months.

The group's advance into semi-autonomous Kurdistan, long Iraq's only stable region, coupled with its promise of conversion or death for Iraq's religious minorities, alarmed President Barack Obama into action last week. Though the Kurdish military was assumed until recently to be up to the task of holding its territory, a successful advance by the jihadis last week on Erbil demonstrated the peshmerga are probably not as formidable as advertised.

Iraqi forces have struggled to ward off the IS advance toward Baghdad, and rely heavily on Iraqi Kurdish forces to hold off IS in the north. But Kurdish forces are stretched thin. They've been fighting the jihadis around Diyala Province, near the Iranian border, in recent days, and the Islamic State recently seized Qarqarosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, and other areas formerly held by the peshmerga.

Kurdish commanders say they need more international support to fight IS, saying the jihadis have an edge at the moment thanks to vast number of weapons – many supplied by the US – that IS seized from the Iraqi military when it collapsed in Nineveh in June. Iraqi soldiers abandoned everything from tanks to heavy artillery.

The recent victory in the towns of Makhmour and Gwer means Kurdish forces may now be able to go on the offensive southwest of Erbil. How far the peshmerga will go, local fighters say, will in part depend on how much more support is provided by Obama. US air strikes and greater coordination with Baghdad have boosted morale, but IS is no easy foe. Kurdish officials also complain that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has refused to provide arms to Kurdish forces.

“We are not fighting a terrorist organization, we are fighting a terrorist state,” said president of the Kurdish regional government, Massoud Barzani, in a joint press conference in Erbil with visiting French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

“The problem is ISIS took so many good weapons and armored vehicles from the Iraqi army,” says Polat Talabani, who heads a Kurdish antiterrorism unit. “The regular peshmerga are just on the back of pickups with out-dated guns.”

But Maliki, or whoever ends up replacing him in the negotiations currently underway to form a new government in Baghdad, will always be cautious about arming the Kurds, whose ultimate ambition is independence and have used their forces this summer to extend the territory they control, including seizing the oil rich city of Kirkuk.

It appears the Obama administration no longer shares Baghdad's concern. The Associated Press reports today that the US has begun directly supplying the Kurds with weapons, reversing a policy that had insisted that all US military aid flow through the central government.

US, Iraqi, and Kurdish coordination

Incoming mortars and the crackle of gunfire came were sharp reminders of the proximity of IS fighters to Makhmour late Sunday. Sure-footed and nimble, Kurdish combatants took to high points to scout out threats.

Mr. Talabani, who led the attack on Makhmour, lost one of his men in the fight and two others were wounded.

Blood streaked cars and ambulances drove away the dead and wounded at sundown Sunday. Fighters soaked in sweat and wrapped in Kurdish flags celebrated as they drove away in vehicles seized from IS.

“It was very intense but we managed to take control of the whole town,” Talabni says. US air strikes against IS positions near the towns of Gwer and Makhmour made it easier for troops to enter and to minimize casualties.

“We’re very encouraged, happy, and optimistic because we’re coordinating with the Iraqi army and the US air force so we don’t take friendly fire,” Talabani says, adding there is now a joint operation room for coordination with the US and Iraq.

“We are not giving up. Saddam [Hussein] was worse than these guys," says Talabani, who adds that he was trained by the US military's Delta Force. "He couldn’t kick us out of Kurdistan. These guys can’t kick us out either."

Preventing 'potential act of genocide'

The US Central Command on Sunday said that its fighter jets and drones hit five IS targets near Erbil, including a mortar position and several armored vehicles.

Over the weekend, the US military also conducted its first air strikes near Sinjar, the heartland of the Yazidi, which has been besieged by IS forces who believe members of the ethno-religious minority are devil worshipers. The airstrikes defending Yazidi civilians, who were being hunted by IS, marked the first US combat involvement in Iraq since the withdrawal of US troops in 2011. 

President Obama said he authorized the airstrikes “to prevent a potential act of genocide” as well as to protect US interests in Erbil, where a number of American citizens and businesses are based.

“There are still tens of thousands of families besieged in Sinjar by [IS], bombed by [IS] who can’t find a safe way out. No one knows the exact number,” says Yazidi activist Khadr Dumali.

But thousands of Yazidi have made it out to safety.  Mr. Dumali, who is helping organize emergency relief in the town of Sharya, a village across the Sinjar plains, says there were more than 2,500 new arrivals overnight and at least 3,000 others on the way. 

All of them undertook the arduous journey of crossing into Syria by foot and then back into Iraq through Fishkhabour, a Chaldean Christian border town overlooking the Tigris River. Others found shelter in Dohuk, just 50 miles from the IS stronghold of Mosul

“For now, Dohuk is a safe area. Unlike in Sinjar, there are four roads leading to Dohuk, so there will always be a way out, and the Peshmerga are here,” says Dumali. 

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