With Islamic State threatening region, can Iraq's peshmerga turn the tide?

The fighters of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan have struggled to contain the spread of the so-called Islamic State. But infighting, a lack of training, and political divisions have hampered them so far.

Dominique Soguel
Kurdish peshmerga fighters on the frontline in fighting against militants from the so-called Islamic State near Kirkuk, Iraq, August 17.

The pride of the peshmerga – the Kurdish paramilitary whose name means "those who face death" – has taken a pummeling lately.

Earlier this month, Islamic State militants advanced within striking distance of Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital. Even the most seasoned Kurdish fighter turned on his heels and fled in the face of the IS, an offshoot of the old Al Qaeda in Iraq that now holds territory in Syria and Iraq

For Iraqi Kurdish leaders it showed that their supposedly unconquerable peshmerga fighters were anything but. And, as Kurds reach out to the US and Europe for more weapons and airstrikes in their support, doubts remain over their political and military cohesion in the face of an organized and well-armed Sunni Arab jihadi movement. 

“The current situation proved the Kurds need to have national institutions instead of institutions affiliated with different parties,” says Mohammed Tofiq Rahim, a senior official at the Movement for Change (Goran), a Kurdish Iraqi political party.

On paper, Iraqi Kurdistan – a semi-autonomous region – has 150,000 men and women in uniform.

Critics like to quip there are 400,000 peshmerga on the payroll but only 40,000 at the front, a jab at the perceived corruption of the two dominant Kurdish political parties. Most peshmerga units are loyal to either the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Sulaymaniyah or the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in Erbil. The two parties engaged in a bloody civil war in the 1990s. 

In recent days, Kurdish fighters have taken back territory, assisted by US air power. The US began air strikes against IS positions on Aug. 7, ostensibly to defend Erbil and to help persecuted Christian and Yazidi minorities. On Monday, Iraqi and Kurdish officials said their fighters had recaptured Iraq's largest dam after two days of US air strikes. 

But rolling back the advance of the self-declared Islamic State, also known as ISIS, will likely require a sustained ground offensive. 

“Everyone is busy on the front but once things settle down we need serious reforms,” says Mr. Rahim in the city of Sulaymaniyah. His opposition party, founded in 2009, took over the Ministry of Peshmerga portfolio two months ago as Iraq slipped into chaos. He wants to unify and revamp the existing mosaic of units. 

Soul searching 

Western observers in Erbil say Kurdish forces overreached after Iraqi's national army collapsed in northern Iraq. In this vacuum, peshmerga pushed into new areas, wrongly assuming IS militants would stay focused on Baghdad. Kurdish officials argue that IS forces attacked Erbil as a way to relieve pressure on Mosul, which they seized in June. 

However, among the peshmerga rank and file the humiliating retreat has sparked soul searching, with many concluding that they must ditch party politics, upgrade their weapons, and train harder. 

“We need to lose the name peshmerga and (become) a modern regional army,” says retired commander Tahsin Qalan, who is volunteering on the front line at Hazer, about 2.5 miles from from the closest IS position.

In the 1980s, Mr. Qalan was a guerrilla fighter confronting the army of Saddam Hussein, which used chemical weapons against Kurdish villagers. Like others of his generation, he lacks conventional warfare experience.

Today, most peshmerga show up to battle in uniform or traditional Kurdish dress with AK-47s, but little else. IS forces have heavy weaponry, including US-supplied arms seized from the retreating Iraqi army. Holding territory against such a foe is far harder than staging hit-and-run attacks, as in the 1980s. 

“In the past, we would fight in the mountains, forming security belts around our bases. We rarely had front lines,” says Qalan. 

Zone of stability

The Kurds have long dreamed of an independent state straddling the borders of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. In the 1990s, a NATO-imposed no-fly zone left Iraqi Kurds in control of their territory. After US-led forces deposed Hussein, the Kurdish region became a rare zone of stability and economic development. US oil companies came knocking on the door of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

Amid the politicking and governing, Kurdish military preparedness dwindled as policing took priority. The result is a young generation of fighters with scant training or experience; many admit that they're no match for IS, not without substantial air support.  

To boost the peshmerga, Washington has sent 130 military advisers to Erbil and there are now eight military coordination centers running from Sinjar southeast to Jalawla, near Iran. A joint command center in Erbil is supposed to coordinate efforts between Baghdad, the KRG, and Washington. Tightened coordination coupled with air strikes appears to be having some effect.

“We are just starting to turn the corner,” says Polat Talabani, a commander in the KRG's counterterrorism unit, the best trained and equipped outfit among Kurdish forces.

On Aug. 10, Kurdish forces lost control of the key town of Jalawla. In one incident, they wrongly assumed a suicide truck bomb piloted by an IS fighter was friendly. The fall of the town was a direct consequence of a messy command structure and poor communication, two Kurdish intelligence officers say.

Along the front line a wrong turn can sometimes prove fatal. Two Kurdish fighters said they lost relatives who veered into IS-held territory by mistake. “Our peshmerga must learn how to use maps. On the other side, we are facing (IS) and Baathist Sunni officers who have advanced knowledge of military strategy and technology,” says a commander. 

Banners and bills

Political factionalism is visible on the front lines. While the KRG flag flies at some checkpoints, the banners of parties like the PKK, PUK, and KDP get pride of place after victories like Makhmour, a town the Kurds retook from IS last week.

Effectively, the Ministry of Peshmerga is still paying the bills from the fratricidal conflict of the 1990s. While it has eight regional brigades that mix units of the PUK with the KDP, each of the parties still controls a force of its own.

Less than 10 percent of the peshmerga are said to be non-partisan, with only light weapons at their disposal. Soviet-era artillery is concentrated in the military wings of the KDP and PUK, which answer to their political wings. 

Yet despite these shortcomings, Kurdish officials insist that the peshmarga represent the best shot for the US and its allies at uprooting a “terrorist state” in Iraq and Syria. “We want international support to put a stop to IS activities in the Kurdistan region,” says KRG Deputy Foreign Minister Karwan Jamal Tahir in his office in Erbil.

“The Islamic State has to be demolished entirely because if we just push them back into Syria they will start again. We want to put an end to them but that the peshmerga cannot do it alone,” he says.

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