A Kurdish Comeback
Kurdish forces in northern Iraq have been outgunned and in retreat from the Islamic State. But not for long, they say.
MAKHMOUR, Iraq — Ali Sulaiman Abdullah rests on a concrete bench outside a small, run-down building in the foothills of Mount Qarachukh in northeastern Iraq. His khaki uniform, the baggy suit that Kurdish warriors traditionally wear, is stained with sweat and dirt. After a long day trying to defend Kurdistan from the Islamic State’s onslaught, Abdullah needs a break.
The 700 troops under Abdullah’s command have been battling the Islamic State for three days as the jihadists have advanced closer and closer to Erbil, the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan. This battalion is just one small part of the thousands of Kurdish forces currently fighting the Islamic State on nearly a dozen fronts in five provinces.
He is impressed with the Islamic State’s skills on the battlefield. "They are good at guerrilla warfare," says Abdullah. "They are here to kill and to die." He would know. He has 53 years of experience himself, much of it in guerrilla warfare against different governments in Baghdad.
Abdullah and his troops are fighting to hold the ground near Qarachukh Mountain. Finally, on Sunday, Aug. 10, a combined force of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga with assistance from Turkish Kurdish fighters expelled Islamic State militants from Makhmour and the nearby district of Gwer, securing the southwestern flank of Erbil.
The week before, the Islamic State had expanded its territory to include Kurdish-controlled areas in western Nineveh and several areas close to the west and southwest of Erbil. The jihadists even took control of the strategic Mosul dam, Iraq’s largest.
Abdullah and other Kurdish commanders say that despite recent defeats, they can stop the Islamic State. The successful campaign to take back Makhmour and Gwer may signal that Kurds are able to push the militants back. The Peshmerga are especially counting on U.S. assistance these days. Their morale got a boost after U.S. F/A-18 aircraft bombed Islamic State positions on Friday, Aug. 8. Repeated U.S. airstrikes since have targeted Islamic State positions and convoys around Erbil and in western Nineveh. In parallel, Kurds have been strengthening their positions, and Kurdish reinforcements are coming in from across the region to help.
Peshmerga commanders say they have been outgunned in recent weeks. The Peshmerga have not been in a true battle since helping fight Saddam Hussein’s army during the U.S. invasion in 2003. Even then, most of the fight was carried out from the air by U.S. warplanes and missiles. The Islamic State’s crack fighting force, on the other hand, has been honing its skills over the past two years in Syria and Iraq. Around 150 Peshmerga troops have been killed and 500 others wounded in the latest fighting, according to Kurdish government statistics.
Another problem for the Kurds has been a lack of supplies. The Islamic State now has a variety of advanced U.S.-made weapons that they seized from Iraqi Army bases when they captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June. These weapons include long-range artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles — as well as tons of ammunition.
"Their Hummer vehicles are armored and have a high defense and attack capability. They have powerful bazooka weapons and are quite precise in their mortar attacks," says Brig. Gen. Halgurd Khidir Zahir, a Peshmerga division commander who led forces on the border with Syria before he was forced into retreat.
Zahir says that the jihadists often wait until the other side is running short on ammunition before launching a more intense offensive. And the Peshmerga say they suffer from major shortages of ammunition, especially artillery shells and rockets.
Some Peshmerga troops, who did not want to be named, said they have purchased their own bullets and even weapons. But most rely mainly on Soviet-era weapons raided from the Iraqi Army during the 2003 invasion. The Kurds have been pleading with Western powers for some time to provide them with advanced weaponry that they can use against jihadists.
"What we are asking our friends to do is to provide support and to cooperate with us in providing the necessary weapons that would enable us to defeat these terrorist groups," Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said in a press conference on Sunday.
Barzani may be getting his wish. On Aug. 11, the Associated Press, citing unnamed senior U.S. officials, reported that the United States would soon begin providing Kurdish troops with arms *. Specifically what the Peshmerga will get from the U.S. hasn’t been specified, but it’s exactly what the Kurds have been waiting for — and what they will need in order to beat back the Islamic State.
Despite early expectations that the Peshmerga would be able to hold their ground against the Islamic State’s fighters, Kurdish forces have suffered losses and have been forced to engage in some withdrawals in recent weeks.
On the night of Aug. 10, Peshmerga forces pulled out of Jalawla, a town in northern Diyala province, after a suicide attack killed 10 Kurdish fighters. On Aug. 2 and Aug. 3, jihadists pushed Kurdish troops from the towns of Zumar and Sinjar, near the border with Syria. Thousands of people fled the towns, most of them Kurds who follow the ancient Yazidi faith.
The Yazidis have since been trapped on a small mountain, running out of food and water and surrounded by Islamic State fighters. The United Nations’ figures put the number of stranded Kurds at anywhere from 35,000 to 200,000. In recent days, Peshmerga and Syrian Kurdish forces, known as the YPG, have rescued thousands of the trapped Yazidis by securing a narrow corridor for escape. U.S. airstrikes have also helped, keeping Islamic State fighters away from the mountain. But thousands remain trapped.
Since Aug. 6, Peshmerga troops have pulled out of a range of areas, from the Christian-dominated towns of Qaraqosh and Telkaif near Mosul, to parts of Makhmour and areas surrounding Mosul dam. Kurdish officials say the retreats were tactical, meant to make room for airstrikes from Iraqi and U.S. warplanes. Recent gains by Kurdish forces in Makhmour and Gwer suggest that Kurds have shifted to a counteroffensive.
"Today the balance of war has tilted in our favor both militarily and politically," Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, said during an Aug. 8 press conference, just hours after the U.S. military bombed Islamic State targets near Erbil.
The Peshmerga are relying on U.S. airstrikes to weaken the Islamic State’s defensive and offensive capabilities and give them support for a ground attack. As the retaking of Makhmour and Gwer suggest, it seems to be working.
American planes and weapons aren’t the only support Kurds are getting. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have asked for help from Syrian, Turkish, and Iranian armed Kurdish groups. Hundreds of these fighters have flocked to the front lines around Erbil and Sinjar close to the border with Syria.
Fighters affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party could be seen around Makhmour protecting a nearby camp for Kurdish refugees from Turkey. YPG fighters have also advanced into areas around Rabia and Sinjar to fight the Islamic State. Video posted online shows female and male YPG fighters rescuing stranded Yazidis in Sinjar.
Local volunteers have also taken up arms to defend their towns and villages. For Kurds, the Islamic State’s advance is nothing short of an existential threat to the closest thing Kurds have ever known to their long-standing dream of independence. Erbil’s fall to the Islamic State would mean the end of Kurdish self-rule in this area for over two decades, and it could trigger a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe.
Kurds are confident that they won’t allow their forces to fall to the Islamic State. They may be outgunned for now, but help is on the way. And Halgurd Hikmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, says that following U.S. airstrikes, "there is an agreement that the second phase will be for Peshmerga forces to be armed in a coordinated effort with the U.S. and Iraqi militaries."
Most Kurds have little doubt that it is going to be a long fight against the Islamic State, which seems intent on incorporating Kurdish territory into its caliphate. The emerging unity on the front lines among the frequently divided Kurdish forces coming from different parts of the Middle East is testimony that they consider this fight a struggle for survival.
*The article originally said that the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon will provide Peshmerga with weapons. In fact, the report says that the government agency that will provide assistance to the Kurds is unknown. Return to reading.