The Locked and Loaded Carpenters of Makhmour

In one Kurdish town, all able-bodied men, from 17 to 80, have picked up arms to defend their homes from the Islamic State.

Photo: Matthew Vickery
Photo: Matthew Vickery

MAKHMOUR, Iraq — A few weeks ago, Fahid Aziz Rasoul, in his early 20s, made wooden furniture at a little shop in his small Iraqi village. Today he wears a war-worn bulletproof vest with a semi-automatic assault rifle slung over his shoulder. An ancient-looking knife hangs from his belt. It’s a family heirloom.

Rasoul has put down his lathe and taken up a semi-automatic to defend his hometown, Makhmour, a small Kurdish town on Iraq’s Nineveh plains that has become the front line in the battle against the fearsome militants of the Islamic State.

He is one of 40 volunteers gathered in an improvised command center in a disused government building in the center of town. The scene looks like a group of aging antique weapons dealers buddied up with the "Call of Duty" generation. The old and young joke with each other, jostling their weapons around, some of which appear older than their owners.

The old men wear traditional Kurdish garb — a suit-like jacket clasped in a deep V, tucked into baggy slacks and joined together with an intricately designed scarf wrapped high around the waist. The younger men wear camouflage pants and boots with dirt-stained T-shirts under their weathered bulletproof vests. Many hang strips of ammunition from their shoulders and clutch modern assault rifles.

They are ready and waiting to fight.

On Aug. 8, the Islamic State advanced on Makhmour. After a short battle, the residents fled under orders from the general of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces charged with defending the town. The Islamic State took Makhmour, hanging their ominous black flags around the main streets, setting fire to businesses, and looting the empty town. In a matter of hours, Makhmour had become the newest settlement of the caliphate.

Rasoul and his compatriots were among those who tried to prevent the Islamic State from taking the town.

"We were all waiting, listening to the captain of the army. They [the Peshmerga] came to protect Makhmour, and they told us to go and leave to the mountains," Rasoul tells Foreign Policy. "The captain said to go to the mountains so we could see how many militants from the Islamic State were coming. We let them in to see how many men there were and then we came back to attack and fight."

The Islamic State controlled the empty city for two days. Then, with the help of U.S. airstrikes, the Peshmerga and the volunteer militia pushed the jihadists out. But the looming threat of another Islamic State march towards Makhmour remains.

The militants continue to hold positions on the outskirts of the town. Only a few residents have returned; all the men who have come back are armed. The volunteer militia now sets up positions around Makhmour, in areas the Peshmerga, which take orders from the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil, are not covering.

"We are protecting our city and the dignity of our people," Rasoul says, showing pictures on his phone of burned Islamic State flags on the ground from after Makhmour’s residents retook their town. "The ones who protect the area from the terrorists are supposed to be the army or the police, but after we saw the situation, we decided we had to volunteer to help. Both of our hands have become one hand to make our country free, and to force the Islamic State out."

If the Islamic State attempts to take the town again, they will face an armed local militia, itching to take revenge on the pillaging militants who rained fear and destruction on their usually quiet town.

The men have now created their own hierarchy, with the elders leading the youth, but all taking direct orders from the Peshmerga. A Peshmerga commander will visit the volunteer force every day, brief them on any new intelligence about the area, and plan corresponding patrols around the outskirts of town and near Islamic State positions. In cooperation with the standing army, the militiamen pile into rusted-out pickup trucks and head to the outskirts of the city, constantly patrolling the parameters. The volunteers say they are awaiting instructions to advance on the jihadists alongside the Peshmerga, and potentially aided by U.S. airstrikes, to drive them away from Makhmour completely.

Most of the group, which is mainly comprised of younger men, have no previous military experience. Held Saeed Awwad is a construction worker in his 30s who has never fought before. "I am here to protect my land, my city, and my people," Awwad says. "I am coming to volunteer to protect my people against these terrorists."

All of these men have left their families behind. Some of the town’s women, children, and elderly have taken refuge in the Kurdish autonomous region, and the men say many are still hiding in the nearby mountains, waiting for the all clear to come home. For now, it is still unsafe. The outskirts of Makhmour are a dangerous no-man’s-land. The Peshmerga’s armored vehicles often return from battle with bullet holes in their windshields.

The militiamen of Makhmour, who weeks ago lived mundane and safe lives, now face a perilous task. They acknowledge that they lack the weaponry to fight a formidable enemy like the Islamic State. The jihadists have sophisticated American weapons they picked up when the Iraqi Army dissolved in the face of attack in northern Iraq in early June, and many Islamic State fighters are experienced combatants after two years of fighting in Syria’s civil war. Many of the volunteers say that their opponents’ combat experience, coupled with their apparent suicidal approach to battle, make them daunting adversaries.

Kurds have historically fled to the mountains to wait out, or fight, their enemies — from the Safavids to Saddam Hussein. This time the Kurds of Makhmour intend to stand their ground.

"God willing, we will not let them take this land, or any of the area again," Awwad says. "Everyone will fight. From old people to young people, from 17 to 80. We will all fight."

Recently, some relief for Iraq’s Kurds came from the United States. It was only after U.S. airstrikes on Aug. 10 that Makhmour was recovered from the Islamic State. U.S. bombs continue to pound nearby jihadist positions, opening the way for Kurdish advances deeper into areas claimed by the militants.

"We thank America," says Mahmoud Mohammed Nisan, a retiree, wearing the traditional embroidered Kurdish scarf wrapped around his head. He proudly thrusts his Kalashnikov in the air, which he claims has been by his side since the 1970s. "But at the same time, they have to thank us too."

"We and the Peshmerga and everybody here are helping [the United States] by fighting the Islamic State," says Nisan. "We saved all the country, not just Kurdistan or Iraq, and we are trying to stop the Islamic State for the world."

Unlike the young men of the group, Nisan does not wear a bulletproof vest, nor does he seem to care for any of the modern equipment the younger men value. Nisan fought in 1974 as part of the Kurdish rebellion against the nationalist government in Baghdad, and again in 1991 during an uprising against Saddam Hussein. Now he has picked up his gun again. It still works, he points out. He demonstrates flipping the ammunition cartridge off, loading, and clipping it back on with nimble speed, despite the machine’s age. 

"On the ground, they are losing now," Nisan says of the Islamic State. "They had big losses in Makhmour, at least 80 of their people died, and we have all their guns. I want to tell them, leave us, get out of all of Iraq; they have to leave Iraq. From all of Iraq! We will protect all of Iraq, not only Kurdistan. We will save all of Iraq."

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