‘Our priority is to arm the Peshmerga’

Kurds plead for more weapons to take on ISIL amid tensions with Baghdad over the role of the Peshmerga.

Several Kurdish officials said coalition countries have not sent much needed heavy weapons [REUTERS]

Baghdad – The mandatory involvement of Kurdish Peshmerga forces on the front lines in the fight against The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has highlighted a significant shortage of weapons, equipment and training, according to Kurdish officials and lawmakers.

It also raised serious questions over the Peshmerga fighters’ ability to take on ISIL.

“We were shocked and did not expect that they [ISIL] would attack us,” said Shamel, a 50-year-old Kurdish fighter in al-Khazer, a town 30km west of Erbil as he recalled how Peshmerga fighters were defeated by ISIL while advancing towards Erbil in early September.

“They were everywhere and most of our fighters could not even stand for hours. Our ammunition ran out and no reinforcements arrived so we abandoned our positions,” Shamel told Al Jazeera on the phone from Erbil.

The defeat, according to Shamel, was in large part a result of a severe shortage of munitions to the point that: “Our slogan was one shot per head.” 

While Peshmerga forces have controlled vast areas outside the boundaries of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, the war against ISIL has, nonetheless, exposed the limitations of their equipments and training.

In early August, Kurdish troops collapsed under the advance of ISIL fighters, who by June had captured wide swaths of land in northern and western Iraq and seized weaponry from Iraqi troops who abandoned their position in Mosul. 

VIDEO: On Iraq’s frontline with Peshmerga forces

Last week, the regional Kurdish parliament voted to authorise the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani to send Peshmerga fighters to Kobane to fight alongside their Kurdish fellows against ISIL.

The decision triggered an uproar since, according to the Iraqi constitution, the decision to send troops to fight outside of Iraq should be made by the central government in Baghdad.

The decision also threatened an initial agreement reached between KRG and Baghdad, following the appointment of the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abbadi, which stated that Peshmerga forces are a part of the central government’s defence forces.

KRG officials backed down suggesting that the Peshmerga assistance will be restricted to providing artillery backup. “Primarily, it will be a backup support with artillery and other weapons, ” KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee told Reuters on October 26: “It will not be combat troops as such, at this point anyway.” 

The Peshmerga forces number approximately 30,000 “full-time” soldiers, of which no more than a few hundred could be considered elite. Almost all of these regular troops are deployed in a rotation that sees them spend more time in civilian jobs than in uniform. 

The issue of arming, equipping, and funding the Peshmerga has been a point of contention between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad for years.

Until recently, the Kurdistan Regional Government insisted Peshmerga troops were regional guards exclusively linked to Erbil.

Questions over Peshmerga capability against ISIL

Baghdad has argued the Peshmerga forces are under the command of the Federal Ministry of Defence, which arms, equips, and pays its fighters.

“The outstanding problem [with the federal government] relating to the Peshmerga, is still suspended and no change has happened, so far,” Jabar Yawar, general secretary of the Ministry of Peshmerga, told Al Jazeera.

“Still, no salaries, no weapons or equipment as well as no training,” Yawar said.

Tensions between Baghdad and KRG hit peak levels in February when former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki suspended the payment of salaries to employees in the Kurdistan region, after Kurdish authorities exported crude oil without Baghdad’s consent.

Last September, the election of Abbadi, a Shia, ushered in a more inclusive administration. Kurdish ministers did not join Abbadi’s government until mid October, after receiving confirmation from parliament that all contentious issues with the central government would be resolved within three months, starting in September.

“My government pledges to eliminate the existing contradictions with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan,” Abbadi told the Iraqi parliament in a televised session in September.

Kurdish officials in Baghdad told Al Jazeera that a high ranking delegation headed by Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of KRG, will visit Baghdad within the next few days to discuss the points of contention relating to the Peshmerga, oil revenues, oil contracts, and the budget of the region.

“Our priority is to arm the Peshmerga. We have the right to get the arms from Baghdad. The region is part of this state and they [the authorities in Baghdad] have to give us weapons,” a senior Kurdish federal official involved in these talks told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.

We currently buy weapons from the black markets across the country, where the price of a shell of RPG7 reached $1,700.

by - Kurdish official

“We currently buy weapons from the black markets across the country, where the price of a shell of RPG7 reached $1,700.

The US, UK and other European countries pledged to equip the Kurdish troops last month, but the regional government still needs Baghdad’s approval to receive weapons.

Several Kurdish officials and Kurdish lawmakers said these countries have not sent heavy weapons but have helped curb the advance of ISIL fighters.

“There is no real arming as you have heard,” Yawar said. “But the ammunition and weapons that these countries sent have helped the Peshmerga troops to stop the advance of ISIL and regain control in several areas.”

Kurdish officials said the US-led international military coalition has formed an operations room in Erbil consisting of representatives from Iraq’s federal government, the Kurdish Regional Government and eight other countries including the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Canada

Members of the operation room are coordinating air strikes on ISIL targets across the country. Several military coalition members have also started training courses to teach the Peshmerga how to use robots to defuse bombs .

While the Peshmerga have been in a stalemate with ISIL, in early October Peshmerga forces – backed by US and British air attacks – began to make some advances as they pushed into territory held by ISIL, recapturing several towns and villages that had recently fallen to the group. On October 26, Peshmerga fighters recaptured the town of Zumar just north of Mosul. 

Source: Al Jazeera