Kirkuk, Iraq – Kurdish military forces in Iraq, known as Peshmerga, suffered their first major setback in the fight against the Islamic State on Sunday when they were pushed back from the town of Sinjar, west of Mosul.
In the last week, the Islamic State group, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has turned its attention to Kurdish-controlled areas to the west of Mosul, assisted by local Sunni Arab fighters. In the early hours of Sunday morning, it launched an offensive against the predominantly Yazidi town of Sinjar.
After hours of fighting, the Peshmerga were forced to withdraw, and residents of the city fled en masse to Sinjar mountain, where they remain without sufficient shelter, food or water, with the UN expressing its ‘extreme’ concern over the situation.
While Sinjar lies in an area which was claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil, it has long been Kurdish-controlled. As such, it is the first major loss of traditionally Kurdish territory to the Islamic State.
In early June, the Islamic State group, fighting alongside an assortment of Sunni groups, tribal fighters, and ex-Baathists, began a military campaign that shocked many with its speed and ferocity. The Iraqi army collapsed within days and major cities including Mosul fell to the rebels. The Islamic State group later announced the foundation of an Islamic caliphate.
Since the Islamic State group’s takeover of several parts of Iraq, international media has been full of praise for the Peshmerga, describing them as “well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened” forces.
In the initial rush to fill the vacuum left by retreating Iraqi forces, the Kurds took swathes of territory that they have long coveted, including the city of Kirkuk and its oilfields. Until the Islamic State group’s capture of Sinjar, its border with the Kurds remained a relatively inactive frontline.
However, the events of Sunday exposed previously unseen weaknesses in the Peshmerga forces.
There are certainly elite units within the Peshmerga, notably the Sulaymaniyah based counter-terrorism group led by Lahoor Talabani, but they make up a tiny minority of the fighting force.
According to Michael Knights, a senior Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Peshmerga number approximately 30,000 “full-time” soldiers, of which no more than a few hundred could be considered elite.
In peacetime, almost all of these regular troops are deployed in a rotation that sees them spend more time in civilian jobs than in uniform.
“The Peshmerga would face the same challenges as the Iraqi army in resisting the Islamic State group,” said Knights.
“For example, not suffering shock at the car bombs, vest bombs … and determined skirmishing. Indeed, the Peshmerga did lose east Mosul city in mid-June. There were plenty of Kurds living there but it was still abandoned,” he added.
Prior to the Islamic State group’s assault on Sinjar, Al Jazeera spent time on a Peshmerga base outside Kirkuk with troops that had taken part in the fighting that secured the city after Iraqi army soldiers fled their bases.
One evening, a group of Peshmerga were getting ready to go out on patrol. Donning a motley collection of trainers, boots, fatigues, cowboy hats, ballistic helmets, and bandanas, they leapt onto the back of pick-up trucks. Almost all of them shouldered ancient looking Kalashnikovs and a couple wore bandoliers of ammunition and carried light machine guns known as BKCs.
The base, named Maktabi Khalid, was once a railway yard, and rusty, seized-up rolling stock was scattered around the building. Nearby, a few cows meandered up and down, grazing in piles of half-burnt rubbish.
The temperature hits 46C during the day and Peshmerga kill time inside under airconditioning, playing cards, smoking and sleeping.
The men stationed there spend the evenings sitting around on pickups still peppered with bullet holes, telling each other tales from the battle. One young soldier described how his Kalashnikov jammed after each shot he fired. His friends laughed as he jumped up and demonstrated how he had to stamp the bolt of his rifle back with his foot before firing each bullet.
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He turned and rested a hand on the “Dushka” (DShK heavy machine gun) which is mounted on the pick-up truck. “And this thing, after they invented the knife they made this!” He went on to tell his comrades how he paid out of his own pocket, for the steel plate that protects the soldier firing the Dushka.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has pressed Washington to provide it with more sophisticated weaponry. However, the US is reluctant to arm the Kurds, who have openly secessionist ambitions.
Despite the obvious limitations of their equipment and training, the Peshmerga have on many occasions proven themselves to be fearsome fighters even when outnumbered and outgunned. They fought Saddam Hussein’s troops for years, and during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Peshmerga fought alongside US troops, helping to push Iraqi forces out of Mosul and Kirkuk.
When asked why they joined, most fighters responded by saying that they wanted to defend their country. Most had fathers and brothers who are, or were, also Peshmerga.
Barham Karim Taha, who said he joined five years ago at age 15, was pushed to sign-up by his father. “My father was with [legendary commander] Mullah Mustafa and wounded twice while fighting Saddam. He lost his leg.”
The salary of an infantryman is 500,000 Iraqi dinars ($400) a month. Before the current conflict ignited, Barham spent one week on duty, followed by two weeks off. In his time off, he worked as a builder to supplement his salary. He told Al Jazeera he paid $700 for his Kalashnikov. But he is not complaining: “It was cheap, $700 with four magazines. They are more expensive now.”
Most of the Peshmerga at Maktabi Khalid spoke with bravado and genuine enthusiasm. Only one Peshmerga expressed the kind of frustrations one might expect from a soldier obliged to spend two months worth of his salary to buy his own gun.
He initially said he was happy to be defending Iraq’s Kurdish region and especially Kirkuk, but when asked if he would encourage his children to join the Peshmerga forces, he answered with an emphatic “no”.
“The Peshmerga don’t have a future here in Iraq. I’m Peshmerga and I don’t have anything. We will be killed some day,” Taha said.
“I am happy to be fighting for my country though.”