By Courtney Trenwith
Along a sandbagged wall in the desert, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are holding the frontline against ISIL in Iraq. But the armed forces of a region desperate for independence are simultaneously battling a reluctance in the West to better support them
In the desert halfway between Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Mosul, the largest city under the control of ISIL, a stone wall topped with layers of sandbags stretches for kilometres. At strategic points, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters decked out in green camouflage gear and helmets stand poised, Kalashnikovs aimed.
Two vehicle-mounted machine guns - one American and one Russian - protrude over the wall, loaded and ready to fire at any moment.
The target is a white building, no more than 250 metres away. Inside is the enemy: ISIL.
The militant group had been firing for hours the night before we arrive at this point on the Khazir front, but the atmosphere is now relatively calm, even jovial.
“They tried coming last night; from 9pm until 1am they tried to come in here. They were seen and we held them back,” Arshad Hussein Alli, a Peshmerga soldier tells us.
American B52s bombed the militants from overhead, killing four, including two senior commanders, we are told.
Alli is among 7,000-8,000 Peshmerga fighters along the Khazir front at any time. Between them and ISIL is a sparse plain and, reports say, the bodies of a few dead ISIL fighters abandoned by the group.
The operation is led from a portable building planted by the side of a road on the way to Erbil and surrounded by bullet-proof cement barricades. It is a short walk from the centre of the town of Kalak, where markets are still thriving and families walk along the street holding their children’s hands.
The villages between the operation headquarters and the frontline, however, have been abandoned, their buildings destroyed by ISIL. A Peshmerga member guiding us says the Kurds pushed ISIL out of the Arab villages and are only temporarily controlling the area until the militants retreat further, but others fear the land will remain in Kurdish control.
The Peshmerga are using what was a two-storey home as a resting point set back from the frontline. They sip sweet tea while sitting on the family loungers and mill around on the front porch.
They have become an infamous armed force, having proven the most resilient against ISIL in Iraq. About 75 kilometres south of here, they symbolically prevented the militants from capturing oil-rich Kirkuk - as the Iraqi army fled.
But this is not a war they are used to fighting. Born out of centuries of rebellion, the Peshmerga are more accustomed to guerrilla warfare than tactics and stakeouts and have had to learn an entirely new way of doing battle.
“We’re not a frontline type of fighting army, we’re used to guerrilla warfare,” says Commander Arif Tayfur, who returned from Baghdad, where he was deputy speaker of the federal parliament between 2005-2014, to command the 34km Khazir frontline.
“This is the first time that we have really had to put up a front. It was very difficult for us at the beginning and we really had to learn. Now we have gotten used to the frontline type of fighting. But at the beginning we had really big difficulties, we were not used to this. We were not used to sitting somewhere and waiting to shoot.”
Their enemy is also like no other. Brigadier General Derdawan Khorsheed says fighters with “Daesh”, a pejorative term used to describe the militant group, are like wild animals.
“Fighting Daesh is very difficult; they have no rules, they have no human respect, nothing. They just kill,” he says. “There’s a big, big difference. They’re ruthless, absolutely ruthless. They don’t have friends, they don’t care.
“They’re the most dangerous force, I believe, in the world. They have no humanity whatsoever.”
At least 40,000 Peshmerga are holding a 1,200km border against ISIL in northern Iraq. They are being supported by several hundred US troops, who are predominantly providing training and overseeing some logistics, as well as from countries including Italy, Canada and the UK.
But the Peshmerga forces are relying on mostly aging, Soviet-era equipment and are running out of ammunition.
“For a fight, you need the men and the weapons. The men are here but we need modern weapons,” says Siraj Aldeen Masuli Hassan, nursing his 1970s AK-47 between his legs.
“[ISIL’s] weapons are more advanced than ours; they’ve got four brigades of weapons which were [from] the US,” Hassan adds, referring to more than 200 armoured troop carriers, 1,000 humvees and dozens of US battlefield tanks that ISIL looted when the Iraqi army fled the country’s north in June, 2014.
“This fight against terrorism needs modern weapons.”
Commander Tayfur says he cannot begin to prioritise the list of needs.
“We need everything. We need helicopters, rockets, armed tanks, ballistics…” he says. “We have very basic capabilities.”
The Peshmerga have been given limited light weaponry and ammunition top-ups from countries including Germany and the US. Any heavy equipment, mostly looted from the civil war with Saddam Hussein in 1991, is decades old and wearing out.
International governments are reluctant to further arm the Kurdish fighters because of fears the weapons will be used to bolster frequent talk of sovereignty from Iraq, in contrast to the ‘One Iraq Policy’ they officially support.
US lawmakers in December voted to change Washington’s stance on the policy on the basis that sending all weapons via the Iraqi central government in Baghdad was unnecessary and undermined the ability of the Kurds to effectively combat ISIL.
But the White House has insisted the proposal will never be enacted.
The Kurds continue to chastise the lack of direct support, highlighting their critical role in defending northern Iraq from ISIL.
Something will likely need to give if Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, is to be reclaimed from ISIL. The Peshmerga will be critical to any liberation of the city of 1 million. But senior Kurds say they will not enter Mosul, an Arab city, alone, nor without adequate support.
Along the Khazir front, Hassan thanks the allies for “all their help, especially with the plane attacks” that helped to repel ISIL the night before. But they need more, he says.
“Please put pressure on the public opinion of your countries to give more support to the Peshmerga, I ask this personally,” he says, sitting beneath the sandbagged wall.
“We fight the terrorism here and it doesn’t come to your countries; we have to fight and we’re fighting, so we need your help.”
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is also struggling to pay its forces and Peshmerga fighters have gone months at a time without being paid their already meagre salaries. Even before the economic crisis, many had taken on second jobs as drivers and the like, to supplement an average salary of 500,000 Iraqi dinars ($435) per month, depending on their rank, despite carrying the reputation as one of the only fighting forces in Iraq capable of taking on ISIL.
There have been reports of fighters defecting in a bid to find a means to make ends meet.
Kurdistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani told the White House in April that the region’s forces were struggling to fund the war with ISIL, which he reminded them, was working to keep the militant group from progressing further south in Iraq.
“We are facing a very dire financial situation which, if we cannot resolve, will undoubtedly impact the ability of our forces to keep the front line the way that we have done,” Talabani said during the visit to Washington.
“It is important for our friends to understand that we have kept the front line and we are going to keep the front line. But unless we get direct support … we will be unable to continue in the way that we are doing.”
In response to Talabani’s personal pleas, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced $415m in funding to help pay the Peshmerga forces, as well as an additional 200-plus troops.
Commander Tayfur says the fighters are now gradually being paid.
“It depends on how much danger you take on, so for example, fighters on the frontline will get their full salary, those at the back will get a half or a quarter salary. It’s not every month; it depends, it comes ad hoc,” he says.
Despite the poor conditions, Commander Tayfur insists the Peshmerga spirit remains high.
“There’s no impact from that – morale is high,” the commander says.
On the frontline, fighters agree. Huddled under a make-shift watch tower, the highest point along this front, Arshad Hussein Alli handles his weapon and explains why he continues to fight.
“All governments of Iraq have tried to fight Kurds and make us part of Iraq – and fled with chemical weapons,” he says.
His comrade Shirzad Mohammad Ensala is equally dedicated.
“I am proud of myself fighting Daesh; we have high morale,” he says. “We don’t have any negativity, it’s positive.
“We are constantly fighting but we are ready to give our lives for Kurdistan.”