Although Khaniqan is secure, the nearby town of Jalawla has seen fierce fighting between the Kurds and the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
For the Kurds, this is not just some skirmish. They’re fighting for land that has historically belonged to them. And having defended it, they intend to keep it.
Gen. Hussein Mansor is in charge of the pesh base in Khanaqin. Sitting in his office, he frequently puffs on his hookah as he speaks.
Hussein expressed his disappointment at the Americans for giving so many weapons to the Iraqi army. When the Iraqi army retreated, it left much of its U.S.-supplied gear behind … and ISIS scooped it up.
Everything from heavy machine guns to up-armored Humvees. Now the peshmerga face Islamic insurgents armed with some of the latest American weapons. Better weapons than the pesh have, according to Hussein.
“The situation is a shame on the U.S.,” the general said.
Hussein said the Iraqi army is asking for the peshmerga’s help, but offers the Kurds nothing in exchange. There is little coordination between the two forces in their mutual fight against the militants. The general said that for now, the Kurds stand alone in Khanaqin.
“The peshmerga have power because this is Kurdistan, we defend our country and we defend Khanaqin against ISIS,” he said.
Peshmerga translates as “those who face death.” Owing to the pesh’s militia roots, there’s a certain informality in the way they do business. The Kurdish fighters address each other by their first names. Even the general.
Soldiers don’t seem to be afraid to voice their concerns—or even have a heated discussion with their superiors.
General Hussein said ISIS fights in a way that indicates it has outside backing. The general added that there are even European fighters and former Ba’ath-era Iraqi officers among the militants.
Hussein said Iraqi troops gave up Jalawla without a fight. To be fair, some Iraqi army soldiers have made their own accusations about the Kurds, claiming they have their own agenda and are trying to exploit the current crisis.
Colonel Nahro, one of Hussein’s staff officers, has been in Khanaqin for 18 days. He said that Jalawla is originally a Kurdish town. Kurdistan’s historic border is just beyond the town in the direction of Hamsil Mountain, he explained.
ISIS may not be fighting alone. The Sunni Arab Karwy tribe moved into the Khanaqin area 50 years ago as part of Baghdad’s effort to “Arabize” the area. Karwy tribal fighters allegedly are helping ISIS in Jalawla.
Militant attacks have become more intense during the month of Ramadan—starting on June 28—owing to the promise of religious reward for becoming a martyr during the holy period.
It’s worth noting that Iraqi army soldiers get paid more than the pesh do. Still, Nahro reported that morale is high among the peshmerga, because they have faith in their cause. “They have a purpose,” he said.
Nahro said he’s frustrated that they haven’t received meaningful aid from the West or anyone else. While the Iraqi army enjoys the attention of American advisers—plus, reportedly, Iranian air support—the pesh have had to make due with what they have.
The colonel pointed out that even the Russians have provided aid to Baghdad’s forces … in the form of Su-25 jets.
Maj. Borham Mohamad, Khanaqin’s quartermaster, has been fighting with the peshmerga since the Kurds’ rebellion against Baghdad in 1991. He briefs troops before they head out to the front. He’s also responsible for organizing supply runs into Jalawla and Sahdir.
He’s not shy about discussing politics. He spoke openly about the Gulf States and their support for ISIS—and about the role of Turkey and Iran in the conflict.
Major Borham said that the peshmerga feel that the world is ignoring them as it focuses on Baghdad’s military woes. But as the Kurds play an increasing role in the fighting—and as Kurdish independence become a real possibility—he said the media has finally begun to take notice.
At the base, soldiers kill time playing cards and texting their friends and family. The peshmerga fighters rotate between the base and the front lines at regular intervals. Some of them get short periods of leave.
Lieutenant Yadgar stops by Major Borham’s office before going home on leave. He said he’s not especially excited about seeing his family. The exhausted young officer said all he wants is a shower—and to see his girlfriend.
As weary and wounded peshmerga return from the front, rested soldiers rush to take their places. They cram into whatever trucks are available with as much men, weapons and equipment as can fit. In less than an hour, they’ll be at the front.
The Jalawla battle is a stalemate. The pesh are digging in, getting ready for what could be a protracted fight against the militants.
Cat and mouse
A Kurdish sniper grips his Russian SVD Dragonov rifle. A sergeant in the peshmerga, he wears plain clothes, his ammunition pouches hidden under a cloth belt. He said he doesn’t want to be named or photographed, but he’s willing to talk.
He said he’s been fighting for three weeks. In Jalawla, Kurdish and militant snipers stalk each other, trying to get off shots before quickly slinking back behind cover.
The Kurdish snipers work independently, rather than in pairs, the sergeant explained. But they’re part of a larger team, coordinating their frequent moves.
Every corner of Kurdish-controlled Jalawla seems to have one or two peshmerga guarding it.
The sniper said he’ll sometimes get a glimpse of ISIS fighters, but they usually move fast when spotted. The snipers on the ISIS side hide using firing holes in buildings.
He said he sees lots of civilians. He claimed ISIS opens fire from civilians’ homes, so that the peshmerga can’t fire back. He said he believes many of the civilians stay because they are related to ISIS fighters or are part of the Karwy tribe.
Many of the peshmerga in Khanaqin have relatives in Jalawla, but most of them have left for the safety of Kurdistan, the sniper said.
Peshmerga fighters hail from all over Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as from Kurdish communities in government- and ISIS-controlled territories. The sniper is from Kirkuk … and said he’s glad the city is now under pesh control.
The occasional civilian can be seen making their way around town, trying to maintain some semblance of normal daily life. There are little signs of life. Clothes drying on a line on a balcony. A car parked outside a home.
It’s not always easy to tell who’s who in this fight. One Kurdish officer spoke of a woman who approached peshmerga forces asking for water. They now believe she was scouting for ISIS.
General Hussein said that ISIS has deployed suicide bombers in Jalawla. This makes taking prisoners a perilous endeavor for the pesh.
The sniper said he doesn’t know how many militant fighters there are, but he said he does know that they have lots of weapons.
ISIS captured some Iraqi army T-55 and T-62 tanks. The peshmerga have roughly comparable tanks, albeit older versions.
Nahro explained that the Kurds bought many of the parts for their tanks from corrupt Iraqi officers. It was the only way to keep the tanks running.
The colonel said that the Kurds have held back their tanks, mortars and other heavy weapons for fear of harming civilians and damaging the city—a city they are fighting hard to make theirs.
But ISIS doesn’t care about the civilian population and is quite happy to use heavy weaponry, Nahro insisted.
Borham estimated that the pesh have killed around 80 militants in Jalawla since the fighting started. The major said he feels some sympathy for the local Sunnis, despite the sect’s support for ISIS. Baghdad has neglected Iraq’s Sunnis as well as its Kurds, Borham explained.
He said there’s a possibility Sunni tribes could make a deal with the Kurds to turn against ISIS, much in the way they allied themselves with the Americans to fight Al Qaeda during the Anbar Awakening eight years ago.
He said he believes the militants’ hardline religious rules have angered many locals—and, in his opinion, that anger will only intensify.
Borham said his opinion is that ISIS could be finished in as little as two months. He said that the militants have overreached. They’re inept administrators and can’t provide services in their territory, the major claimed.
He said he doesn’t believe that countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which have helped to arm and finance ISIS, are likely to pay for ISIS to administer cities. That, he said, will be ISIS’ downfall.
But if there is to be real change, Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki must step down, Borham added. If he doesn’t, fighting will only continue even after ISIS gives up. Borham said it’s impossible for the Iraqi army to retake Sunni strongholds without the support of the people. Right now, that support is thin on the ground.
He said he thinks that the Kurds will have see to their own affairs. But the Kurds face barriers to self-determination. Recently, American officials have joined Baghdad in threatening legal action against parties that buy Kurdish oil without the consent of Iraq’s central government.
However long the fighting continues between the Kurds and ISIS, their struggle for independence may prove to be their hardest battle.
You can follow photographer Matt Cetti-Roberts on Twitter at @unknownsnapper and Kevin Knodell at @KJKnodell. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.