To the Edge of Kurdistan
This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two.
A cool night breeze drifts across the roof of the building, wafting away mosquitoes seeking their meals from any exposed skin.
Illuminated by an almost full moon, Kurdish peshmerga fighters rest on mattresses or crude metal beds with cruelly hard-wire frames. Some talk, some sleep and others smoke cigarettes as they look into the night sky — a few hours of respite before tomorrow’s offensive.
The day began 12 hours earlier with a trip to the town of Chamchamal to visit Hadji Fazer and his group of volunteer peshmerga. Chamchamal is a small town about a 30-minute drive east of Kirkuk. During Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the Iraqi army forcibly moved rural villagers in the area into the town.
The Iraqi army then destroyed their villages and mined much of the area to stop smuggling and peshmerga raids. Since then, the residents of Chamchamal have earned a reputation, deserved or not, as quick to fight and of short temper.
Fazer was born in 1974 in Cheman, a small village located between Kirkuk and Chamchamal. When Fazer was just 13, the Iraqi army came and evicted him, his family and everyone else from their homes.
Fazer picks me and my translator up from a road outside Chamchamal.
He’s dressed in traditional Kurdish garb, with a pistol poking up from a sash around his waist. He takes us to his house in the town and sets the pistol on a stand beneath a television tuned to a local news station. Two of his children shyly poke their heads through the kitchen door.
Above: Hardi (L), Sarwar (C) and Zana, all volunteer peshmerga fighters, reload ammunition ahead of a peshmerga offensive at a comrade’s house in Chamchamal, Iraq. Top: A PK machine gun, captured from ISIS by volunteer peshmerga, is seen at the home of volunteer peshmerga Hadji Fazer near Kirkuk. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos
Hadji’s phone rings — a friend on the other end says there will be an attack by the peshmerga tomorrow. Hadji nods and hangs up, and asks us if we would like to go with them. After a short discussion we agree to accompany Fazer and his group.
The other members of Fazer’s group, Hardi, Sarwar, Aram and Zana arrive at the house wearing traditional Kurdish clothes and carrying rifles. Hardi and Sarwar carry M-16A4s. They captured many of their weapons from Islamic State, and Hadji brings out a seized PK machine gun in pristine condition.
But for tomorrow’s offensive, Fazer will use a Kalashnikov.
Fazer’s group is comprised of all-volunteer peshmerga, which means they take no salaries from the Ministry of Peshmerga or political parties. The peshmerga are far from a unified group — a common and mistaken perception. Some fight with brigades loyal to the ministry, the Kurdistan Democratic Party or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, among other groups. Fazer’s small band fights out of loyalty to Kurdistan.
Aram, an English speaking member of the group who once lived in France and the Netherlands, says that most Iraqi Islamic State fighters are ex-Ba’athists. “I fight now because of the things they did to us in the 1970s and 1980s — I see ISIS as an extension of the Ba’athist regime,” he says.
I ask Fazer how the group knows when there’s a battle going on. “It depends, sometimes we get a call beforehand and go, sometimes we hear about the fighting and just turn up,” he says.
Aram adds that sometimes they see fighting on one of the local TV stations and head out to take part.
There have been accusations that the volunteer peshmerga engage in war profiteering by selling stolen weapons. Hadji and his group deny this, and that they hold onto captured weapons to prevent them from being used against the peshmerga.
“Half of the weapons we have have come from ISIS,” Hadji says. “They are usually in quite good condition.”
“We don’t sell the weapons we take, we don’t need money,” Fazer says, shrugging.
Hadji Fazer dons his magazine pouches at his home in Chamchamal. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
This isn’t Hadji’s first war. He first joined the peshmerga in 1991 during the Kurdish uprising against the Ba’athist regime, and fought alongside the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan during the Kurdish Civil War in 1996. In 2003, he fought alongside U.S. special forces — even becoming part of two brigades formed to work in Kirkuk.
He volunteered each time. “After the U.S. left, I still volunteered,” he says. “I don’t take a salary, I only fight.”
Hadji has tried to join the regular — uniformed — peshmerga, but being born in 1974 means he’s too old to enlist. Recent news could change that. “This week the peshmerga called and said I would be made a second lieutenant,” he says with a smile.
Hadji shows me pictures on his phone of friends who have died in the war. He says the hardest fight they’ve had was one near the small town of Mullah Abdullah, west of Kirkuk, where a battle lasted for 10 hours.
“There was an [ISIS] armored truck packed with explosives,” he says. “It came to the peshmerga base and detonated, killing 20 people.”
“Being a volunteer is a threat against us and also our families,” Aram says. He explains that Fazer received a call from an Arab man threatening his family. “He [the caller] said that if he saw Fazer on the front line he would kill him and his family.”
So far the threat has not been carried out.
Fazer smokes a cigarette as he and his group of volunteer peshmerga make their way to the front line outside Kirkuk. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
“We are together most of the time, even when we are not out fighting, we are like brothers,” Hadji says. Another member of the group, Zana, a young man with piercing green eyes — uncommon among Kurdish people — says the most important thing they can do is not to leave the body of a friend behind.
“It’s hard,” Zana says. “It is better to die than than be captured by ISIS.”
Picking up our equipment, we get into a 4x4 with Hadji and Sarwar and leave for the front line.
The autumn weather is sunny but noticeably cooler. We arrive at a peshmerga base in a suburb of Kirkuk looking for a commander, but he’s already left for the front line. Hadji says that they don’t always go with the same units. “We go to different brigades as needed. We have connections with different brigades so go where we can.”
Just after 4 p.m. we drive through what was the front line before the peshmerga pushed the Islamic State back at the beginning of the year. A few minutes later, we pass through the berm that was the old Islamic State defensive line. The current front line where the peshmerga watch into no-man’s land is just beyond.
The positions are well prepared with dug-in armoured vehicles along a fortified berm and small man-made hills with heavy support weapons located on top. Islamic State’s fighters are about a kilometer from here and quiet at the moment. We’re just two kilometers from a position I visited for another story about Kurdish weaponry.
A peshmerga rests on a sandbag wall at a Kurdish front line position south west of Kirkuk. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
The unit here is one of those belonging to Yakray 70 — the peshmerga affiliated with the PUK. A commander points out a large copse of palm trees, surrounding a large house off in no-man’s land. He says he would like his picture taken there tomorrow.
He tells me the house is the former residence of Ali Hassan Al Majid — a.k.a. Chemical Ali — a Ba’athist general who became notorious for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds during the Anfal Campaign in the 1980s.
The peshmerga here are keen to push forward.
We start moving again, driving through the flat sandy landscape a few hundred meters behind the front line. The sun sets and the sky turns from deep blue to pitch black. We arrive at another position — a small outpost next to a bridge manned by a peshmerga platoon — where we will spend the night.
When the hot weather permits, the land around here is used for agriculture. Behind the outpost a large irrigation canal leads to the front line and then on toward I.S.-held villages.
Night falls as Hadji and his group move between peshmerga positions. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
At the outpost, the peshmerga are with Yakray 80 — meaning they are affiliated with the KDP. Tomorrow’s offensive will be a joint effort between all of Kurdistan’s peshmerga factions, the KDP, PUK and the Ministry of Peshmerga.
During a trip to the divisional headquarters, Gen. Zirar Khadar, the commander of the division in this area, grants a quick interview.
“ISIS were strong at the start, a massive force,” Khadar says. “One thousand three hundred peshmerga have been killed since the start of the fighting and over 2,000 injured.”
He was one of those injured. Khadar now walks with the aid of a walking stick after shrapnel passed through his body in December 2014.
A peshmerga platoon commander briefs some of his men at the outpost where they are staying the night ahead of a large peshmerga assault. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
He says the offensive tomorrow is not just a tactical move by the Kurds. The areas they will be going into were originally Kurdish — before the Kurds were expelled and Arab families were settled in their villages during the Iraqi government’s “Arabization” campaign that took place from the 1960s and ended in 2003 with the U.S.-led invasion.
“Tomorrow hopefully we will get some more places back,” he says smiling.
In another room we talk to one of Zirar’s deputies, Maj. Gen. Hadji Mohammed Regr. He says that they have prepared well and have high hopes, but expects losses. “We have prepared to clear IEDs,” he says. “However they are a big threat, I am sure we will have casualties.”
Mohammed also sees the operation as being about the Kurdish homeland. He says it will be different to the last offensive I was on, in the Daquq area. “Tomorrow the places we are taking back are Kurdish,” he explains. “It will not be the last operation, we will push the Islamic State back more.”
A Kurdish flag flaps in a light breeze on the roof of a position manned by Kurdish fighters west of Kirkuk. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
Mohammed says the idea is to advance the peshmerga front line by 10 kilometers in some places and five kilometers in others.
Back at the outpost, the peshmerga platoon complete with three DShK-armed Humvees hunker down for the night. The commander there knows Hadji and his group. Two of the vehicles are dispatched to another unit for the night.
An almost full moon slowly travels across the night sky over Kirkuk to our east, the glow of street lighting and burning oil plumes forms an illuminated barrier separating sky from the ground.
On the roof of the outpost some peshmerga manage to get some sleep on solid metal framed beds, wrapped in blankets to keep them warm in the cool evening air and to protect them from the mosquitoes that plague the area due to nearby irrigation canals. Others sit smoking and talking, whiling away the hours. Spirits are high.
Smoke drifts on a night-time breeze after two coalition bombs hit Islamic State positions West of Kirkuk. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo
We can see flashes on the horizon — coalition air strikes hitting Islamic State positions in the area before the coming offensive. Sometimes, the strikes are too far away to hear. Occasionally, tracer rounds lift lazily from the ground.
The night sky lights up three times, a fourth flash quickly follows. The sound of the bombs rushing to the ground, a whooshing noise, followed by the crump of the explosion — the aftershock — comes a couple of seconds later. The building shakes, making it feel flimsy and badly constructed. Four massive bombs have hit Islamic State positions somewhere nearby.
Near one of the explosions, tracer fire shoots up into the sky in different directions, possibly an Islamic State fighter frustrated at the pounding they are receiving from the air. The angle of the tracers is too low to be effective, and in any case, the aircraft that dropped the bombs are long gone.
Volunteer peshmerga: Zana (L), Aram (2L), Hardi (C), Sarwar (2R) and Hadji Fazer (R) stand for a group picture the next morning before taking part in a large offensive against Islamic State-held villages west of Kirkuk, Iraq.
After a murmur of appreciation for the air strikes, the peshmerga go back to relaxing.
The headlights of a passing convoy illuminates the outpost as vehicle after vehicle moves past, making their way to the correct start lines before the morning assault.