We Watched Kurdish Fighters Clash With Islamic State
The dull roar of circling coalition aircraft fills the night sky over the town of Bashiqa. Below, perched on a dusty mountain that takes its name from the same town, Kurdish peshmerga fighters alternate between scanning enemy territory in front of them and peering up to catch a glimpse of their winged allies.
In the distance, just nine miles away, we can see the lights of Iraq’s second largest city start to turn on as the residents of Mosul begin another night under the helm of the Islamic State.
Like much of the Nineveh plains, Bashiqa was once a mixed town. Kurds, Christians, Arabs, Shabaks and Yazidis all lived within its boundaries. Now it lies almost empty, its only occupants members of Islamic State, stationed there to harass and attack the peshmerga on the mountain above them.
Though much discussed for over a year, a joint Iraqi and Kurdish offensive to take or surround Mosul has yet to materialize. Islamic State has exploited that time to fortify Bashiqa and Mosul.
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A Kurdish peshmerga fighter keeps watch from atop Bashiqa Mountain. All photos by Matt Cetti-Roberts[/caption]
I first visited Bashiqa in 2011 while working on a story about the Yazidis. At the time, the Yazidis were less than media friendly, having become quite closed off after bad stories circulated about problems in the town.
I only stayed for one night, the culmination of which was drinking beer on the side of a winding mountain road with a Yazidi friend, discussing the politics surrounding the 2003 invasion of Iraq and watching the lights go out in Mosul as it was hit by a power outage.
Since Islamic State invaded I’ve wanted to go back.
Located around 10 miles from Mosul, the town of Bashiqa is now a strategic point. Along with other areas such as Hamdaniyah, Bashiqa is a gateway town that will need to be taken before any push on Mosul. Even though Kurdish forces have stated that they will not retake Mosul, they could support the Iraqi army when — or if — it tries.
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A U.S.-made M2 machine gun, supplied by France, overlooks Bashiqa.[/caption]
“There is only ISIS in Bashiqa now,” explains Hamid Effendi, a former Kurdish Democratic Party minister of peshmerga.
Hamid is a professional fighter of many years, having joined the peshmerga in 1961 when he took part in the first Iraqi-Kurdish War under Mustafa Barzani, the father of the current Kurdish president Massoud. Hamid retired in 2009, but was recalled last August when an Islamic State offensive saw the peshmerga regroup to areas including the hill above Bashiqa.
This is his sector.
How long the peshmerga will stay entrenched here is not something Hamid knows at the moment. “Until now we wait to hear of our plans,” he says in fluent English. “We must wait for the Iraqi army to move before we go anywhere.”
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Kurdish peshmerga chat between guard shifts.[/caption]
Up the mountain
I and my translator leave Hamid’s headquarters and hop in a large American-made ambulance. The vehicle is heading to the 7th Brigade’s command post. The 7th Brigade is under the command of the Ministry of Peshmerga, meaning that the fighters in its ranks come from different parts of Kurdistan.
A young peshmerga fighter, his head wrapped in bandages, sits in the back of the ambulance. He hit his head on a metal bar this morning. Now he’s heading back to get some paperwork signed by his commander.
The road up the rear of the mountain is bumpy. The ambulance rocks from side to side as the driver attempts to avoid large rocks jutting into our path.
The landscape around us is the usual thorny scrub, parched brown in the summer heat. Square shaped rock formations, much like Mount Sinjar, poke out in small valleys. Small patches of burnt bushes, not yet blown away by the wind or covered over by dust, show that farmers have worked here recently. There’s recently plowed agricultural land in the distance, despite the nearby war.
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A peshmerga position on Bashiqa Mountain.[/caption]
We arrive at the headquarters of the 7th Brigade. Its commander, Brig. Gen. Bahram, meets us in a dining tent.
At one end of the dining tent a television blares Kurdish music. A sand-table model sits beneath, depicting the surrounding area. Toy soldiers on the model mark peshmerga positions, black flags for Islamic State. Toy tanks and rocket launchers sit by a tiny “mountain” on the far right, the positions of a much better equipped Zeravani brigade — a Kurdish paramilitary force — on a mountain by itself.
Bahram has served in the peshmerga for 26 years, and has a well-established headquarters. There are accommodations and rooms built into the banking, with concrete blocks and sandbags added for protection. The brigade has been in this position for one year, before that they were on the outskirts of Mosul.
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A Peshmerga’s fighters personal effects hang from a wall.[/caption]
He explains there was a fight yesterday involving peshmerga tanks and coalition aircraft firing into Bashiqa. Islamic State retaliated by firing rockets and mortars at another position. One peshmerga fighter was killed, another wounded.
“This was not a heavy fight, it was normal,” Bahram says, shrugging.
I ask him about the situation. Bahram tells me that the peshmerga here do not patrol forward, at least for now. With Islamic State around 800 meters away and the peshmerga having the high ground, they don’t see the point in pushing into the town.
“They are under threat of us,” he says. “An easy target.”
When one visits peshmerga across the front line, the general consensus is that the fighting has taken a toll on Islamic State. But Bahram has noticed a change here.
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Peshmerga fighters clean a Yugoslav Zastava M84 machine gun.[/caption]
“The shooting and suicide bombings are increasing — the tempo has risen in the last 20 days,” he says.
He attributes this to the recent gains made by Islamic State in Anbar. Insurgent mortar strikes are often accurate, which Bahram credits to ex-Iraqi army soldiers.
On the weapons front, Bahram counts his troops as being roughly equivalent to Islamic State, but behind in technology. The air support he receives from the coalition is well received, but he could do with more. “Sometimes, in one week, we collect 8–10 targets where we see something happening, but when air strikes come they will only hit just one.”
Even though Bahram would like more air strikes, they have had an effect on the way Islamic State operates. “Before they were in large groups, now they work in small sub-groups and only quickly to avoid jets,” he says.
The effectiveness of the air strikes here could be due to Canadian special forces on the mountain. The Canadian presence was confirmed earlier this year after a tragic friendly fire accident saw one of their number killed and another three injured by peshmerga after a breakdown in communication.
“They [Islamic State] have tried to come several times but have not succeeded,” Bahram says before we bid him and his staff goodbye.
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In the distance, Islamic State territory.[/caption]
The Mosul front
We left Bahram’s headquarters in a Ford pickup truck and headed to a peshmerga position closer to Mosul. In the distance, the city appears as a shapeless shadow in the dusty afternoon haze.
Peshmerga wave as we pull up to their position. Other fighters are filling sandbags from a large pile of earth filed with small white rocks. One fighter wears only his vest and boxer shorts. Even with the hilltop breeze, the weather is hot.
Like the brigade headquarters, this position is well defended. There are sandbagged positions and reinforced concrete built into the battlements. The peshmerga are making repairs to a sandbag wall that collapsed during strong winds yesterday — the wall is only a single layer of sandbags and may collapse again if the wind gets strong enough.
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Rocket-propelled grenades lean against a sandbag wall.[/caption]
There are weapons everywhere.
Rocket-propelled grenades lie against apertures in the sandbag wall facing the front line, ready for use in the event of an attack. A 12.7-millimeter DShK heavy machine gun sits beneath a canvas tarp to protect it from dust. The fighters say it has a mechanical problem and only fires two to three rounds … and then stops.
As we watch, the fighters remove the DShK’s cover and prepare it for the evening — the time when everyone is most active.
Including Islamic State.
Kalashnikovs, PKM machine guns and German-donated G3 rifles are the most common personal weapons here, with the occasional G36. For longer range work the fighters have Romanian PSLs — a designated marksman rifle that resembles the Russian Dragunov SVD, but is in fact an enlarged Kalashnikov on the inside.
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Peshmerga prepare their DShK 12.7 heavy machine gun.[/caption]
I recognize this part of the hill. Just above where I am now is the spot where I drank beer with my Yazidi friend and debated politics. It’s a slightly surreal thought.
Beyond the road, where one of my Yazidi friends had said that his brother drove drunk off the mountain (and survived), is another part of the front line. Instead of Iraqi Kurds, this one is manned by Iranian Kurds of the Iranian Kurdistan Freedom Party, a.k.a. the PAK.
These fighters have been working with the Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga since Islamic State came to the region in force last year. Yesterday’s death during the exchange with Islamic State was one of theirs.
The PAK considers the Iranian regime its enemy, and local media reports that Iran knows where the PAK fighters are and disapproves of what they’re doing. But perhaps Tehran should be relieved — the fact they’re here means they’re not fighting Iran.
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Iranian Kurdish peshmerga fighters react to movement in Bashiqa town.[/caption]
The PAK position is smaller, but just as fortified as that of their Iraqi counterparts. They have similar weapons to the Iraqi peshmerga, but also possess three mortars — one 82-millimeter and two 60-millimeters — which they use to bombard the town.
“In one month I will have been here for a year,” says Hazhar, a 24-year-old PAK peshmerga fighter from Bokan, Iranian Kurdistan, who speaks some English. Until August 2014, Hazhar and his unit were right on the edge of Mosul. They fell back to Bashiqa Mountain with the rest of the peshmerga.
It’s now just before six o’clock in the evening. The town of Bashiqa looks eerily quiet below the hilltop positions. Nothing seems to be moving at the moment — as far as we can see, anyways.
Apart from the lack of traffic, everything looks fairly normal. It’s not until one looks closely that bullet holes and shell damage on the buildings becomes visible. We are told that the mosque in the town recently had four DShK machine guns mounted on it.
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A Kurdish peshmerga fighter reinforces a defensive position.[/caption]
Someone in the town fires single shots at a peshmerga position off to our left. The supersonic cracks of the rounds are less pronounced because they don’t pass close. A tracer round fired from the mountain ricochets off a building and floats lazily into the air.
As the light slowly fades, the sprawling metropolis of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city with an estimated population of two million, slowly becomes clearer. Even though the city is around 10 miles away, the suburbs look extremely clear.
Innocuous and normal, just another Iraqi city, except dominated by the black flag of Islamic State.
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Lights from Mosul.[/caption]
Just after six o’clock we see a vehicle moving through Bashiqa town. It parks, partly obscured, next to a large olive grove. It’s hard to tell from this distance, but it appears to have a weapon mounted on the rear, possibly a 14.5-millimeter ZPU heavy machine gun. The fighters tell us that intelligence has mentioned that more vehicles have moved into the town.
Distant and hard to make out at first, we hear the sound of two coalition jet aircraft — like the sound of wind rushing around the top of the hill.
A peshmerga spots two Islamic State fighters, one wearing black and the other in camouflage, running from the vicinity of the parked vehicle into a nearby building. Just the presence of the coalition bombers has an effect.
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A PAK fighter watches Bashiqa.[/caption]
The PAK fighters scan the town with binoculars. They take care, the sandbag wall we are standing at is the same place where one of their fighters, Ahura Mukriyani, was killed by a sniper last night.
The mood in the position is somber, but the Iranian peshmerga are getting on with their work. The faint noise of a loudspeaker comes from the town’s mosque as it announces a call to prayer.
The aircraft continue to loiter. Just by being here they act as a deterrent. The PAK fighters suggest the warplanes are Canadian because of the special forces working elsewhere on the mountain. They say the Canadian aircraft are very good at air strikes.
The sound of the aircraft fades just after seven o’clock. Now we just hear the wind gusting over the mountain. None of the fighters say anything, but the mood is one of palpable disappointment.
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Peshmerga make dinner by flashlight.[/caption]
The light having almost completely gone, we eat dinner by flashlight with the Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga at their stations. Small floodlights flip on in front of the positions, making it difficult to see into the darkness behind — where the peshmerga stand waiting.
Less than an hour later, a sentry runs over to the DShK and his comrades take up positions along the sandbag wall. A fighter spotted the lights of a vehicle at the foot of the hill.
The sentry cranks back the cocking handle on the ancient-looking machine gun and fires several bursts of two to three rounds each down from the hill. The orange flash from the muzzle lights up the position as huge flames burst sideways from the front of the gun.
Over at the PAK position, the fighters launch a few rounds with their 60-millimeter mortars.
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A peshmerga fires a DShK into Bashiqa.[/caption]
The lights at the foot of the hill disappear, and the coalition jets return. A short time later, we spot the tail lights of two vehicles in the only part of Bashiqa where the street lights are turned on. The peshmerga say the rest of the town is kept in darkness so that the lights serve as a distraction. The vehicles move between the buildings.
The night sky lights up with a flash, followed by a crash. Looking over the sandbag wall we see a slowly rising mushroom cloud where one of the vehicles … was. The peshmerga in both positions — Iranian and Iraqi — cheer.
The smoke hangs in the night air, and a slight breeze pushes the cloud to the left. The aircraft carry on loitering as an Iranian peshmerga fires single shots from his G3 battle rifle into the city.
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A puff of smoke marks a coalition air strike.[/caption]
Vehicles still move in the far distance on roads beyond the range of the peshmerga’s weaponry. A PAK fighter fires off another mortar shell. It lands with a crump, out of sight but somewhere near the mosque and its machine gun emplacements.
Having been here for a year, the PAK peshmerga know where to aim and have most of their targets zeroed in.
A dirty, yellow almost-full moon rises. Staring into the darkness, it takes awhile for my eyes to adjust, but the ghostly grey houses of Bashiqa come into view. I can still picture the house I stayed in more than four years ago. A pang of nostalgia hits me as I wonder if Islamic State militants now sleep in the house where my Yazidi friend lived with his family.
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A PAK fighter fires a mortar into Bashiqa.[/caption]
In the distance, the lights of Mosul twinkle as its inhabitants go about their lives. It’s not yet 10 p.m. and much of the city will still be awake. Far above us to the north we can see the flashing lights of a passenger jet, occupying the space where armed warplanes circled only just recently.
In Bashiqa, there’s single faint light in a window, which goes dark. Maybe a militant looking for something before he turns in for the night.
My thoughts are broken by the pop-pop-pop of a peshmerga PKM firing from another position a few hundred meters away to our right. The sound fades to nothing as the night closes in around us.
A PAK fighter breaks out a night vision device. More lights now move on the roads in Islamic State territory. There’s occasional brake lights visible in the distance. I look through the night scope and see what looks like a semi-truck park behind an industrial building.
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Peshmerga fighters check on a light used to illuminate the ground.[/caption]
Under the threat from coalition aircraft, Islamic State must get things done under the cover of night.
Far to our left, someone fires a parachute flare into the air which then slowly floats to the ground. The Zeravani fighters on the other mountain want to see what’s going on around their defenses. An Iranian Kurdish fighter points out that they have better equipment there — there are no flares on this part of the mountain.
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A PAK peshmerga relaxes in his unit’s sandbagged emplacement.[/caption]
The tempo in the two peshmerga positions slows as quiet descends on the mountain. The fighters begin alternating between standing watch and sleeping.
We move back to the Iraqi peshmerga position. In the moonlight, there are odd lumps at various points behind the defenses — off-duty peshmerga sleeping beneath the starry sky. Blankets have been laid on the dusty ground for us to sleep on. It’s three in the morning and sleep comes easily.
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An Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter sleeps beneath the stars.[/caption]
A peshmerga wakes me two hours later. There’s occasional pops of sniper fire coming from Bashiqa. Much like the peshmerga, some of the militants are also awake and beginning their daily routine. Nothing happened in the two hours we slept.
The sun has yet to appear, but our driver is here to pick us up. We say goodbye to the peshmerga in both positions as the large Ford pickup idles nearby. The sun breaks over behind the mountain, lighting up the positions with a warm morning light as we head back, and as Mosul disappears from view.