‘I was wounded in the first days of the war. My commander thought he would do a test and see if ISIS fighters are good snipers. We were sitting in a forward position. He held up a helmet over the sandbags. After a minute, a bullet went right through it. Apparently the helmet wasn’t very strong, and it ricocheted off the back of the metal, and went straight towards the floor into my leg.” For Capt. Rizgar Jabar, his war was over. For hundreds of thousands of other Kurds, it was just beginning.
The 18th century physicist Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The rise of Islamic State was a kind of action. The details of its rise are well known. It burst on the scene in the summer of 2014 with abominable depredations in Syria and Iraq, outfitted with the best in captured weapons and armored vehicles from the Iraqi army.
Today, it controls some 78,000 square kilometers. Millions became refugees, thousands were murdered in massacres, and as part of an attempted genocide of the Yazidi people, 5,000 women were sold into slavery.
An August 2014 article in The Economist claimed, “It’s starting to look more and more like a state.”
For every action there is an equal reaction.
As ISIS gobbled up ground, the Kurdish nation, strung out across northern Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, found itself on the front line of a brutal war, yet united in a common struggle. The enemy was at the gates. Men took up the rifle, as they had before in Kurdistan against various regimes and enemies. Mustachioed warriors who had fought Saddam Hussein, survived Syrian President Bashar Assad and resisted Iran, came down from the mountains to wage the most effective war to date against this generation’s most dangerous enemy.
Nothing can really prepare a person who has grown up in a Western society for the glimpse of a nation at war, a people mobilized much as the West once had for the First World War – for grueling, plodding conflict. Many Kurds tend to admire Israel’s struggle for independence and arduous battles against numerous enemies. They see their own crucible of conflict as similar. An ancient people demanding its homeland, fighting Iran, Arab states, Turks and Islamist terrorists.
“Do you know why we like Israelis?” asked one Kurdish Peshmerga major over a glass of tea by a roaring fire near the frontlines in Shingal. “The fact that Israel helped us in the 1960s is just a tiny reason.
“We had many Jews in this region who lived with us, and we say that blood [ties] cannot be abandoned. We have the same issues. We both suffered a lot until Israel made their state; we also have many enemies around us.”
The major works with a de-mining team that clears 100 ISIS explosives a day, some of them in tunnels that the Kurds described as similar to Hamas infrastructure.
“We are struggling for our state. We also learned from an early time that Arabs are our enemy. There is a saying, even if an Arab is like gold in your pocket, make holes in the pocket and let it fall out. They cannot be trusted.”
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 17 was Kurdistan Flag Day. The flag of Kurdistan consists of bars of red, white and green with a yellow sun in the middle. These elements represent, respectively, the blood of Kurdish martyrs, the Kurdish landscape and freedom. The sun is an element found among Zoroastrianism, Chaldean Christians and Yazidis, and many will say it presents the diverse fabric and history of Kurdistan and its varying minorities.
It was adopted as the flag of the Kurdistan Regional Government in 1999, but its origins date back to Kurdish rebellions in Turkey in 1930 and Iran in 1946. Ironically, the place it now flies as the official flag is in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan region that functions basically as its own state.
That flag was ever-present driving north from Kirkuk via Duhok and then by the Syrian border to Shingal, a distance of about 450 kilometers along the borderlands of Kurdistan. The flags were draped along the roads, hanging from office buildings, pinned to people’s jackets, and worn around the necks of young women and men, representing a commitment to the dream of an independent state.
However, this unity faces many challenges in the months and years ahead. In an article at Medium.com, Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region Qubad Talabani wrote about his concerns: “Our region is in flux. War rages in Iraq and Syria and great powers gather like storm clouds on our borders. We could soon be witnessing tectonic shifts in geographic boundaries throughout the Middle East.”
Kirkuk is the first stop on the map of those changes. The city was founded in 2000 BCE and by the early 20th century was one of Iraq’s most diverse cities. It included small Assyrian Christian and Jewish minorities, with large numbers of ethnic Turkmens, Kurds and Arabs. There were Shi’a and Sunni Muslims.
The regime of Saddam Hussein sought to Arabize the city, which had become a center of oil production. As part of his overall assault on the Kurds in the 1980s – which saw thousands of villages damaged or destroyed and more than 100,000 Kurds killed – the city became 70 percent Arab. The US invasion helped reverse that trend, with Kurds returning to the city.
IRAQ DECLARED Kirkuk the “capital of culture” in 2010, but it was also a capital of violence, terrorism and kidnappings.
It remained disputed between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad governments, and a referendum was scheduled to take place to allow locals to decide who would control the city. The referendum was put on hold when ISIS swept through Iraq in 2014, capturing the Sunni Arab cities of Falluja, Tikrit and Mosul that June. Some thought Kirkuk would be next. The extremists came within 26 km. of the city.
With the enemy at the gates, the KRG’s military forces, called Peshmerga, rushed to meet the onslaught. In the city, the Kurdish security commanders, many of whom had trained with the Americans after 2003, began to hunt al-Qaida- and ISIS-linked terrorists. Overall, 271 police defenders and security men were killed fighting attacking terrorists. Their photos hang today in the security compound in the city, still surrounded by protective concrete walls.
Photos of the 271 police and security officers killed defending Kirkuk from terrorism over the last few years (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
In February, KRG President Masoud Barzani came here to promise that “we will all die” in defense of the city if necessary.
“Kirkuk will never fall to the enemy ever again, we will keep Kirkuk even if we have to withdraw forces from other areas.”
According to security officials, Kirkuk has numerous extremist groups besides ISIS threatening it. These include Ansar al-Sunna, Ansar al-Islam, Jeish Muhammed, Jaish al-Mujahideen and former al-Qaida and Ba’ath regime elements.
“We have sleeper cells. We try to capture them, but ISIS is the priority,” explained a security professional who asked not to be named.
Last year, any foreigner in the city would be in immediate danger, and officials stressed that the city is much safer now, and terrorism has been reduced.
While I was in Kirkuk, there were two operations that captured ISIS members on December 16 and 18, evidence that the threat is far from over. One hundred and twenty-two terrorists have been captured to date in 2015. The security officials, who provide protection for 500,000 residents in the district, have around 3,000 police and Asayish or Kurdish intelligence officers. The BBC called the job of the police chief of the city, Sarhad Qader, “the world’s toughest policing job” in 2014.
Leaving behind Kirkuk, we drive through the flat plains north of the city towards the front line positions opposite the village of Dubz. There is a Peshmerga checkpoint manned by two men with large mustaches. They are members of the Kaka’i minority, a religious group whose beliefs are close to Zoroastrianism.
They have joined the Kurdish forces in the war, a reminder of the stark contrast between ISIS’s Manichean view of the world, in which all non-Sunni Muslims are targeted for killing, and the Kurds, who have welcomed refugees and allies to the fight.
This is an oil-producing region and after 2003, the Americans and Iraqi government built dozens of squat concrete forts to guard the road and pipeline. Now those forts are abandoned, but a new line of positions has been built along a string of hillocks called the Batel ridge.
The name is fitting, since this is where a major battle with ISIS took place. In November 2014, after stemming the tide of the ISIS advance, the commanders gathered in a nondescript house not far from the front and spoke with Barzani and the representatives of the American-led coalition conducting air strikes on ISIS. The decision was to launch a series of offensives named Scorpion 1 through 3 between November 19, 2014 and September 2015.
Twenty thousand Peshmerga participated in these operations along 40 km. of front. The fighting was fierce, say commanders, sometimes with only 50 meters separating their forces.
The Kurdish commanders say their enemy consists of local Sunnis and volunteers, including some from China, who had come to support ISIS. They also noticed that the Arab tribes that the US trained in the “awakening” movement after 2005, called Harakat al-Sahwah al-Sunniyah, had come to support ISIS.
With inadequate weapons, the Peshmerga fought against ISIS suicide bombers, armored trucks and even remote- controlled rifles the enemy had rigged. Hundreds of ISIS fighters were killed. Since September the front line has remained unchanged and commanders await word from the KRG as to whether they should advance or not.
THE PESHMERGA agree that it is time for a Kurdish state. “Everyone should have their own state, Kurdistan for us, Sunnistan for the Sunni [Arabs] and Shiastan [for the Shi’a Arabs]. If one group is in power over the others there will not be justice, because they are not equal,” one commander said.
One of the most respected Peshmerga commanders on the front lines west of Kirkuk is a mustachioed man named Hussein Yazdanpana. When the Western media noticed he bore a resemblance to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, he became known abroad as “Kurdish Stalin.”
Vice-president of the Kurdistan Freedom Party, Yazdanpana is from East Kurdistan, what is called Rojhilate in Kurdish.
Kurdish explanations for the origins of the term Peshmerga, which means “those who face death,” are not always consistent.
One man told me the folkloric account that, when Kurds were rising in rebellion in Mahabad Iran in 1946, the intellectuals couldn’t agree what to call their armed forces. A man bringing tea came in and said “peshmerga,” and so it was.
Yazdanpana represents a long tradition of Kurdish struggle for freedom. His positions run along the string of Batel hills, with bunkers and firing points dug into the crest. Two mortars are situated behind sandbags. Women Peshmerga, who make up one-third of his unit, stand sentry duty, peering out into the hazy light and earthen hills. Somewhere out there is ISIS.
A mural celebrates the heroism of Peshmerga in the mountains near Amedy in northern Iraqi Kurdistan (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Coalition aircraft can be heard overhead.
Yazdanpana settles down in a plastic chair next to a Kurdish flag and a large oil drum that has been cut in half and welded to make a firepit. Tea is boiling, as it always is in Kurdistan. Next to Yazdanpana stands his deputy, a tall man with light features and sunglasses, with an orange- checkered keffiyeh around his neck and an M-16 with a light green barrel slung over his soldier. The man has only one arm; Yazdanpana says he lost the other to an ISIS mine. The PAK vice-president now launches into an animated discussion.
“Yes, we liberated these areas you see here. From October 2014 we began attacking ISIS; they were stronger then. To clean every meter we fought, and it was a tough fight. I want to say we got stronger, not that they got weaker.”
This is the point many Peshmerga make about ISIS – that it is not significantly weaker, but the Kurds have become a honed fighting force, here in northern Iraq, as they have in Syria’s Kurdish Rojava district.
These men and women are all volunteers, far from their homes. They zealously came to the fight.
“We are Kurdish, one nation divided into four parts, if you look at history going back 100 years ago. When one part of Kurdistan is in trouble, the others come to help. The Turks or Persians or Arabs cannot divide us,” Yazdanpana says. He says his fighters lack weapons and adequate pay, but they are resilient.
Two Kurdish Peshmerga pose for a photo at the frontline northwest of Mosul. Women fighters make up one-third of the Kurdistan Freedom Party’s forces (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
They fear Western rapprochement with Iran, and the rise of Shi’a militias in Iraq such as Hashd al-Sha’abi, which they describe as a threat now equivalent to ISIS.
In the city of Toz Khormato, south of Kirkuk, clashes broke out in November between Kurds and Shi’a Turkmens and resulted in deaths of Kurds. The Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) is prepared for the eventuality of struggling against Shi’a extremists, if they are called upon to do so by the KRG.
As we descend to the front line, a woman fighter hails us. Miryam Kirmashani has two children and says it is difficult being at the front line for 16 months on end.
But she’s proud of her service. Yazdanpana bids farewell, hoping for closer relations with Israel and the Jewish people in the future. For now he wants to end ISIS, which “poses a threat to the whole world.”
DRIVING NORTH through Erbil, the radio announces that US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has just arrived. In a press conference late on December 17 Carter says, “The Kurdish Peshmerga have been exactly what we have been looking for in this whole fight in Iraq and Syria, namely a capable and motivated force that we can enable.”
Carter described the Peshmerga as an effective fighting force and noted they had repelled an attack earlier in the day at Kaske. He commended the KRG for taking back Shingal city, called Sinjar in Arabic.
Kurds always ask for more Western weapons and Carter responded that more are on the way from 12 allied countries.
“Two brigades worth of equipment to be used to arm the two brigades that they will contribute to the encirclement of Mosul.”
The road to Duhok in northern Kurdistan is a long detour from what used to be the main highway. That highway runs to Mosul and is cut by ISIS forces and the front line. So one weaves through little villages, amidst hundreds of Turkish trucks that provide the economic lifeline of the KRG.
The war with ISIS cut off Kurdistan from Iraq. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, however, and this economic cutoff and the physical presence of ISIS occupying the Sunni Arab heartland means the Kurdish state has come into being de facto.
Barzani told Rudaw news, a major media outlet in Kurdistan, that he had asked party officials to work on a referendum for independence. The Kurds have endured difficult times to get to this point. In the 1990s after semi-liberation from Saddam, they carved out this autonomous region, but fought amongst each other in a three-way civil war between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the leading party of Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is based in Soleimania, and the PKK, a communist Kurdish guerrilla movement from Turkey.
This civil war ended in 1998, leaving thousands dead. After 2003 however, the PUK and KDP cooperated, with the PUK’s Jalal Talabani becoming president of Iraq, and Masoud Barzani becoming KRG president. The rise of ISIS united all these faction, but some wounds never heal.
The Kurdish groups in Rojava, in Syria, whose army is called the YPG, are closely connected to the PKK. Both these groups helped in saving Yazidi civilians during the attack by ISIS in August of 2014.
However, many Kurds aligned with the PDK describe the PKK as harming civilian life by occupying villages on the Turkish border in their fight against Turkey, and of exaggerating their role. Others complain that the YPG doesn’t allow KDP-aligned Peshmerga to operate in Syria, and accuse the YPG and PKK of being close to Iran.
Meanwhile, Kurdistan’s Barzani met with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara this month with the Kurdish flag standing sentry behind them, a symbolic gesture of recognition.
Flag politics play a role here. On Kurdish Flag Day, YPG forces were accused of hosing down KDP activists unfurling a giant Kurdish flag.
Barzani declared on November 13 – during the liberation of Shingal from ISIS – that only a Kurdish flag would fly over the city. Iraq’s central government was not coming back to these disputed areas, some tens of thousands of square kilometers.
ALTHOUGH THE road north from Erbil looks sub-standard for the amount of traffic, the two hours to Duhok, a pastoral city in a pretty valley, used to take 11 hours under Saddam Hussein. Vager Saadullah, a local journalist, notes that Hussein sought to develop the Kurdish region. He built stone forts that are visible everywhere in the mountains, yet the only roads he built were for his military to suppress the Kurds.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Hussein’s massacres hardened the Kurds. Almost all of the Kurdish commanders in the war on ISIS learned to fight against Hussein. A de-mining commander named Maj. Adel Sleman spent eight harrowing years in Saddam’s prisons, where he tattooed his own name in Latin letters on his arm (as opposed to Kurdish, which is often written in Arabic). Sarhad Qedar in Kirkuk has an old rifle on his wall he used against the Iraqis. Qasem Sheshu, the Yazidi commander who saved 20,000 people on Mount Shingal through his steadfast resistance in August, once assassinated a Saddam-era intelligence official.
After passing Duhok, the road makes a circuitous turn to the left, over the Tigris River. Nearby is the “border crossing” to Syria at Faysh Khabur, which requires a boat. The distance is not far, a hundred meters roughly, and the boats are small – almost wooden rafts. For a major border crossing, the simplicity is perplexing, a symbol of the fact that despite the Kurds having liberated much of eastern Syria from ISIS, and Kurds running northern Iraq’s KRG, there is little interplay between the two areas.
ABOVE THE Tigris, one enters the “dead zone,” the hundreds of square kilometers that ISIS conquered on August 3 using thousands of armored vehicles it captured from the Iraqi army. The ruler-straight road runs to the ruined city of Rabiah first, and then makes a beeline for Mount Shingal. Shingal is a long tan-hued range running east-west. On the other side of the mountain is the city of Shingal and the district where 300,000 Yazidis fled ISIS, and where thousands of women were sold into slavery and men buried in mass graves.
This road is protected by two regiments of Peshmerga from Rojava in Syria. Most of the Arab residents who supported ISIS in this area fled when the Kurds defeated the Islamists in December 2014 and took back Shingal Mountain and Rabiah. Only the Shammar tribe remains, a large tribe that did not collaborate, according to locals.
In one ruined Arab village, Lt.-Col. Sefar and his men have requisitioned a small house. A small stove with an improvised pipe running through a new hole in the wall keeps the men warm. Tea and fruits come on a plate. Sefar’s men grew up under Assad’s regime.
“We had no citizenship, no rights; we could not even speak Kurdish [in public official settings]. Many of us have no IDs, no citizenship.” These men are married and have families back home in Syria, or are living as refugees.
“In those days we couldn’t get a marriage license, we had to go through our local mullah [religious official].” They describe a poverty-stricken Rojava, broken by a war that still has Assad regime intelligence officials running it, despite the YPG.
“The YPG sells the homes of those who leave. They steal our belongings.” This reflects the profound distrust between two Kuridsh forces fighting the same war.
The Rojava Peshmerga run a quiet sector now, but last year they fought house-tohouse in Rojava in scenes like Stalingrad (if only they had Kurdish Stalin with them).
“ISIS was stronger in the beginning; we couldn’t stop their armored vehicles, but we thank the US and German governments and others who gave us weapons, and we are more powerful now.” As in Kirkuk, these men fear that the local Arabs may have ISIS sleeper cells among them.
“Those Arabs who fled with ISIS will not come back; their hands are dirty, we will not allow it,” says one of the officers in the regiment. These were some of the first men to encounter the massacred bodies of Yazidi civilians.
“I personally saw 74 dead in a mass grave,” says one fighter. “It is a genocide.”
They describe killing ISIS foreign fighters from as far away as China and Nigeria.
“We don’t know what comes next. We are awaiting orders from our leaders. We would like to go back to Syria.”
THE ROAD of death continues through the town of Snune, once a pretty Yazidi town, now battered and all but deserted.
Onward it climbs past the Yazidi Sharfadin shrine, and up through Mount Shingal.
Here on the left side are giant murals of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and a graveyard for its fighters who died fighting ISIS in 2014. In the mountain, 20,000 Yazidi refugees in tents huddle against the cold.
Many thousands have signed up for the Peshmerga now, to take the fight to the enemy.
On the other side of the mountain, at the approach to the gutted, ruined city of Shingal, once home to 80,000, but now deserted, we camped with Maj. Sleman’s de-mining unit. The warm fire and tea give off heat. Soldiers with bright flashlights keep watch for ISIS troops creeping up in the dark. An AK-47 rests by my chair. The men are cheerful, clearing TNT and improvised explosive devices every day in a mission they refer to as “suicidal.” But like so many Kurds, they take action for patriotic reasons. Pay is late, but they will go out every day and into the ISIS tunnels to save lives.
“This generation will be tougher than us,” says Maj. Sleman, “they know what we suffered under Saddam Hussein, and to prevent a new [kind of] Ba’ath regime they have fought ISIS.”
The morning in Shingal brings to light the extent of the destruction. Some Shi’a Kurdish houses are intact, but much of the city is ruined. ISIS graffiti still dots buildings, as well as the “Sunni” tags they left when deciding which shops to burn.
Several kilometers west of the city, bulldozers are still carving out berms for the new front line with ISIS. Peshmerga have taken a strategic crossroad. Now they are digging in to positions reminiscent of World War I times. ISIS attacks in the fog, with armored trucks that look more like a Mad Max movie with zombies than a war.
It is 1915-era tactics versus post-apocalyptic 2015 tactics.
Capt. Majid Hamid from Zakho looks like a cheerful American from Idaho. He used to serve in the Iraqi army, but left when ISIS attacked to fight alongside his people.
“The Iraqi army were cowards; we were worried they would shoot us in the back because we are Kurds.” In the distance, the percussion of air strikes can be heard. He says his unit has good coordination with the coalition aircraft. At the front line, peering into the distance, a burly man named Saleh Ali is cheerful. A Kurd, he came back from the UK to fight with the Peshmerga.
“I wanted to defend my land,” he says.
From Kirkuk to Shingal, the Peshmerga have thrown up a defensive wall around Kurdistan. They have brought in minority groups, like the tens of thousands of Christians from Mosul who now live in Erbil, or the Yazidis.
Everyone interviewed agreed that Kurdistan should be an independent state.
There was no going back to Iraq. Sheikh Nasser Pasha, a KDP Yazidi political leader in Shingal, said his people could never trust the Arabs here who supported ISIS.
“We want a big wall, like Israel has, between us and them. If Kurdistan has a good economy, we can build that, and return to these lands.” Field of bones
‘They killed old women, men and children here. They blindfolded them and shot them with bullets from AK-47s and M-16s.”
Sheikh Nasser Pasha holds up a pair of rusty bullet casings he has plucked from a mound of dirt. Sheikh Nasser was one of those Yazidi men who went to Mount Shingal, which overlooks a long flat plain in northern Iraq. A member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, for the last month he has been working to uncover mass graves of Yazidi people murdered by Islamic State in August 2014.
It’s one thing to talk about “mass graves” – to say the words over and over again until they have no meaning. But actually looking at them is a disturbing, traumatic experience.
To get to the graves, we drive out in Sheikh Nasser’s pickup truck, with an armed Peshmerga soldier standing in the back keeping watch. The front line of the war, with Islamic State behind it, is close by.
This is a beautiful landscape, framed by the majestic long Mount Shingal range.
But now the area feels like a “cancer,” says Nasser. Three hundred thousand Yazidi people are refugees, 3,600 captive women are being tortured as sex slaves by Islamic State, and more than 1,000 men and elderly women were gunned down.
After crossing a stepped earthen berm, we come to an ordinary field of sparse grass. To most of us it wouldn’t look abnormal.
But a close look at a mound of earth reveals the horror. Bones, dry and bleached in the sun, stick out from the ground.
“After they were killed, they were buried with a bulldozer, but dogs dug up the bones and rains washed [the dirt away].”
Women’s clothing pokes from the ground. One sees blindfolds, a human skull with a bullet hole in it. A protruding jawbone is positioned disturbingly next to a purple soccer jersey that a teenager might have worn. Sheikh Nasser points out matted hair – human hair from a woman – twisted between rocks.
To come face-to-face with genocide is incomprehensible, unimaginable. Sickening.
My parents told me “never again.”
They lectured us in university about human rights. But it was a lie. In my lifetime we sat through genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, genocide in Darfur. Islamic State broadcasts its mass killings on social media and its members brag of selling women on Twitter.
Here in the killing fields of Shingal, the bones of those killed a year and a half ago lie in plain sight on the surface.
The clothes people wore is there. Iraqi ID badges have been recovered.
Yet no international investigators are here. No NGOs are working here to protect the human remains. The world is silent again. These lives could have been saved. Witnessing the quantity of bones arouses anger and rage. How could the Western powers, with all their technology, all their drones, their EU parliaments and courts of human rights and international criminal courts, do nothing? What kind of people are these Islamic State members who lined up elderly women they deemed to old to sell or rape, and shot them in the back of the head? It was an attempt to exterminate a community, a genocide in our time.
Seventeen mass graves have been discovered so far, south of Shingal and two north of the mountain. Sheikh Nasser says he expects to find more than 20 additional sites.
The uncovering of the depredations of Islamic State has only begun.