PESHMERGA FIGHTERS stand guard at a checkpoint near Mosul Dam on the Tigris River in Kurdistan. .
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
MOSUL DAM – ‘We had mortars from ISIS falling here last week,’ says Col. Delshad Mawlud. Driving through a checkpoint 35 km. from Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish peshmerga check the cars carefully.
Peshmerga are the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Not far in the distance is the front line against Islamic State. “In some places the enemy is only 500 meters away from the line,” says the colonel.
The Kurds have been fighting ISIS for almost two years.
The scars of that war have not healed on the Nineveh Plain. There are peshmerga checkpoints and military vehicles. There are burned out cars still, pushed back from the road. The route road from the city of Duhok to Mosul has been blocked at one point by an earthen berm that forces vehicles to zig-zag.
Signs still tell people how to drive to Mosul, even though the city has been occupied by the extremists for two years. But life is still going on here. Trucks laden with tomatoes ply a newly paved road that leads south toward the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
Some road signs even claim there are electronic monitors for speeding.
Yazidi and Christian civilians live in villages marked by churches and temples. In the distance fires from ISIS positions burn, a tactic used to obscure them from coalition air strikes.
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Two years into their war against the extremists, Kurds are receiving more inter-sectional support. The US signed an agreement this week to provide direct military support to the peshmerga and the Canadian defense minister arrived Tuesday for meetings and to show support for the war effort.
“The situation is better now in terms of weapons [support], but it is not enough,” says Col. Mawlud. “We are fighting ISIS for the whole world.”
For men like Mawlud the war on ISIS came as a surprise, but was also part of a history of suffering at the hands of outside enemies. He lost his father and grandfather to Saddam Hussein’s regime. “Saddam and ISIS are almost the same, they invaded our land and buried our people alive and harmed our people. ISIS does the same. They destroyed our villages and took our properties,” recalls Mawlud.
Every village in this area has its murals and statues commemorating Kurds who fell in the conflicts against ISIS and before.
The war against ISIS and Saddam Hussein also unites Kurds with Israel’s struggles against similar foes. Saddam gassed the Kurds, and rained Scud missiles on Israel. “Israel is a free country and optimistic and very positive about yourselves and your country and I am sure it can do a lot to combat terrorism, because Israel is the main anti-terrorist country. They call for peace, stable and secure life. We see Israel as a huge country and important for us,” says the colonel.
At thirty-nine he recalls the old days when many Jews lived in Kurdistan.
“And its not recent relations, we have a blood relation. We have a common cause and share many qualities. We face the same problems. Others did many things to us but, thanks for God that Israel is a strong country and it has defeated its enemies, hopefully like us.”
There is a deep admiration for Israel’s independence among many of the Kurdish fighters. “We think Israel is our closest friend in this struggle,” said one of the peshmerga we met.
Whether it is the struggle against terrorism or the support for having women serving alongside men in the armed forces, they see many similarities.
There is a deep affinity among Kurds for Jewish history and some tell tales of intertwined struggles dating back to the time of the Persian empire.
Today the fight is against ISIS and Kurds feel the weight of the world has been on their shoulders for a long time. “Peshmerga is fighting terrorists for the whole world, wherever they exist. We are stopping ISIS from spreading the threat – we are stopping them here so it doesn’t spread to the world,” says Mawlud.
He also stresses that it is important that people not mistake the crimes of ISIS for Islam. “Whatever they do to Yazidis, Christians or Muslims, the most important thing is being human. What they do is not Islam, what they do [makes] Islam a bad image.”
Driving from Mosul Dam back toward the front lines against the extremists, one can see a small Christian village whose residents were forced to flee by ISIS in August 2014.
On the hill is a mosque. Further on, past the checkpoints and on a road the leads parallel to the front line are small Yazidi villages with their little conical concrete and masonry temples and religious sites dotting the landscape.
ISIS tried to exterminate all this diversity. Today the peshmerga have pushed ISIS back, and they are successfully repelling attacks of suicide fighters and mortar shelling. This war is far from over, but it has carved the Kurds into a strong and effective fighting force for a country seeking independence in a region that has been plunged into chaos.
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