The city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan lies in a valley surrounded by a picturesque mountain range. While the intense Iraqi sun is as hot there as in the low-lying regional capital of Erbil, the mountains provide a distraction, a beautiful landscape that adds to this northern Kurdish city’s charms.
Twenty years ago, it was a small village with few amenities. Today it is a tourist attraction for Kurds, other Iraqis and Middle Eastern Arabs, with first-rate hotels, charming restaurants, open picnic spaces for families and a small theme park near the Dohuk Dam, complemented by cascading waterfalls at the bottom of an expansive mountain range. The city has grown by leaps and bounds.
So when Islamic State began its offensive last year, sweeping south from the Syrian border and gaining footholds in major Iraqi cities, the people of Dohuk became frightened as the extremists appeared to close in. Many were packing their belongings and preparing to flee.
But Vager Saadullah, a political journalist, was tired of running. A refugee since the age of two, he fled with his family from Nerwe, a small village in northern Iraq, to escape Saddam Hussein’s campaign of genocide against the Kurds. His family spent four years in refugee housing in Turkey before coming to Dohuk.
Saadullah made the decision that he would stay and fight. He had a rifle from his father, a veteran Peshmerga fighter on behalf of Iraqi Kurdistan, and prepared to become a sniper – with little to no training. But that wasn’t all: He didn’t want anyone to leave, and decided to organize a rally and party in the streets of Dohuk to increase morale.
“We had thousands of people come,” he recalled – and in the end, Islamic State never arrived.
A Peshmerga soldier surveys the front line with Islamic State, at the Christian village of Talesskef, Iraqi-Kurdistan.
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)FOR MANY
Kurds, the current state of autonomy in Iraq is one part in a long history of struggle for independence.
Today, Kurdish flags flutter throughout the countryside and cities; they adorn stores and uniforms. But in neighboring Syria, Turkey and Iran, the same flag has often been banned.
Whereas in Syria and Turkey, Kurds have been fighting just for the right to speak their language at official events or in school, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the national language and the dream of an independent state are slowly being realized.
Throughout history, the Kurds suffered a series of betrayals and false hopes. They often say, “We have no friends but the mountains” – a reference to the number of times they’ve had to escape from onslaught, abandoned by the international community.
In the late 1920s, a short-lived republic in eastern Turkey was crushed by the Turkish army, and 1946-1947 saw the defeat of a Kurdish independence movement centered in Mahabad, Iran. In the 1960s and ’70s, Kurds in Iraq gained some autonomy under Saddam, only to find themselves sold out in a 1975 agreement that Baghdad signed with Tehran in Algiers.
Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the father of the Iraqi Kurdistan’s current president, Masoud Barzani, sent a letter at the time to US secretary of state Henry Kissinger asking for help against Iraq.
“Our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way, with silence from everyone. We feel that the US has a moral and political responsibility towards our people, who have committed themselves to your country’s policy,” he wrote. But they were greeted with silence from Washington, a fact many blame on Kissinger personally.
Driving in the region of Dohuk, one can see old, square concrete fortresses constructed during the Saddam era to oversee the suppression of the Kurds. Not only did Saddam embark on a genocide in the late 1980s that killed 180,000 Kurds and created a million refugees, he also kept the area poor and underdeveloped.
One of our escorts, cradling a long-barreled Soviet-era Dragunov sniper rifle with a soft wooden stock, is named for his father, who was killed by Saddam’s army. “I lost 33 members of my family,” he reveals. “My life is serving in the Peshmerga.”
Sardar Karim, the deputy-general of the Peshmerga division in Talesskef – a Christian village north of Mosul – says that most of his commanders are veterans of the war against Saddam.
“In those days, in the mountains, we were alone,” he recounts.
But they came down from the mountains, and in 1992, they elected the first parliament in Kurdistan.
Rival politicians Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Masoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party are the two most popular leaders.
A former minister in the Kurdish regional government, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issues involved, recalls that since the 1990s, Iraqi-Kurds have set their sights on self-determination.
“Our understanding for our assessment in 1992 was to have federal Iraq with a region of Kurdistan. We followed that. Now, we have a problem with the budget and recognizing the Peshmerga as part of the defense system in Iraq; we have disputed areas. We must go to parliament and have a referendum. According to the result, [we must] then deal with the government and international community.”
The government’s intention now is to hold regional elections in August and to write a regional constitution that would be completed in September.
The stability afforded to the regional government in Erbil to complete these tasks may be attributed to an ironic turn of events due to the emergence of Islamic State. By cutting the Kurds off from the rest of Iraq, which has fallen into chaos and mass killings, Kurdistan has emerged from the storm stronger than before.
To understand how it happened, one must go back to the 2003 US invasion, which empowered the Kurds.
When the Iraqi central government under Nouri al-Maliki, between 2006 and 2014, became increasingly weakened while suppressing the Sunnis, the Kurds saw that sectarian violence between the Sunnis and Shi’ites would destabilize Iraq.
“Maliki began misusing his power and tried to stop the Kurdish people [from realizing our aspirations], which was a major mistake,” recalls the former minister.
“The government had a responsibility to protect the borders and security; it was impossible to be loyal to Maliki. So we tried to change the power in Baghdad...
we wanted a country of all its citizens, not dominated by an ethnic group.”
As Iraqi security deteriorated in 2014, only the Kurdish region remained at peace. Then an unexpected enemy from the north appeared at the gates.
“We went to sleep on June 9, 2014,” the minister says slowly, “and we woke up with a new neighbor called Daesh [Islamic State]. They had conquered 150 km. of the border, and only 30 km. remained to us. For us, it was economically and politically disastrous. We were not prepared for this, and it was embarrassing for the Peshmerga forces.”
When Islamic State first appeared, there was a dispute in the divided Kurdish political system over the best course of action. Even today, Peshmerga forces are divided between the political parties. Some politicians advocated a sort of peaceful coexistence with Islamic State, allowing the group to conquer Sunni areas as long as they didn’t bother the Kurds; others demanded action, to strike the group while it was weak.
But on August 3, Islamic State struck toward the Kurdish areas, overrunning Mount Sinjar, Mosul, Suman and Kuwayr, and taking the Mosul dam near Dohuk.
Thousands of Yazidi women were kidnapped as their men were slaughtered, and the group imposed its radical Islamist ideology on the people.
The Peshmerga forces were shocked. Dep.-Gen. Sardar Karim, who now holds the front at the retaken village of Talesskef, recounts the army’s surprise.
“We had a shortage of weapons against armored vehicles, and we lost many places – even this place we lost in August and other villages. In those days, [Masoud] Barzani came to the front, and he became a commander and stood with the men on the front and reorganized them to fight... he knew the Islamic State tactics and taught us to stand against them. He told us, ‘Even if I die fighting here, I will not leave this position,’ and the morale increased.”
Since August 17, the Peshmerga began to push the enemy back.
front line in the small abandoned Christian village of Talesskef, Peshmerga fighters peer through a sandbag fortification in the direction of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city – which, since August 2014, has been under the control of Islamic State.
One can see for miles on the flat landscape; it’s a parched day, around 32 degrees centigrade. The Kurds have erected an earthen berm stretching into the distance and dug their positions into it, with a makeshift area for cooking or sleeping in some areas. They’ve sandbagged parapets and placed DShK .50-caliber heavy machine guns, often called “Dushka,” at some locations.
The large gun mounted on a tripod comes up to chest-height and peers menacingly out in the distance. There is a kind of World War I feel to this front line.
Looking out from their fortifications, the soldiers tune their radios to the frequency the Islamic State fighters use, and listen in on their broadcasts. The enemy’s position, about 3 km. south, is obscured by the black smoke of burning tires. But the Peshmerga are nonplussed. They fire off a round from their Russian DShK in spite.
The troops mainly deal with sporadic mortar fire; the last significant attack happened one day in this past April. Two Islamic State fighters clothed in black were killed on their approach to Peshmerga positions at 4 a.m.; the dead men were wearing suicide vests, but didn’t have the opportunity to detonate themselves.
They were carrying a homemade ladder to scale the berm. The man who shot the extremists proudly shows off his Soviet-era Russian-made AK-47.
Since the Peshmerga retook this position a year ago, this line has not moved. The entire front stretches nearly 1,000 km., with the heaviest fighting taking place closer to Kirkuk. Men spend about 20 days at guard posts and have 10 days’ leave. This is just one small unit of over 200,000 Peshmerga currently arrayed against Islamic State.
The men of today’s Peshmerga are not young teenagers; they are an older fighting force. Many got their start in the ’90s during the uprising against Saddam, and even older men come to volunteer at the front, their experience dating from the ’70s and ’80s. Although they are supposed to be paid around $500 a month, some are not paid for months on end because the Baghdad-based federal government does not distribute oil revenues to Erbil.
They are here at the front because of a clearly deep brotherly bond among the men (and it is mostly men; the number of Kurdish female fighters is relatively low). When they are on leave, if they hear their unit has been attacked, many say they leave their families immediately to return to the fight. They rush their limited resources, such as antitank missiles, from location to location wherever the enemy appears.
A war mantra that is often repeated is that Islamic State fights to die, while the Peshmerga fight to live.
Jerusalem Post reporters Seth J. Frantzman and Laura Kelly At the Lalish Yazidi Temple in Iraqi-Kurdistan (photo credit: Laura Kelly)
The irony is that for a force that gives us one of today’s best examples of cohesion, discipline and honor in the face of what they call “the most brutal enemy,” the men are forced to buy their own uniforms at military surplus stores in Erbil, coming back with a smorgasbord of camouflage patterns – including US Army T-shirts (with US Army and American flag badges worn with pride), and interchangeable insignia badges attached with velcro. There’s no standardized footwear, so US Army-issue military boots and Adidas indoor soccer shoes are equally acceptable.
Some older men prefer the traditional Kurdish baggy pants. One man at a front-line outpost sports a cowboy hat.
GEN. TARIQ HARNI
is the commander of the unit that liberated Talesskef on August 17. A stocky man, his hair is cropped close and graying on the sides. He is a 25- year veteran of the Peshmerga, having joined during Saddam’s genocide campaign against the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war in the ’80s and ’90s.
He says the morale of the men is good on this front, and that it needs to be high so they can try and fight with the weapons they have – rudimentary old Soviet AKs and any weapons they capture from Islamic State.
Harni makes two main points very clear: One, the Peshmerga need more and advanced weapon systems, such as the MILAN antitank missile. Second, the Iraqi army is the worst army in the world.
It is a running joke among the commanders that the US indirectly arms the Kurds. The Americans give advanced, expensive weaponry and supplies to the Iraqi army. In several cases, Islamic State has captured depots fully stocked with modern American military equipment and thousands of Humvees abandoned by the Iraqis. Then, when the Kurds defeat Islamic State, they “steal them back.”
In the front yard of one of the homes in the abandoned Christian village – where the Peshmerga have established their military base – sits a rare, black armored Humvee, the cratered glass of a bullet hole on the rear passenger window. It was captured in the battle of the Mosul dam. Nearby, an M-4 carbine rifle rests on a plastic chair.
In Kurdistan, a gun like this costs $8,000, but one of these men got it for free, retaking it from Islamic State.
Even so, it is a luxury item, since ammo for it is in short supply.
There are rumors that the Americans are directly arming the Peshmerga, but officially, there is a dearth of advanced weaponry among the Kurds.
“If there is a battle, the men at the front are calling their friends at nearby fronts, not for extra manpower, but for more ammunition, more weapons,” explains one fighter.
Harni speaks assuredly and clearly, but maintains a sense of humor. The men have adjusted to the lack of night-vision goggles, he jokes; they see in the dark now. His men, chewing on a fruit spread their colleagues have provided, laugh and concur.
He holds court among a handful of colonels, captains and veteran Peshmerga in the salon of a Christian family’s home, which the inhabitants fled when Islamic State came to town.
“The enemy is worse and giving up,” he asserts.
In six months, this section of the front has lost six men, and estimates that its forces have killed around 40 Islamic State fighters. These estimates are what they’ve taken from the field. Some of the bodies of the Islamic State men still lie not far from their earthen perimeter, burned after being killed in battle as reminders to the young Islamic State zealots – many of them from abroad – that the Peshmerga are prepared to welcome them to their fate.
The soldiers gather intelligence from the bodies they’ve searched in the no-man’s-land of fighting, or from undetonated suicide vests.
“They looked like foreigners, but they didn’t have any passports on them,” the general says, responding to the phenomenon of foreigners coming to fight with the Islamist group.
There is an extreme contrast here between these opponents – the men from abroad who come to kill, and these middle-aged men with families back home, fighting to defend Christians, Yazidis and Kurds.
“We are ready to die for our lands,” pledges one of the officers.
There is a mistaken perception that the Peshmerga need foreign volunteers. While that might be the case for neighboring Syria’s Kurdish forces, these units have enough men – though they stress again and again that they lack weapons. The most important weapons the Kurds need are antitank missiles and armored vehicles, the Russian DShK and the French MILAN antitank guided missile.
“MILAN... just give us MILAN,” seems to be on the lips of every fighter, as they cradle their AKs and sip from a seemingly endless supply of rich Kurdish tea.
established military base in Talesskef, Dep.- Gen. Karim enters an informal seating area wearing his uniform and sandals. He places his things on a plastic table set up in front of his chair: a jet-black Walther 9-mm. pistol, slim cigarettes and his cellphone.
We’re sitting under a makeshift canopy of plastic thatching in a gravel courtyard. Sandbags are stacked on top of the cement garden wall and sparse plants still sprout from the earth, planted by the family who used to live here.
The residents of this Christian village fled when Islamic State invaded last year. Some of the villagers came back to retrieve their belongings, but the village is empty of civilians now that the Peshmerga use it as a their local headquarters. A Christian militia called the Nineveh Plains Forces has set up several houses down, under the tutelage of the Peshmerga, and consists of residents of the village who have returned to help guard it.
Karim sits down and offers us cigarettes. Sugary tea – a staple in Kurdish culture – is already on the table.
“Most of our high-ranking commanders today fought against previous regimes,” he details. “After we came down from the mountains, we developed a new division within the Peshmerga that include four brigades with more than 1,200 [fighters] in each.”
Fighting in the mountains was difficult, Karim continues – even more so because Saddam was supported by Arab and Western countries. He reminisces about the difficulties his men faced against the advanced weaponry and poison gas. But Saddam still failed to kill the spirit of the Peshmerga, Karim points out; their morale stayed strong, and their belief in freedom never waned.
This still applies today. The Kurds face off against Islamic State’s modern weapons with a paucity of RPG’s and a few decaying DShKs. It is because of the tens of thousands of volunteers on the front that life in Erbil and Dohuk is like normal, with glistening malls, theaters showing American Sniper, kids playing in water parks and men playing local games and smoking nargila.
The city center of Erbil, capital of Iraqi-Kurdistan.
(photo credit: Laura Kelly)
They may be only 50 km. from Islamic State, the most feared extremists in the world, but as one American living in Erbil noted, “There is a wall of Peshmerga between Islamic State and Kurdish civilians.”
Karim emphasizes that Islamic State is not just a Kurdish issue, but one in which the entire world needs to be involved.
He says that extremists from all over the world are coming to this region, becoming more radicalized. If the Kurds fall, he warns, the Western countries will be next.
“It’s not a Kurdish problem,” he stresses, “it’s an international problem.”
speaks rudimentary Kurdish. The 34-year-old Christian nurse from Germany has been in Dohuk for the last couple of weeks, working with the Christian-Israeli organization Shevet Achim, which identifies children with high-risk cardiac diseases and transfers them to Israel for free medical care.
She banters easily with Ramzi Masir, the father of one of Shevet Achim’s patients, at their comfortable Dohuk home.
“It’s like a father speaking to a child, it’s not proper language, but he understands what I’m trying to say,” she says.
Zellweger has gotten close with the Masir family since their daughter Shana started benefiting from the organization. Shana was diagnosed with a severe heart condition at a young age and required multiple treatments unavailable in local facilities. Another family, the Mikaeels, are visiting with the Masirs, having met them in Israel when their son Rayan was heading there for his treatment.
Both Jibraeel Mikaeel and Masir are Peshmerga. They serve in front-line positions in some of the worst areas, and have witnessed a lot of fighting.
Like their colleagues near Mosul, they agree, “Just give us better weapons, give us antitank rounds, and we will make short work of Islamic State.”
Masir fondly recalls the Jewish history of Kurdistan, asserting that his own family may have Jewish roots.
“We appreciate the help from Israel and these organizations; through them we got back our children’s lives. When we were in Israel, I remember people treating us like we were in our home,” remembers Masir.
It is a reminder of the rich cultural history of Jews in Kurdistan, most of whom fled to the Jewish state in the 1940s and ’50s. But in bookstores in Erbil, you can find tomes about the history of the country’s Jews.
Unlike most other parts of the Middle East, which are rife with anti-Semitism, there is a cultural memory of what Kurdistan lost when the Jews left.
In the Peshmerga, many of the older men have fond memories of Israel’s support for their cause in the 1960s and ’70s. Fighters would fly to Israel for military training via Iran in the days when Israel had relations with the Persian country. Many others received similar training from Israelis in the Kurdish mountains; some even stayed to fight with them.
Saadalah, the political journalist, whose uncle trained in Israel, tells the story of a Kurdish politician criticized for having a photo on Facebook showing him with Israelis.
“‘Yes, I put it on my own Facebook account, so what?’” Saadalah quotes him as saying.
Israeli politicians have been more outspoken. In June of last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated clearly that he supported Kurdish independence. On June 8, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked averred, “The Jewish and Kurdish nations share a history.”
Yet for Kurdish political leaders, it is more difficult.
Privately, they speak of support for Israel or wanting closer economic and military ties; publicly, they want a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Politicians think Netanyahu is a “harsh man,” while many speak of former president Shimon Peres with admiration.
When it comes to anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish views; however, they are adamantly against them. Kurdistan portrays itself as a haven in the region for minorities. It has taken in 1.7 million refugees, including Arab Christians, Yazidis and other, smaller minorities. Churches dot the landscape in Erbil and Dohuk, and beer is openly sold in shops in Christian areas. The call to prayer is reserved and quiet; religion is a private matter.
But the Jewish history of the region is not well preserved. The tomb of Nabi Nahum in al-Qush is in ruins.
Jewish quarters of major cities like Erbil or Zakho, where Jews were once a majority, are in ruins, according to a local professor, and there is no easy way to find old synagogues or sites.
On the front lines, the fighters admire Israel’s abilities.
“Israelis and Americans are like our cousins,” Gen. Harni says. “Israel is brave and fought all this time against the enemy. They are in an everyday war, and they are like us since 1948; we were fighting even before the creation of Israel.”
Today, the Kurds are still fighting – on one front, against Islamic State, and on another, toward their hopes and dreams for an independent Kurdistan that will free them from the chaos of Iraq.This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine.