ISIS attack on Kurds raises alarm in Iraq

The Peshmerga have been fighting ISIS for seven years and lost thousands of fighters.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces take part in their graduation ceremony at a military camp in Erbil, Iraq, August 21, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/AZAD LASHKARI)
Kurdish Peshmerga forces take part in their graduation ceremony at a military camp in Erbil, Iraq, August 21, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AZAD LASHKARI)

Prime Minister of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government Masrour Barzani visited an area near the frontline against ISIS to meet with a family that lost three sons to an ISIS attack last week. The tragedy is the latest to befall the Kurdish region. The region is also helping repatriate thousands of stranded Kurds who ended up in Belarus, dying in the freezing cold trying to reach Europe. It also comes after Kurdish families died in the English Channel, another brutal tragedy that has seen families mourn daughters and sons.  

Barzani hugged the families of the fallen and praised their sacrifice. He said that the difficult sacrifices keep the Kurdish cause alive. “To our Peshmerga heroes, you make us proud. We stand with you and will continue to support you,” he said. “I’m humbled to be in Makhmour to visit the Peshmerga frontlines and mourn with the family of the three martyrs lost in last night's attack by ISIS. I conveyed my deepest sympathies to the mother in particular.” 

The Peshmerga are the Kurdish defense forces of the autonomous region. They have been fighting ISIS for seven years and lost thousands of fighters along a frontline that once stretched almost 1,000 kilometers. Today ISIS is largely defeated but it is still a danger. One area where it is particularly pernicious is in an area that stretches south of Mosul below a ridge called Qarachokh mountain. The ISIS members exploit gaps in control that exist between the Peshmerga and Iraqi federal forces and Iranian-backed militias in this area.  

To understand how this works, one must understand that back in September, 2017, the Kurdish region had an independence referendum. The people overwhelmingly backed independence, but the government of Iraq was led by the western-backed Haider Abadi. He conspired with Iran’s Qasem Soleimani and Shi’ite militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis to retake Kirkuk from the Kurds. In October, 2017, this plan was set in motion, apparently with approval of the Trump administration who preferred a strong Abadi and believed he needed a “win” over the Kurds, even though the Kurds were closer to the US as partners. October ended in the conquest of Kirkuk by federal forces and Iranian-backed militias. Around two years later, those militias would end up attacking US forces and the US, also under Trump, ordered an airstrike to kill Soleimani and Muhandis as they met near Baghdad airport.  

The Kurdish region has had difficulties securing areas between its areas of control and the Iraqi forces. This isn’t helped by the fact the Iranian-backed militias infiltrated Nineveh plains around Mosul and have fired rockets at Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region. US-led Coalition members used to help coordinate between both sides, between large Iraqi infantry divisions and the Peshmerga. The Security Force Assistance Brigade teams and other methods were supposed to help units based near Qarachokh, like at the Black Tiger Camp, to stop ISIS threats.  

A group of Iranian Kurdish women, who have joined Kurdish peshmerga fighters, take part in a training session in a military camp in Erbil, Iraq July 9, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/AKO RASHEED)A group of Iranian Kurdish women, who have joined Kurdish peshmerga fighters, take part in a training session in a military camp in Erbil, Iraq July 9, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/AKO RASHEED)

For instance, in the fall of 2020, Sirwan Barzani, commander of the area wrote that he “welcomed Col. Samuel, Commander of French Forces in Iraq and Kurdistan, to Black Tiger Camp. We discussed the latest security situation of the area. We also talked about our commitment to face terrorism and the cooperation between Coalition Forces, Iraqi Army, and Peshmerga.” 

Unfortunately, the latest attack shows that the ISIS threats continue. The US has transitioned to a non-combat role in Iraq, and Coalition forces have been drawn down or moved to bases near Erbil after the Iranian militia threats of 2019 and the pandemic of 2020. This poses a challenge. Iraq’s recent elections and other controversies, including an attack on Iraq’s Prime Minister using drones by one of the Iranian-backed militias, mean that Baghdad has difficulty concentrating on ISIS as well as providing security for its own leadership. The Kurds must face ISIS now near Makhmour and the Qarachokh mountain. But there are other problems as well. Turkey has carried out airstrikes near Makhmour, claiming to be targeting the left wing Kurdistan Workers Party, while the Iranian-backed militias have threatened a Turkish base near Bashiqa, northwest of Erbil. This means that the complex problem facing the Kurdistan region is not just ISIS but also Iran, Turkey and other countries in the region that have tensions with one another.