Middle East: Blood and fire on the Nineveh plains

Kurds do not forget the times of hardship; they know what is at stake here in northern Iraq.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces.  (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
‘Are you going to Bashiqa?” I asked a tall Kurdish man who was wearing glasses. He was resting next to a DShK, a heavy machine gun, mounted on the back of a truck. The sun was going down, and it glinted off the newly made metal shield attached to the swivel of the large gun.
He assured me that his unit of Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) fighters were going there. They were Iranian Kurds who had fled the ayatollahs and joined the fight against ISIS.
It was a bit of a miscommunication. Bashiqa refers to a large town that was controlled by Islamic State, but for two years it has also often referred to the front line above the town, where Kurdish forces have stood, resisting the enemy. To take a ride to “Bashiqa” meant the front line base camp; no one would go to Islamic State territory, obviously.
I wanted to get to the base camp to sleep after a long day at the front; the Kurdish fighter and his men wanted to go out at night to attack the town itself. In the end, neither of us got what we wanted. The PAK had suffered casualties, and the offensive was slowed by Islamic State resistance.
They would sleep here, next to their vehicles, awaiting orders for the morning. I walked up to another group of Peshmerga and curled up on the cold, hard dirt.
A middle-aged man gave me a blanket. Gunfire and artillery strikes reverberated in the background. It was October 20, the fourth day of the Mosul offensive.
The Kurds have been fighting for generations against outsiders like Islamic State. Here in northern Iraq they fought Saddam Hussein and his attempt at genocide in the 1980s.
In the 1990s they carved out an autonomous region that eventually became today’s Kurdistan Regional Government. In the glistening cities of Dohuk, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, they’ve created a modern, functioning, democratic mini-state. Around 20% of the Kurdish people live here in the KRG, estimated at around seven million.
In the last two years, as Islamic State swept into Mosul and brought war and mass murder to the plains of Nineveh province northwest of Erbil, the Kurdistan region has come to host more than 1.5 million refugees from the fighting. Many of these are Sunni Arabs, with sizable numbers of Christian Assyrians, Yazidis, Shabak and Kakei minorities.
This is a burden economically, but it is also a turn of events that would not have been predicted. Here is Kurdistan as a stable area of the region hosting the same Sunni Arabs who not so long ago supported Saddam’s policy to “cleanse” Kurds from places like Mosul, Kirkuk and Nineveh. But history changes, the persecuted become the strong, the once strong become the weak.
The war against Islamic State is a war of symbols.
Islamic State sold women into slavery, whereas women serve in the Kurdish Peshmerga to fight Islamic State.
Islamic State blows up minorities’ houses of worship and demolishes archeological treasures from the pre-Islamic era. In the Kurdish region churches and Yazidi temples dot the landscape, and people have respect for the ancient, diverse traditions, such as Zaroastrianism, of this region. Islamic State members came to Iraq to die, many of them from foreign countries, including more than 5,000 EU citizens. Kurdish fighters go to the front every day wishing to live.
On October 21 the day’s battles were dragging on. Islamic State was holed up in villages between Nawaran and Bashiqa, along a front of seven kilometers below Mount Bashiqa, which overlooks the eponymous town.
The Kurdish plan was to skirt the base of the mountain and then link up with forces coming from the south to surround and besiege Bashiqa. But to do so they had to navigate between villages such as Fazile, Barima and Xursabad that had Islamic State mortar and sniper teams. The Kurds knew that entering the villages would entail casualties. There are also Islamic State tunnels and vehicle-based suicide bombs.
To reduce the threat, the Peshmerga rely on close cooperation with the US-led coalition, which provides artillery and air support.
But Kurdish commanders said the air support was not enough, and they paused their operation for 24 hours; the linkup to besiege Bashiqa would not take place until October 23.
Casualties were also mounting. There is little in the way of immediate medical care for soldiers on the front. An American team of medic volunteers was providing first aid, but heroic ambulance drivers had to drive through sniper and mortar fire to evacuate the men to Duhok.
“I will not abandon my position as long as I am alive” was graffitied in Kurdish on a building held by the Peshmerga near the front. The men here all seem to have families back home. In one room one man had five children, another three, and two of them had one each. It’s an army of fathers. They serve 15 days at the front and then return home, repeating the process every month.
Many of the commanders speak with reverence of their martyred fathers and grandfathers. It is not unusual for them to have lost several relatives to Saddam’s Anfal campaign, when thousands of Kurdish villages were destroyed and more than 100,000 civilians were killed. The Wikipedia page dedicated to Anfal claims it pitted 200,000 Iraqi soldiers against 3,500 Kurdish fighters led by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani.
Barzani is now the president of the KRG, and Talabani was the president of Iraq from 2005-2014.
Today, the Kurds have hundreds of thousands of Peshmerga ready to answer the call to defend the homeland; Islamic State is estimated to have 10,000 fighters. These are the symbols of how things change.
But Kurds do not forget the times of hardship; they know what is at stake here in northern Iraq.
Victory over Islamic State is important, but carving out a space for Kurdish rights and greater independence is as important. Towns like Bashiqa that were once disputed by the Kurds and the Iraqi central government for control will fall to the Peshmerga, and the KRG will demand to administer them. Yazidi temples here will be rebuilt, and Christians will return to their churches in Nineveh. The Kurds have proven they can protect the minorities in Nineveh, Kirkuk and Sinjar, and that the weakness of the central government allowed Islamic State to threaten these provinces in 2014 and forced Kurdish forces into a two-year, grueling campaign against the extremists.
Thousands of Kurds have been killed and many more have been wounded during this campaign. “If we spill blood, it is only for independence,” said President Barzani in March.
Nechervan Barzani, the prime minister, was quoted by Kurdistan24 in July as saying: “What is important for us is Kurdistan’s borders. We will decide the extent of our borders by what has been liberated with the blood of our Peshmerga.”
This feeling of sacrifice at the front is paramount.
Each life is precious. At a private hospital in Erbil, I visited a Peshmerga who was wounded in a battle in Kirkuk on October 21 when more than 100 Islamic State terrorists slipped into the city. Islamic State wanted to divert attention from Mosul. There were other wounded who had been brought here, including journalists. In this final offensive Islamic State was still lashing out.
Driving into Erbil, one can see the half-built highways and bridges on the outskirts, construction projects that paused in 2014 when Islamic State became the national emergency.
“It’s the second worst passport in the world after Somalia,” said a Kurdish businessman, referring to his Iraqi passport. No one Kurdish I spoke to wants to be from Iraq in this region. The “Iraq” label harms tourism to a region that otherwise would attract foreign money.
But judging by the situation of Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria, the KRG is extremely successful and lucky. It has two international airports, bucolic cities, a peaceful region largely free from the extremism around it. When the war is over, though, the public will begin to demand that its hopes for economic security can eventually come true.