Fighting Islamic State with an eye on Iran

For 16 months, Hussein Yazdanpana has been fighting with his Kurdish Peshmerga unit.

Hussein Yazdanpana, vice-president of the Kurdistan Freedom Party, speaking at the frontline with ISIS northeast of Kirkuk (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Hussein Yazdanpana, vice-president of the Kurdistan Freedom Party, speaking at the frontline with ISIS northeast of Kirkuk
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
DUBZ, Kurdistan – The crackle of a warm fire reminds one of being on a camping trip. But this fire is kindled in an oil drum that has been cut in half and welded onto four staves. A giant blackened kettle steams with Kurdish tea. All around are sand-bagged positions, bunkers dug into the muddy hillside, and Kurdish flags flapping in the wind. Overhead the faint drone of coalition aircraft, monitoring ISIS, fades into the background.
For 16 months, Hussein Yazdanpana has been fighting here with his Kurdish Peshmerga unit. Peshmerga are the military forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Like other Kurdish volunteers who fought ISIS to a standstill last year and then pushed the extremists back, Yazdanpana’s unit is connected to a political party. The Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), of which Yazdanpana is vice president, has its origins among Kurds from Iran, what they call Eastern Kurdistan.
One-third of his soldiers are women, and they stand guard today along an escarpment that overlooks rolling hillocks, once a major ISIS base from where they sent fighters to many fronts,” Yazdanpana explains, gesturing into the distance.
“From October 2014 we began attacking ISIS, they were more strong then. To clean every meter we fought and it was tough.”
Like other Peshmerga commanders we spoke to, they disagreed when asked whether ISIS has been weakened. They said it is still a potent and dangerous force, but that the Kurds facing it have become stronger, with better weapons, and closer coordination with the coalition.
Yazdanpana gained fame when a website claimed he bears a close resemblance to Stalin. But he’s adamant that their views are worlds apart.
He supports secular democracy and says that the real tragedy that befell Kurds in the period of Stalin was that the Soviet Union did not support a Kurdish republic when it was declared in Iran. “We are fighting 500 years for freedom and we will accept any sacrifice,” he says.
Yazdanpana has a clear message that Iran is a danger to the region. He notes that the Iranian- backed Shia militia Hashd al-Sha’abi stands against an independent Kurdistan. “It is like a twin of what happens in Israel, when they say they will push you into the sea and they deny the Holocaust.”
Like many Kurds who feel the Israeli struggle against terrorism and extremism in the form of groups such as Hamas bears a resemblance to their own struggle, he is passionate about the idea of forging good relations with the Jewish people and “confronting terrorism together one day.”
ISIS’s invasion of the area between Erbil and Kirkuk was part of its larger campaign in the summer of 2014 when it swept across Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland and conquered numerous cities. Kirkuk is a large oil-producing city and holds a special place in the policies of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Under Saddam Hussein there was an attempt to Arabize the city. ISIS, which played on sectarian tensions, got within 26 kilometers of it.
The reaction of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces was to carve out a long front line west of the city. They took back dozens of villages, including many inhabited by Arabs.
But the war against ISIS has slowed down since a string of offensives last winter and spring by Kurds pushed ISIS back and liberated Kurdish areas. That leaves many of the Kurdish commanders focused on two problems.
The first is terrorism. The Kurdish security experts we spoke with explained that ISIS and other Sunni extremist groups are constantly attempting to penetrate Kirkuk and other areas using car bombs and sleeper cells. More than 270 security personnel have been killed fighting these terrorists.
But the Kurds have been successful in bringing back security to Kirkuk.
“Last year a foreigner wouldn’t want to drive here for fear of kidnapping,” explained one woman familiar with the situation.
The Peshmerga checkpoints and front line have prevented Sunni Arab extremist groups from infiltrating the city. One policeman noted that there has been less violence in the city this entire year than during just one day last year. On the road to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, a massive checkpoint enclosed under a giant hanger greets all the cars coming from Kirkuk to the south. Lines move slowly and cars are checked meticulously.
Just one major bombing could do tremendous harm to sense of stability that the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, has created.
Iranian interference in the region and the role of the Shia militias are also a concern.
Commanders say the fear is that if the ISIS threat diminishes there will be more tension between the Iranian-backed Shia militias in Baghdad and the Kurdish region. A high ranking Kurdish security official was adamant that the large Shia militia, Hashd al-Shaabi, has no place inside the Peshmerga lines. He related stories of Hashd al-Shaabi members being detained in areas around Kirkuk. In Tuz Khurmato, far south of Kirkuk, where the militia was able to set up a presence after recent clashes between Kurds and Turkmen, one commander says it was a serious mistake to allow them a foothold. That mirrors the statement by KRG President Masoud Barzani in November when he said there was no place for the militia in Kurdistan.
Another development that concerns some Kurdish commanders is the presence of almost two million Arab refugees in the autonomous KRG.
They worry that not only could ISIS or extremist groups use these mostly Sunni Arabs to penetrate the area, but that they will change the demographics of Kurdistan.
As we drove back in the night to Erbil, the bustling capital of the KRG with its endless traffic and even more rigorous traffic police, a dozen women dressed in black were shouting from the back of a truck. They had lost a relative in a battle with ISIS. Recently the extremist group had struck Peshmerga lines north of Makhmura, east of Erbil, using the fog for cover.
A relative of our taxi driver was killed in the attack. It was a reminder of what a Kurdish commander said hours earlier, “We must be worried and vigilant day and night not to give them a weak points from any place.”
In the last 72 hours there have been ISIS attacks on several front lines, and although they have been repelled, the Kurdish TV stations are full of stories and memories of those killed defending the region.