Are Iraq’s renowned <i>peshmerga</i> fighters any match for Islamic State?
Though a coalition of Western countries is training Kurdish forces in northern Iraq to more effectively fight Islamic State militants, Kurdish commanders and officers say the effort is moving slowly and not keeping up with the military strength and speed of their enemy.
When U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State targets began in early August, they were followed by shipments of advanced weapons and an offer to train the Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, who had suffered a series of surprising defeats at the hands of the extremist Sunni Muslim militants.
The aim was to transform the peshmerga, with their vaunted reputation as mountain warriors, into a force better prepared to face the brutal and battle-hardened militants in the largely desert terrain and urban areas they had seized.
On a recent Sunday, at a training camp high in the mountains of northern Iraq, 17 soldiers began their training on American-made 12.7-millimeter M2HB machine guns. A month before, peshmerga officers had received lessons from French military officers on the use of the guns, at a special-forces training center on the outskirts of Irbil, where much of the Western training is done.
The M2HBs had been sent to the training camp without ammunition, so the Kurdish soldiers sat on short concrete risers in front of a 125-pound weapon, balancing notebooks on their knees as the instructors drew on a dry-erase board.
Though planeloads of rifles and ammunition are regularly shipped to Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, advanced weapons like the M2HB have been in short supply, and have not yet been deployed on the front line, Kurdish commanders said. Even then, the M2HB will not be effective against the tanks and armored vehicles that Islamic State fighters pilfered from the Iraqi army, Brig. Gen. Salah Salih said.
“All the military aid that is coming, even when we’re getting 10 million or 20 million bullets, that might only last a few days in battle, because the battles are ongoing,” said Salih, who oversees training at the camp in Atrosh.
Saying the Kurds’ fighting has been on behalf of Western allies as well as to protect their own region, Salih said, “They have to give us better weapons so we can battle them.”
In August, after making swift advances through Sunni Arab areas of western and northern Iraq and facing little resistance from residents and tribes, Islamic State, an Al Qaeda breakaway group, began overrunning towns and villages in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region. The peshmerga, estimated to number about 150,000 fighters, proved no match for the militants, some of whom had fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Islamic State reached Makhmour, about 35 miles southwest of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, before the U.S. and its allies decided to intervene with airstrikes and weapons.
Much of the peshmerga training is still in the early assessment phase as coalition partners decide who will oversee which aspects, even as Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army engage in daily battle with Islamic State fighters, who are armed with advanced weaponry.
The Americans are focusing on command and control issues with the peshmerga leadership. The French are based at a center near Irbil where they are training peshmerga regular and special forces on advanced weapons such as the heavy machine guns.
And though Canada is due to provide and train the Kurds to use robots to detect homemade bombs, there hasn’t been any training on how to disarm explosives, the most dangerous threat the peshmerga face and which has accounted for more than 60% of those killed, said Lt. Gen. Jabbar Yawar Manda, secretary-general of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.
As a result of coalition airstrikes and weapons, Kurdish fighters have been able to retake many towns. But days and even weeks after Islamic State forces fled, the towns remain empty as the few qualified soldiers comb through them in search of bombs.
Islamic State “has lots of experience in warfare, but we don’t have experience in urban warfare so we are trying to fill this gap,” Manda said. “Our experience is in guerrilla warfare because in the ‘90s we fought Saddam [Hussein’s Iraqi army] forces through guerrilla warfare in the mountains. Our experience in urban warfare is lacking.”
The Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs holds weekly meetings with allies, including the United States, Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Canada and Australia. It has requested additional arms and training.
A peshmerga officer, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said top commanders shared the responsibility for the force’s initial defeats. For months, they assumed Islamic State was only girding for a battle between Sunnis and Shiites among the historically volatile Iraqi Arab population.
“They said ISIS won’t come here, they won’t come after the Kurds,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “They said they will only come after [former Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki and presumed they would only attack Mosul and Baghdad.”
The peshmerga did not train for street battles until 2010, Brig. Gen. Salih said. And even then, only a small percentage of the forces received the training.
“There are peshmerga who never shot two bullets in training, but the officers aren’t going to say that because the shortcoming is on their part,” said the officer who did not want to be named.
Even with the looming threat of Islamic State, the commanders have yet to fully accept the limits of the peshmerga forces, he said.
“You tell the officers that we need this training of the streets and they say, ‘Peshmerga can fight anywhere,’” he said. “Perhaps they can, but they will kill themselves doing it.”
Kurdish commanders pin the blame for defeats squarely on the Iraqi government for their lack of advanced weapons, up-to-date training and salaries. Baghdad, they say, has consistently failed to provide the peshmerga with the resources needed to be an effective fighting force. The central government also prevented them from buying weapons from other countries.
Much of their weaponry, commanders say, was purchased on the black market.
“For eight years we didn’t get one dinar or one bullet from the Iraqi army,” said Brig. Gen. Hazhar Ismail, ministry director of coordination and relations. “Only after the current situation did they begin sending us resources and only under great pressure from foreign countries.”
Even now, Kurds say, the central government is creating obstacles by maintaining tight control over Kurdish airspace, limiting which flights are allowed to land.
Recently, Germany sought to send a transport plane to Irbil to pick up 32 peshmerga officers for training on antitank missiles, but the central government withheld permission for a week, Manda said. When allies began sending planeloads of weapons to the Kurds, the flights flew directly to Irbil. But that lasted only a week before the Baghdad government demanded the planes land first in Baghdad to go through customs.
The peshmerga ministry has asked allied nations to pressure the Iraqi government to ease such requirements, but so far to no avail.
For news from the Middle East, follow @RajaAbdulrahim
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.