Kurdish Peshmerga call for heavy weaponry to take their fight to Isis
Masrour Barzani: “we are not going to go into Mosul alone”
or so away from the front lines. “We are very careful not to take any Arab lands. We are not going to go into Mosul alone. We are not agents.
“We asked the UK for some of their weaponry from Afghanistan,” said Barzani. “We were prepared to buy it, but instead we find it is being sold elsewhere and denied to us.”
Britain has sent the Peshmerga 40 heavy machine guns and ammunition, but has denied other requests, insisting privately that will channel its deliveries through Iraq’s central government.
Kurdish leaders seethe at the decisive weaponry sent to Baghdad in recent months, much of which is being used to replace six divisions worth of trucks and tanks that were abandoned when the Iraqi army fled the north of the country in June.
Isis promptly looted more than 200 armored troop carriers, more than 1,000 Humvees and several dozen US battlefield tanks, and have used them ever since to menace Iraq’s army and the Peshmerga.
Iraq's western partners fear that sending weapons to the Kurds could give real impetus to frequent talk of sovereignty at the expense of Iraq - the current borders of which they remain committed to, even as the post-Ottoman boundaries of the modern Middle East continue to wither.
Such a view is derided in Irbil and across much of the north. “We're fighting a war for a country that we are not a part of, and that we have no future in,” said Falah Fikri, a businessman in Irbil. “We are in this state because the Iraqi army collapsed, and we are told to believe in them?”
In six months of fighting against Isis, Kurdish leaders have already faced a series of reckonings: what to do about the contested city of Kirkuk, which they now control after the Iraqi army abandoned it in June; how to defend their seat of government, Irbil, which was nearly stormed by the jihadis two months later; and what the collapse of Iraq meant for their ambitions to etch a sovereign state from its ruins.
As US war planners tout plans for 25,000 men - 12 Iraqi brigades, three of them Peshmerga - to launch a final battle in April, Iraq's Kurds are trying to set their own rules of engagement.
The Peshmerga have lost more than 1,000 members since August, with more than 4,500 others injured. The battle ahead will certainly add to that. Since early February, Kurdish forces have recaptured roughly 400 square miles of land seized by Isis, including the Mosul dam, which supplies water to most of Iraq. “And what do you get for all of that?” asked Barzani. “We have redrawn the Kurdish borders with our own blood.”
Kurdish advances have been secured by a USled air campaign, which was particularly effective around the Mosul dam. From the giant waterway, built during the Saddam years, to the front lines, hundreds of concrete homes lie in ruins. Many have clearly been hit by air strikes, but others were dynamited as Isis retreated. Large yellow diggers gouge trenches from green fields, which will act as defensive positions if the jihadis try to reclaim their losses.
Much of the front line fighting appears to be a throwback to bygone eras of warfare. The Peshmerga have enough Kalashnikovs and ammunition, but their pleas for heavy battlefield weapons that could help them make more gains have been rejected by the US, Britain and other European allies.
Barzani bristles at the notion that the Peshmerga may use any new weapons to conquer Mosul, or lands closer to Kirkuk that are more central to the Kurds’ ancestral claims.
“The east bank of Mosul is part of Kurdistan, but we are not claiming that,” he said. “We will go as far as we are welcomed into all those areas that are part of the greater Kurdistan. Anything above the Tigris River, we have taken it, but we are not aspiring to a greater Kurdistan. We are talking about Iraqi Kurdistan. We have to convince the countries that we live with that it is in the interests of everybody. We have to convince Baghdad through an understanding.
“Kurdish Iraq has for too long been a taboo that we cannot even talk about. For Iraq [the Kurdish north] is just an economic base. But we don’t need Kurdistan for its economic value. This land is ancestral.
“Waiting for the local forces to fight Isis is going to give them the option to grow, reorganize, recruit and be a constant threat to the region and the rest of the world. To defeat Isis requires a lot more engagement, to send troops and to give the right equipment to the forces who are defeating them, and that is the Kurds. There is no excuse not to arm the Kurds. No justification.”
As bullets ping past the Kiske junction outpost, Ibrahim points to the skies. The roar of a jet comes into earshot. “I called them a while ago,” he said. “They need to deal with that mortar. We don’t have any trouble getting them to help, but we would rather do it ourselves.
“We are operating in areas where we cannot trust the people. It is very hostile. The villages don't like us, even though we are helping them,” he said. “I'll give you an example. When we arrived here we found a boy with a phone. He was telling [Isis] our positions. I told my commanders and they said to let him go.
“A few weeks later, we went back to that village and were giving them food. That same boy was at the front of the line. We told the locals and they started throwing shoes at him. Maybe now they know we’re on their side, but we can never believe it.”
Another Peshmerga unsheathed an Italian supplied rocket, part of a small cache sent by Rome several days earlier. “This is what we need, he said. “But it won't get us to Mosul.”
Sipping a coffee in his dugout, bra him said: “You know, we're puzzled being out here with such a lack of support. Why is this happening? We like freedom. We are just like you. We want what you have.”