Barzani dis­cusses Pesh­merga con­di­tions and bat­tling IS

The colum­nist and ed­i­to­rial-board mem­ber for the Philadel­phia Inquirer, Trudy Ru­bin, in­ter­viewed Barzani in front­line

The Kurdish Globe - - NEWS -

At Kur­dish for­ward-com­mand head­quar­ters, not far from the Syr­ian bor­der, Pres­i­dent Mas­soud Barzani is plan­ning the next stage of the battle against ISIS. The head­quar­ters, a col­lec­tion of white trail­ers, is nes­tled in an iso­lated stretch of green and brown land in the north­west cor­ner of Iraq, where Syria, Turkey and Iraq meet.

On the flight up from Er­bil, the he­li­copter pi­lot points out hills where there are still skir­mishes with Is­lamic State fighters, but the mood here is very dif­fer­ent from eight months ago. In Au­gust, the ji­hadis were mov­ing to­ward Er­bil, the cap­i­tal of Iraq's au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish re­gion, af­ter seiz­ing Iraq's sec­ond-largest city, Mo­sul, only 50 miles away.

Buoyed by U.S. airstrikes, Kur­dish Pesh­merga fighters have re­taken 90 per­cent of the Kur­dish land seized by ISIS and lib­er­ated some Arab ar­eas be­yond that.

"The Pesh­merga man­aged to break the ISIS myth," says Barzani, seated at a long ta­ble flanked by a wall of plas­tic-cov­ered maps. "They are not in­vin­ci­ble. But to say they are com­pletely de­stroyed is not be­liev­able.

"They are still a threat, but de­creased to a great de­gree. Our ma­jor mil­i­tary plan is to so­lid­ify our front lines."

Now Barzani is deep in con­sul­ta­tions with the Iraqi gov­ern­ment and coali­tion forces on how to or­ga­nize an of­fen­sive on how to re­take Mo­sul.

The big ques­tion is whose forces will lib­er­ate Mo­sul. Barzani's Pesh­merga fighters will be key, be­cause they are the most re­li­able fight­ing force in the coun­try at the mo­ment. But the Kur­dish leader makes clear the Pesh­merga won't be in the lead.

"We as Kurds are go­ing to as­sist, but the peo­ple of Mo­sul, the tribes, the rem­nants of the po­lice and the army should have the main role," says Barzani, wear­ing his tra­di­tional red-and­white head­dress and pesh­merga khakis.

"Our role will be sup­port­ive within a com­pre­hen­sive strat­egy," he says, a strat­egy that must be worked out among all the play­ers. The need for such a strat­egy is cru­cial be­cause any Mo­sul of­fen­sive will be ex­traor­di­nar­ily com­plex.

Barzani also made clear that Ira­nian-backed Shi­ite mili­tias are not the right force to lib­er­ate Mo­sul (in the battle for the Sunni city of Tikrit they burned and looted Sunni homes). While prais­ing the mili­tias' "good fighters," he stressed that "with­out one cen­tral com­mand and con­trol you can­not be suc­cess­ful." In other words, no role for Shi­ite mili­tias that op­er­ate out­side na­tional army com­mand.

I asked whether the Kurds had any ex­pec­ta­tion that the Sunni in­hab­i­tants of Mo­sul might rebel against their tor­men­tors. Mas­rour Barzani, the Kurds' in­tel­li­gence chief and son of the pres­i­dent, in­ter­jected: "We see a lot of peo­ple very un­sat­is­fied with ISIS con­trol, but they know how bru­tal ISIS is."

If Mo­sul res­i­dents see an ex­ter­nal force poised to strike or if the Is­lamic State col­lapses, one might ex­pect a lo­cal re­bel­lion. "But to ex­pect them to rise up be­fore that is un­re­al­is­tic," Mas­rour Barzani said.

Pres­i­dent Barzani added that the battle was po­lit­i­cal as well as mil­i­tary. The Iraqi gov­ern­ment had to give the Sun­nis of Mo­sul rea­son to be­lieve that they had a "bright fu­ture" un­der the Shi­ite-led gov­ern­ment, a fu­ture prefer­able to living un­der the Is­lamic State.

"If the lo­cal peo­ple won't sup­port ISIS," Barzani in­sisted, "ISIS can't stay." (I've seen no sign yet that gov­ern­ment sweet­en­ers for Sun­nis are in the cards.)

Through­out our con­ver­sa­tion, the two men stressed their grat­i­tude for Amer­i­can air strikes and the close re­la­tion­ship be­tween Kur­dish and U.S. forces.

As an ex­am­ple, Mas­rour Barzani cited the "ex­traor­di­nar­ily good co­or­di­na­tion" be­tween the Pesh­merga and coali­tion forces in call­ing in air strikes against ISIS tar­gets. "We've em­bed­ded our own li­ai­son of­fi­cers in the front lines who give the co­or­di­nates," he said, "and we have a joint co­or­di­na­tion cen­ter."

He said sim­i­lar co­or­di­na­tion would be es­sen­tial for all par­tic­i­pants in a Mo­sul of­fen­sive. How­ever, suc- cess would de­pend on the com­pe­tency of all the play­ers, in­clud­ing Iraqi forces, who greatly need im­prove­ment. "The cre­ation of a joint co­op­er­a­tion cen­ter is not that dif­fi­cult, but if the forces on the ground don't co­op­er­ate, it won't pro­duce the same re­sults," he said.

Pres­i­dent Barzani says he will be dis­cussing "the war on ISIS and our fu­ture as a na­tion and the gen­eral en­vi­ron­ment in the re­gion" when he goes to Wash­ing­ton.

"We would like to seize the op­por­tu­nity to ex­press our grat­i­tude to the United States and the pres­i­dent," he stressed. Barzani also will be ask­ing for more heavy weapons, such as ar­mored ve­hi­cles and an­ti­tank mis­siles, and as­sur­ances that, if weapons are de­liv­ered via Bagh­dad, they will reach Er­bil swiftly.

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