With shov­els and bull­doz­ers, Iraq Kurds draw line in sand

Pesh­merga say their ob­jec­tives com­plete

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

SHAQOULI, Iraq: Iraqi Kur­dish forces are build­ing a berm near Mo­sul, a line in the sand that may mark a boundary of ter­ri­tory they aim to keep af­ter re­cap­tur­ing it from mil­i­tants. The Kur­dish pesh­merga fight­ers have worked me­thod­i­cally, like in a fac­tory line, pack­ing dirt into sacks, seal­ing them and then stack­ing them firmly atop the berm cut­ting across the sands near the bat­tle­ground city. Armed with bull­doz­ers and shov­els, they have been for­ti­fy­ing the bar­rier, about 60 km west of the Kurds’ regional cap­i­tal Ar­bil, that separates them from Iraqi fed­eral forces.

While fed­eral forces still have weeks if not months of fight­ing ahead against the Islamic State (IS) ji­hadist group in the Mo­sul area, Kur­dish pesh­merga fight­ers say their ob­jec­tives have been com­pleted less than a month into the op­er­a­tion. “If the pesh­merga en­ters an area and lib­er­ates it, it will stay with the pesh­merga,” said pesh­merga Ma­jor Gen­eral Ja­mal Weis. Kur­dish forces have gained or so­lid­i­fied con­trol over swathes of north­ern ter­ri­tory that is also claimed by Bagh­dad in the course of the war against IS.

The pesh­merga gained ground that Iraqi fed­eral forces aban­doned in June 2014, and while they were later pushed back by IS, they have since steadily ad­vanced against the ji­hadists with the help of US-led air sup­port. Iraqi fed­eral and Kur­dish forces have co­op­er­ated to an ex­tent in the bat­tle for Mo­sul, but bit­ter, long-run­ning dis­putes over con­trol of ter­ri­tory and nat­u­ral re­sources lie just be­neath the sur­face.

Mil­i­tary Goals Ac­com­plished

Start­ing from near the vil­lage of Shaqouli, AFP cor­re­spon­dents drove along the sand berm for at least 20 km, and the bar­rier still ex­tends even far­ther to the north­west. Af­ter chas­ing IS out of the town of Bashiqa, north­east of Mo­sul, the pesh­merga forces say they have ful­filled their side of the deal in the bat­tle for Iraq’s sec­ond city. “Ac­cord­ing to the plan we set with the unity gov­ern­ment, the pesh­merga has now ac­com­plished all the goals set for it,” said Jab­bar Yawar, sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Kurds’ pesh­merga min­istry. Pesh­merga com­man­der Ma­jor Gen­eral Aziz Weis agreed: “All the ar­eas that had been set as tar­gets for us are fin­ished.” Asked about the newly-erected sand bar­rier, Yawar said it was meant to pro­tect Kur­dish forces against po­ten­tial IS car bomb­ings or sui­cide at­tacks. “We are not re­draw­ing ge­o­graphic bor­ders. This sand berm is to pro­tect the pesh­merga from fu­ture op­er­a­tions by Daesh,” he said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym for IS.

But an­a­lysts say the bar­rier - as well as the pesh­merga’s pres­ence in ter­ri­tory like Bashiqa and oil-rich Kirkuk prov­ince to the east - in­di­cated more long-term ob­jec­tives. “The pesh­merga’s de­fen­sive lines may be jus­ti­fied rhetor­i­cally as de­fenses against IS at­tacks,” said Pa­trick Martin from the US-based In­sti­tute for the Study of War. “But they also are in­di­ca­tors of a new re­al­ity in Iraq that the KRG (Kur­dis­tan Regional Gov­ern­ment) has de-facto ex­tended its con­trol over a sig­nif­i­cantly larger por­tion of Iraq than pre­vi­ously held,” he said.

De Facto Border Cross­ing

Go­ing for­ward, the KRG will fo­cus “on en­sur­ing that they re­tain con­trol over the ter­rain that the pesh­merga presently oc­cupy and work to in­te­grate these ar­eas into the Iraqi Kur­dis­tan re­gion,” said Martin. Nate Rosen­blatt, a re­searcher at the University of Oxford, said the berm was new but also “the prod­uct of years of in­for­mal in­flu­ence in these ar­eas by the KRG”.

SHAQOULI, Iraq: A pesh­merga sol­dier keeps an eye on some cross-border sheep trad­ing at this Iraqi Kur­dish check­point on Thurs­day. — AFP

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