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 The Peshmerga: Capabilities, Challenges and the Future of Kurdistan’s Guardians

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The Peshmerga: Capabilities, Challenges and the Future of Kurdistan’s Guardians  17.6.2012 
By Christian Chung, Rudaw

At the Battalion Base in Qara Henjir, Kurdistan region, a group of soldiers are in formation for military training. Photo: Rudaw
June 17, 2012

QARA HENJIR, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Kurdistan Region—As the formation of Peshmergas marched in the blistering heat of Qara Henjir, a rural town in the north of Kirkuk city, the unit’s officers looked on with pride. The dedication of the soldiers deployed to the battalion’s small headquarters was evident in the myriad of personal vehicles driven to the outpost to report for duty, with some soldiers coming from as far away as Duhok and Erbil.

Perhaps a testament to their years of guerrilla fighting in the rugged mountains of northern Iraq through the 1970s and 80s, the officers are quick to point out that what the Peshmerga lacks in equipment and money, they make up for in morale, espirit de corps, and a “never-give-up ”fighting spirit. The battalion at Qara Henjir, part of the “Golden Lion Task Force” comprised of army and security forces in Kirkuk, seemed to embody this in their daily operations and rigorous training schedule.

“We train for three hours a day, seven days a week,” Major Qadim Fares, chief trainer of the battalion, said. “The first hour is exercises and warm up, the second is routine military training, followed by the third hour of weapons training. It is an intense schedule developed by the American and Iraqi forces.”

Indeed, few institutions can match the widespread respect Iraqi Kurds have for the Peshmerga, the military force of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The force has been an integral part of the Kurdish nationalist quest since its earliest days.

“I have the utmost admiration for our guardians, the Peshmerga. They have protected all people, not only Kurds, but Arabs, Christians and Turkmen too, even when the world abandoned us,” declared Mohammed Sirabi, whose family was killed during Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal Campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s.

The ability of the Peshmerga to maintain this high level of respect and independence will be tested in the coming months, however, as the KRG tries to integrate some 80,000 Peshmerga forces from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) into Ministry of Peshmerga in Erbil.

“Unification is a continuous process, of course. But the problem is slow because of technical issues; every time we complete a phase of the integration of our forces, it comes at four battalions at a time, and those battalions need equipment, weapons, training centers, and other items that we are lacking due to our small budget and the holding up of resources by Baghdad,” says General Jabar Yawar, chief of staff and spokesman for the Ministry of Peshmerga. “This takes a lot of time, but the process is continuing.”

Privately, some activists and civil society leaders believe that the development of the Peshmerga forces through the integration process is at a crossroad, leaving many to question what role the force will play in the future political landscape of Iraq and Kurdistan.

“Will the Peshmerga continue to be a tool of the political parties, or will they fully professionalize into an independent institution that will remain largely uninfluenced by the wrangling of the political leaders from all the parties?” questions one political activist, who wished to remain anonymous. “I think the US military is a good example: yes, it is affected by politics like all armed forces, but it does not take orders from the Democrats or Republicans. It takes orders from the state institutions. That is where we must head, and we are at a juncture for this today.”

Colonel Abdul Sherko, Commander of the battalion at Qara Henjir, disagree with that characterization. “I respect these opinions, but we are not a political force. The Peshmerga is a fully professional force. Our mission is to provide security to the people of Iraq, regardless of their ethnicity.”

Unlikely Origins

The origins of the Peshmerga stretch back to 1890s, when groups of Kurdish tribal forces were organized mainly for local defense and guarding the borders. An early version of the Peshmerga developed after the First World War when Malik Mahmoud declared himself the King of Kurdistan and fought the British forces in Iraq to gain independence for Kurdistan.

The focus of the Peshmerga evolved from local tribal-based defense, to a political force aimed at resisting the rule of the Iraqi government. With a particular expertise in guerrilla warfare, Peshmerga fighters ambushed and attacked the Iraqi army from their mountain bases.

The Anfal campaign against the Kurdish people in the late 1980s, the killing and disappearance of tens of thousands of Kurdish villagers were attempts by the Iraqi regime to cut the Peshmerga forces off their local support.

The US-led invasion in 2003, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, saw close cooperation between US Special Forces and the Peshmerga, and built a relationship that remains to date. Prior to the invasion, the Peshmerga provided intelligence to the US about al Qaeda activities in Iraq.

“Without a doubt, al Qaeda was in Iraq before the invasion and had a working relationship with the Iraqi government,” says General Yawar. “According to our intelligence, there was a very good relationship with the Iraqi Army and members of Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaeda groups working in Kurdistan. Before the war, of course the KRG exchanged information and intelligence with the US.”

The two forces executed a joint land operation, supported by US air strikes, to drive out the Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, which controlled the Hawraman region near Halabja.

Cooperation Despite Political Tension

Today, the Peshmerga hold training exercises and execute joint operations with the Iraqi army, the same establishment that sparked the creation of the original Peshmerga forces. Today, the Iraqi army and the Peshmarga are responsible for security in different parts of Kirkuk, Nineveh and Diyala provinces.

“We are very much interested in participating in operations and training with the Iraqi forces,” says Major Fares, the battalion training chief. “For example, I myself have gone to training courses with the army in Kirkuk and other areas before. And [Iraqi officers] in turn send men to Erbil and Sulaimani for training as well.”

Major Fares says his men sent for training in Kirkuk and Sulaimani have reported very positive experiences working with their Iraqi Army counterparts.

But there have been times, the latest in 2008, when Iraqi and Peshmerga forces have come close to clashes, mainly in the disputes territories of Diyala province.

“One case where conflict was imminent was near the city of Khanaqin, and a few other towns in the disputed areas, a few years ago,” says General Mohammed Salar, the Chief of Logistics and Administration for the Ministry of Peshmerga. “[The Iraqi Army] said officially that they were initiating operations against terrorist elements, but really there weren’t any terrorist networks, and the aim was to push the Peshmerga forces back. They wanted to take Khanaqin, for instance, but we didn’t let them.”

The sustainability of this cooperative relationship is questionable, however, as tensions between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad rise to levels not seen since before the liberation of Iraq in 2003. The tension is often between politicians over the country’s oil and gas law, implementation of Iraq’s constitution and Article 140, but it reflects on the day-to-day relationship between the Peshmerga and Iraqi soldiers on the ground.

“We should have a strong relationship with the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad,” noted General Salar, “In reality, our relations are weak and strained right now, going back to the unfulfilled pledges of the government to support us. So far, they haven’t given one cent.”

A Question of Resources

The deteriorating political relationship between Erbil and Baghdad is affecting the future viability of the Peshmerga forces. The constitutional status of the Peshmerga as a force within the overall defense structure of Iraq requires that most of the financing, resources, and foreign assistance meant for the Peshmerga must first be allocated by the central government in Baghdad, as opposed to being managed directly by the KRG in Erbil.

Peshmerga and KRG officials in Erbil say that the funding have not been provided by the central government for a number of months, an indication of the worsening relationship between the Ministry of Peshmerga and the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad. This, they claim, is the primary challenge to the growth and professionalization of the Kurdish forces, a process made even more difficult following the complete withdrawal of US forces at the end of 2011.

The unification process for the Ministry of Peshmerga began late, in 2010. Today, the Ministry in Erbil serves as the single headquarters for the newly reorganized Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Region.

There are currently 12 unified infantry battalions, each with approximately 3,000 Peshmerga fighters, as well as special forces battalions, heavy weapons battalions, headquarters and Ministry staff, and other support units, for a total force of approximately 120,000 soldiers.

The goal of the Ministry over the next five years is to grow the number of infantry battalions from 12 to 20, with a total of 90,000 active duty soldiers and 30,000 reserve forces. Significant political, financial, and resource issues remain in the way of this goal, however.

Regarding the capability of each infantry battalion, General Salar is blunt about the logistical challenges faced by the Peshmerga. “To be honest with you, we mainly only have the capability of Kalashnikov [rifles] within each battalion. And those are from the 80s and 90s when we captured them from Saddam, and some might not even shoot. But we believe in ourselves. That’s the most important thing.”

At the tactical level, there’s a similar picture.

“The greatest need we have is the upgrading of our weapons,” Major Fares says. “The only thing we have received from [the central government in] Baghdad is a small number of rifles, but most all of our other equipment we had from before the invasion.”

“For example, that guy there,” Fares continued, pointing to a soldier standing guard at the door to the training office. “He has brought his own personal weapon, his own personal supplies, to come and work with me.”

View from the Field

The Golden Lion Battalion at Qara Henjir is a microcosm of the efforts of professionalization of the Peshmerga currently underway. The past five years has brought growth, as well as significant challenges, to the unit’s small command outpost in Qara Henjir.

The base contains a number of small buildings and makeshift trailers, each housing a different department: operations, administration, intelligence, logistics, and the command element. The outpost has undergone major development since its establishment in 2003, starting with no permanent structures or paved road, and today serving as the headquarters for a 3,000 strong combat battalion, complete with a helicopter landing area and paved roads inside its walled compound.

Though lack of weapons, resources, and funding is a serious issue, it does not appear to have affected the ability of the Peshmerga to maintain security in their areas of responsibility.

“The primary mission of my battalion is to provide security to the city and people of Kirkuk,” says Colonel Sherko. “I can proudly say that the safest area in the north is the area under our protection. We prevented this area from being a safe-haven for terrorist elements, and it is 100% secure. The least amount of attacks occur in the north of the city, statistically. Since 2003 the central government has not provided a penny to Peshmerga forces, but we are still more than capable of performing our tasks.”

General Salar recalls more difficult times in the past. “The situation will never be as bad as Baghdad. Before, even though we never had a lot of resources, we have always maintained the security of the Kurdistan region.”

Major Fares believes the identity and spirit of the Peshmarga hasn’t changed since its early days.

“Just to give you a better idea of what the Peshmerga is about: the Peshmerga is a voluntary army. It used to be people joined the forces bringing their own weapons, vehicles, and other supplies,” he says. “Today, nothing has changed that much.”

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