The Peshmerga, whose name translates as “those who face death”, are the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. Kurdish peshmerga forces backed by US and British air attacks have pushed into territory held by ISIL in Iraq, recapturing several towns and villages that had recently fallen to the group. The Kurds had been boosted by air attacks on ISIL by the US-led coalition. Peshmerga fighters have been in stalemate with the ISIL in the past, but now this is changing. The peshmerga, the armed force of Kurdistan Regional Government has a long history. First against the British colonial administration then against the Iraqi central government, it carried on years of guerrilla warfare with the advantages offered by the mountainous terrain and weather conditions in northern Iraq. Unlike other regional communities, who have seen a trend towards conservatism in recent years, Kurds have become more liberal, which some cite as a reason for the inclusion of female fighters fortifying their troops. Its members developed a reputation as fearsome fighters in decades-long battles against Saddam Hussein’s armies. The term peshmerga is also used to refer to these Kurdish fighters generally. In recent fight with Islamic State militants they are the emerging as the force which is rapidly changing the equation on the ground. Not only they stopped the IS advances but now even retaking the territories which was held by IS from several months.
The air strikes of US and allies have definitely weakened Islamic State positions and helpful in stopping there advances but total elimination of IS depends on effective ground forces whether they be federal government forces in coordination with the U.S. and coalition air forces, together with Peshmerga forces, or through the presence of ground forces from those countries. But at this point in time only Peshmerga forces are proving to be effective on ground against Islamic State as on ground any other forces have very thin presence or no presence. So realizing the importance of Peshmerga forces on ground the military help is coming from number of countries. Recently US military and its allies have launched an urgent effort to train Kurdish forces to use sophisticated weapons that the West is expected to supply in the coming months for a stepped up counter-offensive against Islamic State. For the past month, US, British and French advisers have been training fighters from the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in battlefield techniques at military bases across northern Iraq. The training is taking place at several facilities close to Irbil, capital of Kurdistan, said Kurdish officials, Peshmerga commanders and Western advisers. Recent victories on the ground of Peshmerga is also having an adverse effect on the morale of the IS militants.
It’s clearly visible from recent surrender of Some 150 Islamic State militants to Peshmerga forces in Khurmatu in northern Iraq. After a number of villages in Khurmatu area, in Salahaddin Province, were freed from the Islamic State militants by the cooperation of both Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and 150 IS insurgents surrendered themselves to those forces. This phenomenon of surrender was not seen in IS fighters previously but because of low morale and being surrounded they are doing it now. The Iraqi army essentially collapsed in the face of the advance by Islamic State since June that captured large tracts of territory across Iraq. The Iraqi government has insisted that all weapons supplies be shipped through Baghdad, while Kurdish officials have called for direct arming to Irbil. But bolstering the Peshmerga as the leading edge in the fight against Islamic State is a pivot from Washington’s decade-long bid to rebuild the Iraqi army and sideline regional militias that could harden ethnic and sectarian divisions. But US is doing it because it’s the need of the hour because Iraqi forces are not at all effective on ground in northern Iraq. So, US is left with no choice but to support Peshmerga which is the only option available.
A broader effort to train the Peshmerga will face many challenges, as the force is splintered, corrupted and poorly trained to defend a new 1000km frontline. But it’s a fact that the Peshmerga has proven to be an effective irregular army, providing security to all ethnicities. During the US-led invasion of Iraq the Peshmerga helped the United States in their mission to capture Saddam Hussein. They also captured Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden’s messenger Hassan Ghul in 2004. For the decade since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US poured billions of dollars into training the Iraqi army, while the Peshmerga was not provided sophisticated weaponry for fears it would accelerate Kurdish moves towards secession. But now it’s Peshmerga only which is delivering results on the ground. But looking back to years when Peshmerga forces didn’t enjoy the training or funds given to the Iraqi army things could have been very different if they could have been paid an attention.
(Author is freelance columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and Editor of a geo-political news agency Viewsaround can be reached at [email protected])