ERBIL, Iraq – When Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi army, and U.S.-led coalition forces move to liberate nearby Mosul, possibly within two weeks, Islamic State fighters will not abandon their prized city and quietly slink away as many in Washington have predicted, according to the Peshmerga’s top military officer.
“They will fight to the death,” said Gen. Jamal Mohammad Omer, Kurdish military chief of staff, in an exclusive interview with Defense One in his office Thursday.
Just when that fight will begin, however, seems out of his hands. Peshmerga commanders said they are awaiting political negotiations with Iraqi leaders they do not trust for a future they cannot predict. But the future is on everyone’s mind. With the battle for Mosul looming, Peshmerga leaders sense they are now on a path that leads beyond the defeat of ISIS, if not yet to the ultimate destination of Kurdish independence.
Until then, they are cooperating with the Iraqi government. Kurdish, Iraqi, and U.S. officials met Monday in Erbil for the latest negotiations, which a coalition spokesman described as a major step toward Mosul. U.S. leaders have said that operation could begin as soon as the middle of October; surrounding towns already are being liberated.
“We are ready,” said Omer, who also goes by Jamal Mohammed, or Jamal Eminki. “If we liberate Mosul, Daesh will be finished,” he said, using the preferred derogatory acronym for the Islamic State.
On Thursday, Iraqi forces pushed into the center of Shirqat, a town south of Mosul and Erbil along the Tigris river. It lies near Qayyarah West, the Iraqi airfield that has become a key military base for massing U.S., Iraqi, and coalition forces that include French artillery units. U.S. commanders in Baghdad have placed a media blackout on the base, as they have over much of the American combat experience here. But the U.S. presence has been vital to the Peshmerga’s success against ISIS, according to several officers, from a platoon commander to the chief of staff, who spoke with Defense One this week at the Bnaslawa training camp and in ministry offices in Erbil.
“We are still part of Iraq, but in name only,” said Omer. “We didn’t get any military support from Iraq” when ISIS moved into their region. “Many countries tried to help us, to help Peshmerga. They stopped.”
For two years, the government of Iraq has provided the Peshmerga no military assistance, he said. Instead, Peshmerga watched ISIS move through Mosul, scooping up the arms Iraqis left behind. Now, they say they need Western coalition militaries to send them more weapons, including heavy weapons, to continue the fight and secure Kurdistan. “Who knows? Maybe we will face another enemy like ISIS, so we need to be prepared for that.”
For now, Peshmerga leaders said, Kurdish fighters will do their jobs by creating lanes for the Iraqi military to advance into the center of Mosul and hand over whatever territory they secured, per whatever pre-battle agreement is made. They know what is at stake for Kurdistan’s future.
“Our participation in the Mosul operation has some risk. We don’t want a civil war between Kurdish and Iraq in Mosul. There may be some groups that try to make problems between the two peoples, Omer said. “It was good for us to not go inside Mosul.”
The fight, he said, is not against Iraq. It’s against their common foreign enemy, ISIS.
“After liberation, we don’t want to see civil wars between minorities. We want the citizens of the city to decide how they want to run the city,” said Brigadier Halgwrd Hikmat, the Ministry of Peshmerga’s general director of media, culture and national awareness, in his Erbil office Wednesday.
First, they must reclaim Mosul, the prize of the Islamic State’s caliphate, just 40 miles from here. Just east of Erbil, at the Bnaslawa training camp, Italian and German troops have been training brigades of new and veteran Peshmerga fighters. One non-U.S. coalition trainer, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the program has evolved since he was first here in 2014. It now includes specialized counter-IED and intelligence network training.
Among the trainees are First Lt. Nawzad Amjad’s platoon of 33 men, who came from the front lines to get 10 weeks of instruction on a range of subjects from urban assault to electronic warfare, communications, and countermines. “Morale is very, very high,” among his troops, Amjad said. “They are Peshmerga. They know what they are fighting for.”
To explain, the junior officer invokes a word spoken frequently among Peshmerga commanders: injustice. “We don’t believe in any injustice,” he said. Amjad said he has known only injustice against Kurds his entire life. He is 30 years old.
Amjad spoke at the edge of a mock Kurdish village built of concrete cinder-block homes and two-story shipping containers, the kind now so familiar to the U.S. military, intelligence, and private-military-contractor personnel who have deployed to this region since 2003. The training supplied by the U.S.-led coalition has made “a huge difference,” he said. “Because here, the Iraqi government is not helping us, not supporting Peshmerga. So all support we get comes from the U.S. and coalition officials.” He, too, worries the West will abandon them when they are no longer needed.
“This time, we hope they don’t do the same thing. This time, we hope they stay with us.
“To be honest with you, we have no trust with our neighbors – not Arab, not Turk, not Iran. Because they think of themselves as a big fish and they have to eat all the small fishes. We hope that we will have good relationship with the U.S., with the coalition, and this relationship will continue after Daesh, and not just be temporary this time.”
Across the base, Capt. Tarik Fariq, a company commander, watched Italian commanders teach his men how to take a firing position, don a gas mask, and fire and reload their coalition-provided M-16s.
“Peshmerga are fighting terrorists on behalf of the whole world,” said Fariq said, who previously was a journalist. “Kurds are fighting injustice,” he said, and they are good at it, but they are weak on equipment. He, too, wants the U.S. and coalition militaries to remain.
“We hope they will stay and support us,” he said. “I hope they will continue. We are living in this geographic area that is filled with conflict…so always we will need coalition support.”
Back in Omer’s office, the chief of staff sipped strong coffee. “If you remember in 2011 when Americans left Iraq, you see what happened, the groups such as Daesh, came up,” he said. “Hopefully the U.S. will consider this and look at what happened in the past and what could happen in the future. You have to be careful with your decision.”
Hikmat, the younger Peshmerga spokesman, said there are two goals ahead: defeat ISIS and win independence. “Certainly. No doubt. Every single Peshmerga wishes that.”
Omer entered military service in Baghdad in 1982, joined the Peshmerga in 1991, and has fought and commanded Kurdish troops across the entire region. He has the same wish, but a more seasoned outlook. There should be no fight for independence; that should come via public referendums and negotiations. But he said there are too many people who, if they take seats in the Iraqi government, will have the same mindset of previous governments against Kurdistan.
“In my personal opinion, I do not believe there will be peace.”
Kareem Rasheed Suliaman contributed to this report.