Photo essay: Kurds on the frontline against ISIS in Bashiqa

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Two months ago we set off for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. We spent time at various locations of the war effort, including a night overlooking Bashiqa, the closest position to Mosul.  It was my third trip to the war against ISIS. Along 1,000 kilometers of frontline the Kurdish peshmerga have been fighting the extremists for two years.  Bashiqa is a key frontline because of its proximity to Mosul, about 19 kilometers.  It sees daily mortar fire from ISIS. The extremists also have VBIEDs, the up-armored ‘mad max’ vehicles that have become a staple of this war.

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General Bahram Yasin, the commander of this section of frontline running a dozen kilometers along a ridge with thousands of peshmerga facing ISIS. “Actually now the situation is that refugees are fleeing ISIS and ISIS moral is very low and we are ready to attack them.  So now Peshmerga know that ISIS has no advanced weapons.  For the protection of the country we need advanced weapons to control the positions.”  There are many foreign fighter, “Chechan, Chinese, Afghan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, most of them came from other countries.  So anyone from Afghanistan, those bad people come here to Mosul and fight against us.  These Jihadists, who say they fight for Islam religion but that is not true.”

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Overlooking Bashiqa town, with floodlights in the foreground.  Kurdish positions use floodlights to defend against ISIS at night.

dsc_0161Peshmerga men on the frontline.  These volunteers bring their uniforms and weapons from home often.  From young to old age, they volunteered to fight, and there are hundreds of thousands who form the wall that defends Kurdistan from ISIS. Many up until recently have not paid been paid for months due to a budget crises. The older generations have fought against Saddam Hussein and seen entire lives affected by war.  They serve for a week or so here and then return home to their families.

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Mortar fire from a field in Bashiqa is met with counter-fire.

28452984356_c36472e680_kThere are only a dozen men in this position on the line and every army lives on the day to day routine of food and waiting.  Here the chef makes a tomato-based dish for dinner to serve over rice.

28453413156_b62d3638f6_kThe road to Bashiqa has been cut by a trench to prevent up-armored suicide trucks from reaching he position.  A unit of Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) Iranian-Kurdish fighters hold this position.  Many of them have not returned home for many months or a year, staying here to fight against ISIS.  They hold the most advanced and exposed position overlooking Bashiqa.

28380489222_5e33e9f496_kAlan Duncan, a former British army marksman who served with the Royal Irish and Queens Own Highlanders, and volunteered to fight alongside the Kurds, takes aim at ISIS.

27869148534_2677254e63_kNight falls over Mosul in the distance, the bright lights of the ISIS-controlled city, its last major stronghold in Iraq.  When the Iraqi army advances to attack Mosul the Kurds will likely move from this position, forward towards the city.  An estimated 500-700,000 refugees may flee and the Kurds have set up refugee camps for them.  Other groups are jesting to take part in the liberation, including the Sunni al-Hashd al-Watani, Assyrian Christian militias, and Shia militias. There are also Turkish forces that want to influence the outcome, and the US-led coalition, whose special forces operate along this frontline as well.

At night it is quiet, the floodlights are on.  The war is here, but the war is distant, it is this calm before the storm that is striking.

dsc_0153Jonathan Rieth, 39, a US born medical volunteer who came to Bashiqa after seeing ISIS atrocities says he seeks to provide medical training to Kurds. On this line, like many others, basic medical equipment and training is lacking.  Transport to a medical center consists of putting wounded in the back of a truck.  Saving lives requires receiving first aid quickly, and having basic training in administering it.  Rieth came to provide his essential skills to help Peshmerga.

27870362583_ef89431442_kLunch is served.  A truck brings chicken and rice for the headquarters unit.

28202498930_6687f510de_kAnother truck brings water twice a day.  Here a US HESCO barrier is used as a planter to bring a little greenery to the base camp.  Sometimes the little things in life, making a base seem more colorful, to settle in to a place these men call home for a year, is important. This is a parched region, hot in the summer, dreadfully hot.  Some of the living quarters have AC, and there is a generator that cuts in and out. There is even some internet. A toilet. I couldn’t find a shower, but there’s a shower apparently as well.

dsc_0172A Kurdish man sits with his AK-47 and prayer beads.  He wears a uniform that says “US army”, part of the gaggle of different clothes people buy and bring to the frontline. This is truly a citizens army, a people’s army.

27869104934_b4177d7c1e_kTea and cigs, the classic day on the frontline against ISIS is kept going through tea and smoking. There is little else to do, listen for incoming mortars, watch an unseen enemy. Talk. East. Pray.

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-1-04-30-pmMembers of the PAK Iranian-Kurdish unit stand at attention, ISIS-controlled Bashiqa villages are in the background.  They have a mortar and some heavier weapons.

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-1-10-51-pmA Humvee. The US vehicle became a symbol of ISIS victory in 2014 when it overran 2 divisions of Iraqi army equipment, captured more than 2,000 vehicles.  Since then the Kurds have re-captured some and been provided with some.  Most of the ISIS vehicles have been hit in coalition strikes or destroyed in battle.  The humvees here are always modified, armor for the tires, battering rams and other items are added to them.

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-1-34-32-pm“Heavy weapons,” many Kurdish units lack standardized equipment and proper anti-armor weapons. Although the coalition has upped training and funding, many frontline units rely on just a small amount of special weapons, relying on AK-47s, occasional G3 rifles and some M-16s are a luxury.  Here and there a Dragonov sniper rifle and DShKs.

 

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