Photo essay: Peshmerga and the war on ISIS

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Since August 2014 the Kurdish Peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government, fought a tough war against Islamic State along a 1,000 kilometers of frontline. They were essential for stopping the ISIS offensive in 2014 and then pushing ISIS back bit by bit. Since then they have received increasing support from the international community, including weapons, financial assistance and training. After the Mosul offensive began in October 2016, most of the active frontlines went quiet as the Iraqi army moved into Mosul. However there are still threats in Sinjar and Hawija and professionalizing the Peshmerga and arming them are essential to the future of Kurdistan.

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‘Getting ready’, Erbil, June 2015

Before going to the frontline many peshmerga buy their own uniforms and upgrade their own kit. They may improve their rifles, buy body armor or helmets. There is rarely a standard uniform.

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‘Checkpoint duty’, June 2015

For many thousands of Peshmerga the war was not frontline duty, but manning checkpoints and mundane, behind the line, security duty. Weeks away from family and then weeks back home, sometimes with pay being months late, but the men came again and again to do their duty to watch the lonely roads for threats.

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‘Telskuf frontline,’ June 2016

Telskuf, sometimes known by numerous similar names such as Telesqopa, Teleskop, etc, is a small Christian town 35 kilometers from Mosul on Nineveh plains. It was recaptured from ISIS in the fall of 2014 and since then was a static frontline where Peshmerga looked out on ISIS positions. ISIS would burn tires in the day to protect themselves from airstrikes. During the day there were sometimes mortars and at night attacks, often suicide style with men running towards the position. In March 2016 a US NAVY SEAL was killed here.

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Telskuf frontline, June 2015

1,000 kilometers of frontline often look the same during the war, consisting of bunkers and sandbags and areas to sleep. Here some Peshmerga pose for a photo a few kilometers from ISIS. Much of this resembled the First World War but without the mud and deep trenches.

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‘The old and young’, Telskuf, June 2015

This man in his 50s fought against Saddam Hussein’s regime and then against ISIS. Many Peshmerga in the 40s and 50s have a history similar to his, a whole life of fighting for freedom of Kurdistan.

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‘Memories of battle,’ Telskuf, June 2015

A Peshmerga holds up his phone with a photo  of dead ISIS fighters he took after a battle. Many men kept images like this, proud of their role in repelling extremists.

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‘The life of a humvee’, Teleskuf June 2015

When ISIS rolled into Mosul in June 2014 it began to capture large amounts of Iraqi army equipment that had been abandoned. Eventually more than 2,300 vehicles, many of them American humvees, would be captured by ISIS and used by it to attack Kurds, Yazidis and other Iraqis. These were essential to ISIS plans for genocide and enslavement of Yazidis. This Humvee, the Peshmerga said, was captured at the battle for Mosul Dam in August 2014. It passed from the US to Iraqi army, to ISIS and then the Peshmerga. Peshmerga lack armored vehicles, just as they lack anti-tank weapons. Over time some of these shortages were reduced in 2016, but for the most part they remain into 2017.

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‘Gun smith,’ Erbil, 2015

Just as Peshmerga often buy their own uniforms, many also brought their own weapons to the front. This gunsmith in Erbil fixes guns for civilians, but he also has heavier weapons and antiques.

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‘Specially designed to kill ISIS’ West of Kirkuk frontline, December 2015

This man is a member of the Kurdistan Freedom Party or PAK, an Iranian Kurdish party. In 2014 when ISIS attacked its members went to the front and fought ferociously on several fronts, taking many casualties. He lost his arm, but specially equipped his M-16 with a stand so he could still fire it effectively.

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‘Hussein Yazdanpanah,’ West of Kirkuk, December 2015

One of the leaders of the PAK, the most enthusiastic who always sought out the frontline and the action, Hussein Yazdanpanah was called the “Kurdish Stalin” by some foreign reporters after they thought he looked like the former Soviet leader.  Yazdanpanah would always say “I’m not like Stalin,” when he met reporters. An open minded heroic fighter, he also recruited women to his dedicated unit. He dreamed of fighting against the Iranian regime, but wanted to defend other parts of Kurdistan in the war on ISIS.

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‘De-mining ISIS explosives,’ Shingal, December 2015

Major Adel Sleman, an officer in a Peshmerga de-mining team, served in Shingal (Sinjar) after it was liberated in November 2015. A calm and cheerful man he had fought Saddam Hussein’s regime and been imprisoned by it. De-mining is dangerous business and although the unit had been outfitted with a new MRAP courtesy of the US-led coalition, it lacked many of the most up to date equipment and training.  ISIS had laced Shingal town with IEDs, TNT, explosives and tunnels and each had to be carefully checked if the town was to become hapitable again. Each day the men would go out to comb another sector.

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‘Yazidi Peshmerga’, Shingal frontline, December 2015

When ISIS attacked Kurdistan in August 2015 it overran dozens of Yazidi villages and focused its attack on rounding up men, women and children. The men and elderly women were machine-gunned and buried in mass graves, while thousands of women were sold into slavery to be gang raped and traded among ISIS fighters. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis fled and some joined local fighting units associated with the PKK and the KRG’s peshmerga. There are still deep tensions in Shingal between the political factions. This man was a Peshmerga near Shingal serving at a fontline that abutted a mass grave of bones and skulls.

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‘Rojava Peshmerga’, Rabiah, December 2015

Thousands of Kurds from Syria who had fled to the KRG before 2014 and after joined a unit of Peshmerga from Rojava. Because of the political divisions among Kurds they did not want to return to Syria and join the YPG, and instead joined a Peshmerga closer to their own political affiliations with the KDP. This young man was guarding the long lonely road from Rabiah, a city on the Syrian border, to Snune, a Yazidi village near Mount Shingal. We gave him a ride from his checkpoint towards Rabiah so he could see his family.

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‘Peshmerga from Rojhelat’, A training camp, December 2015

The Democratic of Iranian Kurdistan has been resisting the Iranian regime since the 1980s. It supports a democratic Iran and opposes the theocrats who run the country. Many Iranian Kurdish exiles live in the KRG and some of them have joined the PDKI to train and resume the struggle in Iran. The units are coed with male and female fighters. The women volunteers said this is a struggle not only for Kurdish rights but also women rights.

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‘ISIS tunnels everywhere,’ Wardak, July 2016

The Kakei are an indigenous minority that lives in Iraq and Iran in the Kurdish region. They practice a unique religion. When ISIS came it attacked their villages near the Kalak and Khazir rivers. Thousands fled. It wasn’t the first time they were targeted by Jihadists. Extremists using truck bombs had come before in 2009. Some of the men joined a local Peshmerga to help liberate their villages in the spring of 2016. What they found was destruction. Holy tombs blown up, tunnels in houses and IEDs. This tunnel stretched below this house to bunkers ISIS hid in.

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‘General Bahram,’ Bashiqa frontline, July 2016

Kurdistan General Bahram Arif Yassin surveys his frontline at Bashiqa. Located on heights overlooking the town and the flat plain, the lights of Mosul were visible at night in the distance. Mortar fire from ISIS was common and Turkish artillery at a nearby base responded whenever ISIS fired. This was an active front that was also part of a quiet and larger story of Turkish involvement and Turkish training of Hashd al Watani fighters from Mosul. Bahram welcomed many journalists and some foreign volunteers to his headquarters. A local PAK unit manned part of the most dangerous front. The son of a famous Peshmerga, he was a frontline leader.

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‘Peshmerga volunteers,’ Bashiqa, July 2016

Four men representative of some of the typical Peshmerga forces. Even though they are at the front they wear a mix of traditional and civilian clothes. Only a kilometer from ISIS and with mortars incoming, they make tea and smile and laugh and lay down for a nap under the stars. Water comes once or twice a day along with a dinner of beans and rice. Maybe some salad. They have few heavy weapons, mostly just AK-47s.

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‘Mosul dam duty’, near Mosul Dam, July 2016

These Rojava Peshmerga women joined to defend Kurdistan and were posted at a hot and dusty site near Mosul Dam. Several kilometers behind the frontline they guarded a strategic road and the important dam. They spoke with pride of their service and the need for women to shoulder the burden alongside men.

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‘Mosul Dam,’ July 2016

Peshmerga Zerevani officer Delshad Mawlood and his colleague look at the placid lake above Mosul Dam. The dam was described as one of the “most dangerous” in the world after ISIS captured it briefly in 2014. However many locals said it was perfectly safe and that its structural problems had existed for decades. Italian engineers and other workers from Baghdad came and went to monitor and make sure it would survive the war. Today the media has gone and the dam is still safe and secure.

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‘Day of battle,’ Bashiqa frontline, October 2016

The road to the ‘Lufa’ position, the closest to ISIS in Bashiqa, was blocked as the Mosul offensive began in mid-October. Peshmerga men manning an ambulance waited for potential casualties. In many cases Peshmerga frontline units lacked proper medical care or methods for medical evacuation. At Bashiqa there was one ambulance but the roads here often required more heavy duty vehicles. A local medical volunteer said many lacked training and wounded would be taken to Bardarash where there was a clinic. They might also go further away to Duhok or Erbil. Some wounded Peshmerga were flown abroad to Germany or Jordan. Here smoke from battle can be seen in the background.

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“Help from abroad’ Bashiqa frontline, October 2016

Special forces from the coalition embedded with the Peshmerga during the war. This increased in 2016 in the lead up to the offensive in Mosul. In this photo several foreign special forces, faces blurred, walk back to their base. Gunfire can be heard in the distance, the battle has commenced with ISIS.

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‘To war,’ Nawaran frontline, October 2016

During the first day of battle in the offensive at Nawaran to liberal villages on Nineveh plain near Mosul, thousands of Peshmerga made a pincer movement around Bashiqa. These man march several kilometers from the old frontline to the new one near Fazalia on October 20.

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‘Air support’, near Fazalia, October 2016

Peshmerga men advance towards Fazalia as airstrikes and artillery pound ISIS positions. Yet casualties mounted during the day and some said the coalition was not hitting the enemy enough. Peshmerga, lacking many heavy weapons and even transport, relied on the coalition to suppress enemy fire. Snipers and mortars targeted the road. We kept going forward.

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‘Anywhere to rest’ Nawaran, July 2016

A Peshmerga takes a nap after a long day of battle. His US-supplied weapon stands near him. The sun’s rays begin to dip below the horizon.

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‘A long night’, Nawaran, October 2016

A long cold night, with gunfire and artillery and helicopters keeping everyone awake, gives way to dawn. He warms himself by the fire. It will be another long day. The smoke from the rubber of the tire goes up to the sky.

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‘From wedding to war’, Nawaran, October 2016

A Peshmerga who was at a wedding comes to the frontline during the Mosul offensive on October 21, with his expensive foreign rifle. Many thousands come to take part even if they are not on duty or called. They want to fight and be part of the historical offensive to liberate Bashiqa.

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‘Foreign support’, Bnaslawa training center, July 2016

A European trainer speaks to Peshmerga at the KTCC base near Erbil at Bnaslawa. One of three training bases, one near Sulimania, another at Atrush, train Peshmerga with modern weapons and tactics, producing brigades of infantry. They also outfit them with standard weapons and uniforms and humvees and MRAPS. Men learn de-mining and infantry tactics using live fire. Seven partner nations of the coalition provide the training. The hope is eventually to have a fully trained Peshmerga force that also bridges the old political gaps of KDP and PUK Peshmerga.

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‘What they were up against,’ Bnaslawa training center, July 2016

An uparmoured vehicle captured near Tal Afar was built by ISIS. These “mad max” trucks are armored and packed with explosives. In 2015 the Peshmerga lacked many of the MILAN and other weapons to tackle them. Later they received more supplies.

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‘The Iraqis are here’, Gwar, October 2016

Many Peshmerga describe Iraq as a failed state and the rise of ISIS as evidence of that. They want independence and see the Iraqi flag as foreign. They dislike the Iranian-backed Shia militias of Hashd al-Shaabi which some describe as “the same as ISIS.” When the Mosul offensive began Iraqi forces passed through Kurdish lines to liberate the city. Here a US-supplied Iraqi tank drives through a Kurdish checkpoint near Gwar.

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‘New borders’, Bartella checkpoint, March 2017

A Kurdish peshmerga checks IDs of drivers seeking to enter the Kurdish region as three Iraqi security forces personnel pass by on the way to their unit. Bartella became a checkpoint and a quiet border between the KRG and Iraq in October 2017 during Mosul offensive when Kurds liberated villages on one side of the road and Iraqi army on the other. Now the KRG operates strict checkpoints, while trade goods flow into Mosul from Erbil.

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