On the sweltering plains of northern Iraq, a steady flow of coalition guns, ammunition and military guidance is bolstering Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they battle ISIS militants out of Iraqi towns and villages.
But credible evidence has emerged to suggest American and particularly European support is also being leveraged to advance a second, far more contentious goal: realising the long-held dream of an independent Kurdish state.
When militants from the so-called Islamic State bulldozed through the Syria-Iraq border last summer and blazed into northern Iraq, Peshmerga guerrilla forces across the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region scrambled to respond.
Peshmerga, whose name means “those who are ahead of death,” flocked to the fight in their traditional baggy khaki trousers, armed with vintage AK-47s and sometimes just a handful of bullets. Long-retired former fighters, known as the September Peshmerga, re-enlisted as volunteers, bandoliers of bullets snugged around post-middle-age paunches as they manned checkpoints and held rear defensive positions in the high summer heat.
Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region and the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was spared. Further afield, frontlines around Mosul to the north and Kirkuk, 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Erbil, the fight continues.
Over the past six months, more and more weapons, ammunition, supplies and expertise from the international coalition have reached Iraqi bases and battlefields. As this has happened, the Peshmerga – and, to a lesser degree, the Iraqi Army – have professionalised their forces and built on their abilities to attack, defend and hold ground.
Their efforts have paid off. In late July, while visiting Iraqi Kurdistan, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter described the Peshmerga as a model for the rest of Iraq in its fight against Isis. "We are trying to build a force throughout the territory of Iraq, and someday in Syria, that can do" what the Peshmerga have achieved, Carter told Kurdish and coalition military personnel in Erbil.
But a crucial difference in long-term goals threatens to unsettle the workings of the relationship between the Kurds on the frontline, and the Americans and Europeans behind them.
“There’s an incongruence of war aims between the Kurds and their backers,” Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst based in Jordan and publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics, tells The Jerusalem Report. “The coalition wants to end the conflict and keep Iraq whole, but the Kurds want to secede from Iraq. The end point is very different for the Kurds than it is for the US,” he says.
Nowhere is this split more evident than in the oil-rich and long-disputed stretch of land south of Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city 300 kilometers (185 miles) north of Baghdad. In Iraq’s long history of sectarian violence, Kirkuk and the Daquq district – 130 villages scattered south of Kirkuk – have been amongst the bloodiest of battlefields.
From the 1970s, the Kurds living in Daquq were subjected to ongoing, brutal oppression by Saddam Hussein, whose Arabization policies forcibly uprooted and evicted Kurds, filling their homes and villages with Arabs who would vote for and provide a crucial support base for Hussein’s policies.
The Kurds of Kirkuk haven’t forgotten what they lost to the ethnic cleansing of Arabization. ISIS’s blitz expansion into this region, halting within sniper’s range of the Kirkuk-Baghdad highway, gave the Kurds the opportunity they needed.
As the Iraqi army absconded in June 2014, the Peshmerga swept in, secured Kirkuk and the oil-rich land around it. They’ve held on ever since, bolstered by growing coalition support including US airstrikes. But in Daquq, there is compelling evidence that the Kurds also making gains on a second front – their own state.
“The Kurds’ goal is to undo Saddam Hussein’s Arabization, not to fight ISIS. Saddam's legacy is more the enemy than ISIS,” explains Sowell.
Swathes of Arabized villages have been cleared of ISIS, but remain uninhabited, their residents prevented from returning. General Sardar Abdul Wahab, the Peshmerga in charge of the sector, tells The Report that civilians were prevented from returning home to their destroyed villages for safety reasons.
“If a family cannot find water or electricity services in an area, how can they survive? And that’s beside the threat of IEDs,” he says. But on a visit to one of these ruined villages, stripped of all trucks, tractors and household goods, he encouraged this reporter to walk freely: the improvised explosive device threat seemed not to apply.
He admits a problem with trust. “Most villagers around here are living their lives, but some are working as guards for Da’esh,” he says, using the pejorative Arabic term for Isis.
Sheikh Ahmad, a 45-year-old resident of the village of Wahda, who was just a child at the time of Arabization, tells The Report his village had been looted by men in Peshmerga uniforms, in the days and weeks after ISIS had been forced out.
Abdul Wahab denies pillaging Wahda and the other Arabized villages several kilometers back from the former frontline, where burnt-out houses vacant and streets are oddly, somewhat artificially empty of the detritus of daily life that a fleeing population leaves in its wake. “If we did this, then we’d be no better than Da’esh,” says Abdul Wahab.
But Saed Kakei, an advisor to the Ministry of Peshmerga, admits that in some villages, all parties, including the Peshmerga, took part in looting. “In the chaos of war, people get their hands on everything they can get,” he says.
There is growing evidence – including a February 2015 Human Rights Watch report and comments by aid workers, diplomats and residents – to support the allegations that Kurds are looting Arab villages, forcibly removing inhabitants and preventing their return without any military necessity. But coalition support continues to flow in, both facilitating the Kurds’ advance on ISIS and quietly enhancing their fight for an independent Kurdish state.
The coalition’s biggest donors say they cannot prove the allegations.
“From what we see from where we are and where we train Peshmerga groups, we have no evidence for these allegations. Right now, we don’t have proof,” said Gero Von Fritschen, spokesman for the German Ministry of Defence. “We as the Ministry of Defence are not in a position to go ahead and investigate these things,” he said.
Michael Lavallee, a State Department spokesperson, said the US was “deeply concerned by reports of abuse associated with any Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIL, including the Kurdish Peshmerga.”
The State Department has raised the issue with both KRG President Masoud Barzani and Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. But Abadi has no authority over the Peshmerga, and Barzani has made no secret of his desire for an independence Kurdish state. And so for now, the status quo persists, with European donors vastly stepped up their support over the past six months.
The British Ministry of Defence has provided over 50 tons of non-lethal support, 40 heavy machine guns, nearly half a million rounds of ammunition and £600,000 worth of military equipment to Peshmerga. They’ve also gifted 1,000 counter-IED VALLON detectors to the Peshmerga and have used their own aircraft to deliver over 300 additional tons of weapons and ammunition on behalf of other coalition members.
France and Germany are major donors of military aid. Germany has delivered 1,700 tons of weapons, ammunition, armoured vehicles and other material, including uniform boots, helmets, vests, kitchens, mobile phones and medical aid. The German Ministry of Defence says it is currently mulling future shipments, including armoured vehicles.
Training is the cornerstone of European support for the Kurds. Peshmerga officers have been flown to Italy for training, and more than 50 Italians have joined British, Norwegian, French, Danish and Dutch soldiers in Peshmerga training camps. Germany has a mandate for 100 troops in northern Iraq, and Germans operate out of training centres in Erbil and not far from Daquq.
The US currently has 3,500 trainers and advisors in Iraq, working on the ground to bolster troops and call in air strikes. According to Pentagon data, by May 2015, the coalition had launched 3,731 air strikes at Isis targets in Iraq and Syria.
Yet despite the KRG’s repeated requests for support to be routed directly to its capital Erbil, coalition aid continues to flow through Baghdad. Britain, the US, France and Germany, amongst other coalition members, maintain bilateral relations with Federal Iraq and its capital Baghdad: they don’t recognise the independence of the fledgling Kurdish state.
For their part, Kurds say they consistently get a fraction of the aid and funds that are sent to Baghdad – a much smaller fraction that they believe they deserve. Frontline Peshmerga complain of being under-armed and relying on outdated equipment, and payment for Peshmerga is known to be several months behind: the money just isn’t coming.
While Kurds complain that they are not being given enough, their Western backers, mindful of the Kurds’ goal of independence, seem unwilling to offer much more. Beyond the fear of facilitating the declaration of a Kurdish state and the end of federal Iraq as we know it, there is also the fear of quagmire.
"Britain has slowly been increasing the number of military personnel in Iraq training the Peshmerga but the commitment remains very limited,” said Alistair Bunkall, Sky News's Defence Correspondent.
"Britain is following the US strategy of containment from the air and despite David Cameron repeatedly telling the British people that ISIL is an "existential threat", I see no desire to put British ground troops into Iraq or Syria,” he said.
He acknowledged the air campaign can only have limited affect, but said it would take “something big” for Britain’s very measured support to change.
But south of Kirkuk, in the fields and oil flats long fought over between Baghdad and Erbil, the spirit of Kurdish independence is rising. As point-people on a crucial frontline and the coalition’s only boots on the northern Iraqi ground, the Kurds have a valuable bargaining chip in their pursuit of a goal far more personal and powerful than defeating ISIS.
Something big has already begun.