On the front lines of Kurdistan’s wars

An ongoing war, of many wars combined, is raging along the 500-kilometer border of Iraqi Kurdistan. In the conflict against ISIS, countless interests — business, regional, international, economic, ethnic and religious — are intertwined. But there’s also a decisive, epochal confrontation between a resurgent Middle Ages and the free world with its new social constructs.

Young Kurds, Turks, Iranians and Syrians fighting against ISIS call each other “Heval” (companions). They are poorly armed, but infused with courage, ideals and moral principles, and they smile freely even if they know that in order to beat ISIS, they must fight and destroy incurable local and international metastases.

In the front’s southern leg, in Kirkuk, the K1 base stretches for kilometers, built by Saddam Hussein to protect the largest oil field in the country. Today it is a city of ghosts, abandoned and partially destroyed. In 2014 thousands of soldiers, mostly Shia Iraqis, the new army trained by the Americans, stole everything before escaping without fighting the advances of a few hundred ISIS followers. Among the hundreds of abandoned buildings, some were re-occupied by young PKK guerrillas, the Apo Ocalan Kurdistan Workers Party, which is opposed to the regime of the Turkish satrap Recep Erdogan.

The guerrillas eat a frugal meal with salad and fresh cheese before leaving for the front line. They are mostly women. They are young and very determined.

The K1 base stands next to a highway which hosts all kinds of oil-related trade. A few days ago, a band of pirates “was discovered” inside oil trucks purchased from ISIS through the many Iraqi checkpoints.

After traveling a few kilometers, you come across a petrochemical complex manned by peshmerga, tribal militiamen of the Jalal Talabani Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a former president of Iraq, historical enemy of Masoud Barzani, leader of the KDP, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the current president of the autonomous region of Kurdistan.

The petrochemical mammoth surprisingly has not suffered any damages, although it falls within range of ISIS’ missiles and Katyusha.

After passing other roadblocks and an endless wall of precast concrete blocks, which runs up to the horizon next a tributary of the Zab river, you get to the “Kirkuk Valley,” an earthen rampart, 4-5 meters high along several kilometers, protected by fortifications erected every 500 meters of built-up terrain and 30 meters high. It seems built to last, to separate permanently the Iraqi-Kurdish region from the rest of the country.

One of the earth and stone strongholds is defended by the young people of the PKK. They wear the traditional gray-green uniform with the baggy trousers. They do not use the traditional army ranks; they don’t feel like the military. They want to be called “guerrilla.” But if this were 1936 Spain, these young Turks, Iranians and Iraqis, who fight against the resurgence of a cruel and bloody social and religious totalitarianism could be called “volunteers of the International Brigades.”

These are mostly women. “ISIS is afraid of women,” says Dicle, 30, a guerrilla fighter since 2008. “When they hear the trill of our voice, they get terrified. We also fight against the patriarchal mentality. As Apo (Ocalan) says, ‘The PKK was started by women.’”

A kilometer further on, there are ISIS posts. A “guerrilla fighter” reports on the radio the movement of enemy military vehicles. Newal, a spritely 24-year-old-old Kurdish-Iranian, staffs the fort lookout. She scans the plain through binoculars, then gives the order to a fellow fighter to shoot with a long-barreled gun. She gives other orders by radio. Newal runs up to an armored gray vehicle full of holes and tries again to hit the military resources of the black-clad followers of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with a DShK, an old-fashioned Russian-made anti-aircraft machine gun. The islamists disappear into thin air, like ghosts.

Who knows how only 30,000 people, of whom only half are fit for combat, to control a front line 2,000 kilometers long, of which only 500 are inside the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan? This is one of the great mysteries of a war shrouded in the mists of shameful agreements.

Seventy kilometers from the first Kirkuk line, in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, you don’t feel the fear of war, although there have been attacks with car bombs, and the front line is only 40 kilometers to the west. The city was a modest town under Saddam, but it has become a populous city with tall, Dubai-style towers of glass and concrete, Pharaonic hotels, six-lane highways clogged with new cars. Amidst the skeletons of buildings abandoned because of the economic crisis, there is a residential neighborhood, the Italian village,” and another, a contract from the Italian Ministry of Defence to the firm Chroo Group, is being built inside the airport to meet the needs of the Italian military contingent, as though they’re convinced the mission against ISIS will last forever.

In the huge refugee camps at the shores of Erbil, there is peace between Sunni Arabs and Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Yazidis, Shabak Shiites, Shiite and Sunni Turkmen, Christian Mandaeans, Kakai and Kurdish Jews, although sometimes it is difficult to understand one another. The Kurds speak six different dialects, but if you speak to them in Arabic, you are regarded with suspicion. In the autonomous region, Iraqi Arabic, the main national language, is no longer taught at school.

Namrud, a 50-year-old Assyrian Christian who speaks Arabic and Aramaic, the language of Galilee at the time of Jesus, says happily: “After 2,000 years, Aramaic is being taught again in Christian schools.” He has two brothers imprisoned by ISIS at Qaraqosh, near Mosul, and he does not trust the Sunni axis. “The Barzani peshmerga withdrew from Qaraqosh without fighting, abandoning us into the hands of ISIS.” He adds with a smile: “Even the Iraqi Kurds are Sunnis.” The accusation against Iraqi Kurds for abandoning religious minorities to their fate is repeated by many.

Near the ancient citadel, the bright Al-Tafseen library, the largest in Iraq, is surrounded by myriad other small libraries where artists, poets and writers discuss and display a pre-war international culture. Ramadan, a 9-year-old shoeshine, looks at the books of his customers with fear. “I do not know how to read or write either in Arabic or Kurdish.” He lost his father a few years ago, and he has to work to support his mother and younger siblings.

Secret capital

Forty kilometers from Erbil, along a road crowded with soldiers of the regular army who return to the front after furlough, is the first Makhmur line, bordering with another oil field, the largest in Iraqi Kurdistan. Not far from there, 12,000 PKK Kurds live in a town fortified with concrete bunkers and 5-meter-high towers, which surround the entire perimeter. Inside, hundreds of houses built with concrete blocks, tidy and dignified, a large amphitheater, small shops, the pastry bar, the tailor shop where uniforms are cut and sewn, schools and “even a small university, but only for two-year degrees,” says Nyatt, a young primary school teacher and guerrilla. This unnamed city is the “secret” capital of the PKK in Kurdistan, where Iranian Kurds, Syrians and other political opponents of the Ankara regime, including non-Kurds, are housed.

The controls executed by PKK militants are accurate and severe, unlike in neighboring Makhmur, where a few weeks ago an ISIS car bomb exploded, in conjunction with a meeting of Western diplomats at the residence of “General” Masoud Barzani, called to illustrate the imminent (and then postponed) offensive of his peshmerga on Mosul.

The complex system of fortifications of the PKK town amazes, built after the ISIS advance in 2014. On the high mountain overlooking the houses at the edge of the Nineveh plain, stone towers were built, connected to each other with trenches and paths in a polygonal defense system, which should protect the plateau, a possible retreat location if the Iraqi peshmerga of Barzani yield again to ISIS.

A young guerrilla tracks on a sheet of paper the map of the mysterious acronyms of the various formations (male and female) who oppose ISIS. “The HPG, the defense stronghold of the people, composed largely of Turkish men, is the military officer training of the PKK. The YJA Star is the official women’s military wing of the PKK. Syrian Kurds have two formations, the YPG (men) and YPJ (Women). Then there are the formations of Iraqi Kurds, YBS (men) and VJS (women). Yazidis, Christians and other non-Kurdish minorities fight either within these formations or with allied military groups, such as the HPS, the defense force of Sinjar, the martyred city.” These formations are rigidly divided by gender; men cannot control female battalions. Only at headquarters level there is a mixed-gender command.

A Makhmur battle is conducted mostly at night. It is an endless succession of explosions and gunfire. Some days ago, the Iraqi army broke yet another offensive with the excuse that ISIS has protected its positions with minefields. Although a few kilometers away, Fire Base Bell, an artillery base of the U.S. marines, offers an umbrella of fire with old 155mm howitzers leftover of the Korean War, neither the peshmerga nor the Iraqi regular army, composed mainly of Shiites, seem anxious to go free Mosul, the second-largest city of the country, mainly inhabited by Sunni Arabs.

Turkish intervention

The alternative route that goes from Erbil to Dohuk, bypassing ISIS-controlled Mosul, long columns of black smoke rise on the horizon on the rocky ridge of high mountains that line the street. Turkish F16s, in addition to bombing the Kurdish cities in Turkey, invade Iraqi airspace every day to strike PKK bases on the Iraqi mountains.

Across the modern city of Dohuk, the road is crowded with tankers, all with names of Turkish companies, which run wildly toward the Erdogan satrapy loaded with oil. But in that area, the only wells are those beyond the front line, controlled by ISIS.

Kurdistan’s front line stops at the Syrian border. Barzani’s peshmerga have closed the Semelka border post because they do not want friction with their best oil customer, Turkey, the NATO member country that sends weapons and aid to ISIS and fights the PKK and their Kurdish-Syrian allies who are fighting against the caliphate.

After the small bridge over the Tigris River and across a wasteland dotted with destroyed houses, you get to the Sinjar mountains. The great plateau is crowded with the tents of ISIS survivors, a few thousands Yazidis who speak Kurdish are of different ethnicity and for 4,000 years have practiced a mysterious and monotheistic religion. “ISIS has kidnapped and enslaved 2,000 women and killed 1,800 men,” said the dean of the Yazidi school, housed in tents. “It was a genocide. What will you Europeans do?”

’A pile of rubble’

On the mountain slopes, Sinjar is a military zone. It can only be entered with a special permit. Controlled by Yazidi guerrillas with the help of PKK Syrian Kurds and Turkish Kurds, the town is completely destroyed. The Iraqi army and the peshmerga of Barzani keep only symbolic contingents in the city, and are viewed with great suspicion by the Yazidis.

“In 2014, there were 8,000 peshmerga to defend Sinjar, but after negotiating with ISIS, they fled, leaving the people defenseless in the hands of the ‘black men.’ It was a massacre,” says Kawa, a young Yazidi commander who lost his brother in the early fighting.

Sinjar has had the same fate as Qaraqosh and another six or seven Christian villages around Mosul. It was abandoned by those left to defend it. The PKK formations of Syrian and Turkish Kurds, who arrived just after the escape of the peshmerga, saved 120,000 Yazidis from certain death. In the town, completely destroyed by American and allied bombing, a group of Yazidi guerrillas is having lunch with canned tuna and fresh-picked pears. Beyond the wall that contains them, there is ISIS.

A Yazidi commander looks around sadly. “We pointed out, by radio, targets to the Americans, but the bombers came an hour later,” he said. “So those ISIS fighters, who intercepted communications, had all the time to escape. And then, after the bombing, they re-occupied the positions.” His city is now a pile of rubble.

Every day new masks of ISIS’ puppeteers are coming off: Most recently were those of Assad and Erdogan, with the discovery of backroom deals with ISIS for arms and oil. In the many wars of this multi-faceted conflict, profiteers and war traffickers are at work along the hundreds of kilometers of this shifting front line.

The young Kurdish guerrillas fighting ISIS are aware of this, but they also have a hope. Across the border their fellow Syrian Kurds have swept ISIS, in little time and with few resources, freeing their territory and creating a free state where Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Aramaic, Turkmen and Chechen Syrians live in peace and where they develop new forms of social organization, health care, justice and political participation in community governance. It is there where the new world is being built.

Soldiers or contractors?

A few days ago, an American soldier was killed during an attack against ISIS by vehicles packed with explosives near Tel Asqof, a few kilometers from Mosul’s dam. Usually, these vehicles packed with explosives are guided to their target by kamikaze drivers. In this case, and for the first time in this war, the vehicle was apparently remotely guided.

With this surprise attack, Islamists wanted to give a clear signal to the first vanguards of the Italian military contingent who in the coming days will have to defend the 60 technicians of the Italian company Trevi, who, along with several hundred local workers, will have to reinforce this large dam on the Tigris River.

Even before the laying of the cornerstone, this work — desired by the U.S. military and opposed by Kurdish technicians who have overseen the dike for years and consider the job useless — has caused controversy and confusion. Trevi, a struggling state-owned drilling company, won the $270 million contract. The amount of work is less than one-tenth of the sum Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had imagined, and it doesn’t appear that the price will be revised. The projected costs will be paid by the Iraqi government with loans from international lenders.

The fall in oil prices has put the central government in crisis but especially the regional government of Kurdistan, which is heavily indebted — about $25 billion — mostly to American banks. It has not paid salaries in the last five months to the regional Peshmerga army or to its employees, who account for 30 percent of the entire regional workforce.

On the other hand, the cost of the 500-person Italian military contingent, their transport helicopters and four Mangusta attack helicopters, will be supported entirely by the Italian state. But if the genius U.S. military (and not some international hydraulic engineering luminary) has judged that the work of consolidation cannot be delayed, why didn’t the U.S. government send its engineers, its technicians and its soldiers to repair the dam?

The Italian “boots on the ground” will cost to the state at least €50 million per year, assuming they are not involved in military actions in the adjacent front line against ISIS.

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