ISIS looms large in Iraq’s disputed territories
Qara Chokh mountain, Iraq – Lieutenant colonel Zaid Rekani, from Duhok, serves in the Peshmerga’s 14th Brigade on the Qara Chokh mountain near the town of Makhmour, where ISIS still maintains a presence a year after Iraq declared victory over the group. Although he’s a soldier in the official military of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the red stripe on his uniform indicates he trained in Baghdad with the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army is stationed on another part of the mountain, and retook control of Makhmour from the Peshmerga after violent clashes last year following the Kurdistan independence referendum. Rekani still maintains ties to the Iraqi army, though – so much so that he talked to his Iraqi army friends in Makhmour while they were fighting him and the other Peshmerga soldiers there last year.
“I called them amidst the battle and said ‘take care, brother,” he said, speaking from a small office space at the base. “And they called me and said ‘take care.’”
Kurdish and Iraqi forces are getting along better a year after the post-referendum violence, but ISIS is still exploiting the tense situation in Iraq’s disputed territories to maintain a presence in the country.
The Peshmerga’s bases on the mountains are on hilly terrain, and are lined by sandbags and outlooks. Many soldiers have AK-47s – the Soviet-era weapon that the Peshmerga often uses. There are also Toyota pickup trucks in the area, and Kurdish flags. On December 22, American jets bombed ISIS targets in the mountains, according to local media. The Peshmerga soldiers there say an unknown number of ISIS members are hiding in caves in the mountains between their and the Iraqi army’s position.
The recent issues of ISIS activity in disputed areas like Makhmour date back to the Kurdistan independence referendum in September 2017. People in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq voted overwhelmingly for independence then, which sparked the October 2017 Iraqi-Kurdish conflict. At this time, the Iraqi army and the pro-government Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) captured Makhmour, Kirkuk, Sinjar and other disputed territories from the Peshmerga, following battles. Kurdish forces had controlled these areas since ISIS swept through northern Iraq in 2014, and the Peshmerga defeated ISIS in disputed regions like Kirkuk then. Many Kurds dreaded the later loss of Kirkuk especially, while other Iraqis celebrated the victory.
Things are somewhat better between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) now. Iraq’s Kurdish president Barham Salih has put a lot of effort into reaching out to Iraq’s various communities since taking office in October. In a speech from a Baghdad church on Christmas day, he called on Middle Easterners to reject extremism. Leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and independence referendum mastermind Masoud Barzani visited new Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi in Baghdad also in October, and has called the Iraqi leader a “friend” of the Kurds.
In the mountains, Peshmerga officers say communication and joint operations between them and the Iraqi army decreased after the post-referendum violence, although things are getting better now.
“After the Peshmerga and Iraq fought each other, there was no brotherhood anymore,” said colonel Srud Barzanji. “But eventually, Kurdish-Iraqi relations are getting better. Maybe in the near future we’ll do cooperation.”
Meanwhile, ISIS is far from defeated in Iraq, and their presence is particularly strong in the territories that remain contested between Baghdad and the KRG, as well as Mosul. A November report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that ISIS attacks more than doubled in the Kirkuk province from 2017 to 2018. The think tank found that a lack of security in Iraq’s disputed territories following the resumption of federal Iraqi control led to safe havens for ISIS.
“The lack of an official military presence throughout ungoverned space and disputed territories in Kirkuk and Salah ad-Dine provinces have enabled Islamic State militants to operate freely,” read the report. “This is due in part to the security vacuum caused by the forced withdrawal of Kurdish Peshmerga from these areas following the Kurdish referendum.”
Near disputed Makhmour, Peshmerga soldiers say the town was safer in Kurdish hands because they know the area better. The general at the Qara Chokh base says the Peshmerga still has a greater familiarity with the local population than their Iraqi counterparts.
“For years, we were in the neighborhood and the people of Makhmour know us,” said Sherzad Ramazan. “The federal police are totally new here. They don’t know locals versus ISIS members.”
However, Iraqi forces are doing much better against ISIS than the days of 2014, when the group controlled large cities like Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah. ISIS is relegated to remote parts of the country now, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence spokesman.
“There is no strong presence,” said brigadier general Yahya Rasul. “Some elements are trying to exist in desert and mountainous areas.”
Some other recent attacks have been carried out by unknown groups. This includes attacks in Mosul, which is not a disputed territory, but where there have been recent deadly incidents nonetheless. Iraqi officials blamed a car bomb in Mosul that killed six in October on ISIS, but the group did not take credit for the attack. Often times, Iraqi media will refer to armed groups in the disputed territories and near Mosul as “terrorists,” or “militants,” without naming ISIS. There is also another insurgent group known as the White Flags that is active in Iraq’s disputed territories.
There is coordination between Iraqi and Kurdish forces against ISIS at present. The Iraqi army and the Peshmerga carried out a joint operation against ISIS in the Qara Chokh mountains in July, with the help of airstrikes from the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. This was the most recent joint operation near Makhmour, according to Barzanji. The coalition, known formally as Operation Inherent Resolve, supports the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga working together.
“Their shared sacrifices & focus on the #defeatDaesh mission will be the framework to achieve national unity,” wrote a coalition spokesperson on Twitter in July.
The cooperation is not limited to the Kurdish and Iraqi armies. Different Iraqi groups, including the army, federal police, and the PMU, work with each other as well.
In Makhmour, the Peshmerga’s orders come from the Peshmerga Ministry. If they see ISIS movement, they inform the international coalition, not the Iraqi army nearby, and the coalition coordinates responses. The general in Qara Chokh says there is no direct and official communication with their local Iraqi counterparts post the Iraqi-Kurdish conflict last year.
“After October 16, there is no dialogue with Iraq like that,” said Ramazan.
The Peshmerga and Iraqi army arranging strikes against ISIS near Makhmour with each other, as opposed to going through their governments and the coalition, could lead to faster actions, according to Rekani.
“The Peshmerga know the people of Makhmour, and recognize who is an ISIS member,” he said. “If we had direct coordination, this could be quicker.”
The lack of such communication is not souring there Iraqi-Kurdish relations, though, according to Rekani
“There’s no headquarters managing operations here,” he said. “But we (Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers) see each other and are friends.”
Barzanji says ISIS benefits from perceived hatred between the Kurdistan Region and the rest of Iraq, and that he wants closer cooperation with his Iraqi allies, despite their past conflict.
“ISIS now takes advantage of feelings that the Iraqi army and Peshmerga are against each other,” he said. “If we were more allied, we could completely defeat ISIS.”
The various groups fighting against ISIS in Iraq is complicating the effort, according to others. David M. Witty, a former U.S. army colonel who advised the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, says the country’s militaries lack unity of command. This is a principle of war that says all armed forces need to be under the authority of one centralized organizational body. This is particularly an issue in the Nineveh province, where Mosul is, according to Witty.
“Nineveh province is a good example, there’s so many different commands, no one seems to be really overall in charge,” he said.
In Nineveh and throughout Iraq, the Iraqi army, PMU, Peshmerga, federal police, the Counter Terrorism Service and others all fight against ISIS. There is a Nineveh Operations Command, but Witty says it is difficult for the various groups there to coordinate.
“It looks more like consensus building trying to get the various security forces to follow courses of action,” said Witty.
Others say Iraq’s various armed forces do not get in the way of fighting ISIS. The spokesman for the Nineveh Operations Command says the different forces in the province each have different roles, and do not all need to be involved in every action.
“It’s not hard. We have good coordination between the police, (PMU) and the army,” said brigadier general Firas Bashar on working with the different groups. “In any military operation, sometimes there’s only one force, whoever has responsibility.”
The U.S.-led coalition appears to be staying in Iraq for the time being. U.S. president Donald Trump visited American soldiers at a base in Iraq in December, and defended his decision to withdraw the country’s forces from neighboring Syria there. For now, there are no plans for the U.S. to pull out from Iraq, but some Iraqi politicians have called for the U.S. to leave, especially after Trump’s visit. The president did not meet the Iraqi prime minister during the trip, after they could not agree on whether to meet at the U.S. military base or in Baghdad.
There are many conspiracies in Iraq and the Middle East about the West and the U.S.’s role in defeating ISIS, with some saying the U.S. is not really fighting the group. Some soldiers here say the international coalition is helping.
“It’s positive. When we have military operations, we need air support,” said Bashar of the coalition, which conducts aerial bombings of ISIS.
Iraq is currently embroiled in political turmoil over the filling several cabinet positions. Turkey continues to bomb Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in the country, despite Iraq’s opposition. Article 140, which calls for referendums to resolve the status of Iraq’s disputed territories, has not been implemented. At the same time, the country is far safer than it was at the height of ISIS’ power.
Diyari Salih, a frequent commentator in Iraqi media, says that until the disputed territories achieve communal unity, ISIS will continue to exploit divisions there.
“Daesh is welcoming an opportunity in Kirkuk and the other regions,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the group. “They’re betting on the breakdown of societal trust in these regions.