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Kurds Fighting the Islamic State Are Trying to Navigate Between the US and Iran

On the front line of the battle against IS, Peshmerga fighters say they're earning international support for a Kurdish state. They may be wrong.
Peshmerga fighters before an offensive against the Islamic State last year near Kirkuk, backed by allied warplanes. Photo by Khalil al A’nei/EPA

The Iraqi village of al-Yarmouk is mostly sun-baked rubble now. Freshly retaken from the Islamic State by the Peshmerga, the fighting force of the Kurdish regional government, it has become another town destroyed by the fighting. There are occasional reminders among the ruins of the way things used to be: a child's doll with a broken smile, a charred, bent teapot.

With military assistance from a coalition led by the United States, the Peshmerga took the village last month and evacuated for safety the remaining townspeople, Shia Muslims who had survived two years of occupation by the Sunni Islamic State militants, who consider them unbelieving blasphemers.


Al-Yarmouk, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the city of Kirkuk, has become one of the most recent additions to the rapidly expanding territory that might one day become a Kurdish state.

Before they can even address the question of Kurdish sovereignty, though, the Peshmerga have to get the Islamic State out of the territory surrounding al-Yarmouk. The struggle to defeat the extremists has thrust them in the middle of a complex international game, one in which the US and Iran, once avowed adversaries, are forced to indirectly coordinate with each other as they fight against a common enemy. And on the northern horizon, just over the mountains, looms Turkey, the enemy of the Kurds — and a friend of the United States.

As with the rest of their newly acquired territory, the Peshmerga soldiers in al-Yarmouk have no intention of leaving. They've set up headquarters in an abandoned school at the center of the village.

"This is a very strategic location from Daesh's perspective," their commander, a tense, wiry man sporting a luxuriant moustache says, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State. "We've penetrated into these parts very sharply, like an arrow. They surround us on three sides, so they focus strongly on this point and attack us daily using bombs and artillery and rushing us with their forces."

Peshmerga walking through al-Yarmouk, Iraq (Photo by Sulome Anderson/VICE News)

As he speaks, a rocket lands nearby with a muffled boom that makes the air quiver for a moment. The commander, stirring large amounts of sugar into his tea, doesn't seem to notice. But he acknowledges that his enemy is well armed, better than his people, in fact.


"The most sophisticated weaponry we have is our guns," he says. "Were it not for America, they might defeat us overnight. Our conviction is our strongest weapon."

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Across northern Iraq, the Peshmerga is currently engaged in a large-scale offensive against IS. The aim is twofold: protect the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and press on in an attempt to capture Mosul, the largest urban area currently under IS control. To the south, the Iraqi army has temporarily halted its advance on besieged Fallujah in order to calculate a way into the city that minimizes casualties for the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped there.

Meanwhile, US-backed fighters in Syria, with the blessing of Turkey, just launched an effort to cut off the last remaining area of IS control on the Turkish-Syrian border, which would be a huge strategic blow to the Islamist group. The caliphate is embattled on all sides.

Watch VICE News' Reclaiming Sinjar: Pushing Back the Islamic State:

As the commander in al-Yarmouk pointed out, US Special Forces and American aerial support have played a crucial role in the coordinated push against IS, and nowhere is that more obvious than with the Peshmerga. An American Special Forces team is stationed at the Peshmerga headquarters near Kirkuk, commanded by an officer with a hard-eyed smile, wearing full Kurdish tribal dress. The Americans seem wary of being noticed, but their presence is no secret.


Iran's hand in this military operation is less obvious, but certainly present. Tehran appears to have exerted its influence with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a fellow Shia, in order to divert the Iraqi army's attention from Mosul to Fallujah — a move that would help keep the nearby capital of Baghdad firmly under Shia control.

Iran is also supplying and training Iraqi Shia militias, called the Hashd al-Sha'abi or Popular Mobilization Committees, fighting alongside US-backed Peshmerga near Kirkuk. This poses a challenge, since neither the Americans nor the Iranians want to be seen coordinating with the other.

At the beginning of May, the US refused to provide aerial support to Shia militias during the battle to liberate the area around the village of Bashir, which includes al-Yarmouk, exposing some of the tensions under this strange-bedfellows dynamic.

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"At the end of the day, our interests in working with various Kurdish groups are very different than any interests the Iranians might have," says Eric Brown, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank. "Right now, they're using various Kurdish factions as proxy forces to pursue their own strategic agenda in the region. The Iranians are also interested in making sure that no self-ruling Kurdish polity emerges in northeastern Iraq or elsewhere that Iran cannot control."


The question of Kurdish independence is the elephant in the room of the war against IS. Following the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 in which Britain and France redistributed the territories of the failing Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were provided with no national entity of their own. Since then, they have been living in an area straddling Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. In the latter, they have established an autonomous regional government, locked in a struggle for influence and oil revenue with the central authorities in Baghdad.

And now that the Peshmerga have raised their flag over parts of what they consider Kurdistan, they are in no rush to turn them over.

'We will not leave any place we've liberated with our blood. This is the rule of war in the world: if you've captured any land, that land is yours.'

"We will not leave any place we've liberated with our blood," says Peshmerga brigadier general Wasta Rasoul at their headquarters near Kirkuk. "This is the rule of war in the world: if you've captured any land, that land is yours."

Rasoul enthusiastically gestures at a large strategic map taped to the wall.

"This river was the first fighting point between us and Daesh," he says, pointing to a little blue squiggle on the map, near the town of Bashir. "The water was a very good natural obstacle for the protection of these areas. During that period, Daesh forces raided us 15 times in order to capture Kirkuk… They wanted to get closer to the oil fields."


"Most of our martyrs," he says, "were lost in this place."

But then the Americans and their coalition partners began bombing on behalf of the Kurds, enabling them to go on the offensive. "Since March 2015, we've changed our strategy from defense to attack," says the general. "The aircraft of the international coalition against IS have been assisting us."

But when he's asked about the complexity of liaising with the US as well as with Iran and the Shia militias it influences, General Rasoul seems aggrieved.

"The day that we liberated the Bashir area, we didn't allow [the Shia militias] to participate, because if they took part, the alliance aircraft wouldn't provide us with assistance," he says. But now, he adds, "the Hashd al-Sha'abi…doesn't have any problem with us. They are under my control now; I am their commander."

Judith Yaphe, professor at George Washington University's School of International Affairs, says Iran's sponsorship of the Hashd al-Sha'abi poses a problem for the United States.

"From what I understand, the Shia [militias] are being kept out of direct involvement in neighborhood fighting," she says. "If you look at Fallujah, the Shia militias are fighting on the outskirts, but not inside the city, because there is a fear that they will practice some retribution or ethnic cleansing as they did in the south of Baghdad when they liberated some Sunni villages there."

But they can't be sidelined permanently. "The problem here is that it can't be done by just one faction or group," Yaphe saus. "I don't think the Kurds by themselves can defeat ISIS. The Shia can't do it by themselves either."


"Iran exists on all sides here," says Sheikh Jafar Mustafa, the Kurdish regional government minister in charge of the Peshmerga, at his office in what used to be the elegant home of one of Saddam Hussein's relatives, a short distance away from the headquarters near Kirkuk. "It has been interfering in Iraqi affairs for over 50 years. Where there are Shia militias, there is Iran, and we as Kurds have not cut off our relationship with Iran…at the beginning of our battles with Daesh, Iran gave us weapons. At the time, there were no coalition forces here, so we needed the help and we appreciated it, as we appreciate America's help now."

"Iran and America support the same groups but refuse to cooperate," he continues with a bemused chuckle. "It's very confusing for us. For example, Iran supports the Iraqi prime minister and so does America, but they hate each other, so it's hard to know what's going on."

"The Iraqis and the Americans have operation centers and the Iranians and the Iraqis have their own operation centers, but they can't have any operation centers together," he says. "We have a saying in Kurdish: they won't eat the meat, but they will eat the soup of the meat."

According to Yaphe, Iranian support of the Kurds in their time of need was a highly calculated move. "I think at that point, it was to [Iran's] interest that Iraq be able to put up a fight, because Iran needs an Iraq that will protect it against just this kind of threat," she says. "The Kurds needed help wherever they could get it, as soon as it could come, so they took it."


'It's very, very dangerous for the Kurds to think that the Americans will support them in an independence bid.'

They won't, however, get Iranian support for an independent state, according to Yaphe.

"From an Iranian perspective, the goal is to keep Iraq whole and weak, so that it's strong enough to stay together," she says, "which means that the Kurds stay as part of Iraq, but not strong enough to pose a challenge or military threat."

Even if Iran doesn't support an independent Kurdistan, Sheikh Mustafa thinks the US will, a belief echoed by many Peshmerga. "The Americans haven't announced anything yet, but we're hopeful that America will support our bid," he says. "The US can see the facts. Iraq is divided into regions now. It's only a matter of time before the world will have to accept for us to have our own country."

Brown of the Hudson Institute is skeptical that Washington would ignore the opposition of a close ally, Turkey, and the potential destabilizing effects such a drastic change might have on the region: "It's very, very dangerous for the Kurds to think that the Americans will support them in an independence bid. The United States as a forward-thinking partner in the region should help the Kurds focus on how to build up the institutions that would permit them to maintain their sovereignty within a federal Iraq. That means focusing on economy, on education, on rule of law, among other things."


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But if the Kurds are rebuffed by the US in their hopes for a nation of their own, might they turn towards their other benefactor, Iran?

"It's possible," says Brown. "Iran has at times been a friend to the Kurds, and at times it has been very, very oppressive. There is certainly within Kurdish tradition and culture a healthy skepticism about Iran, and it goes back to the stories that Kurds tell their kids…there's a traditional Kurdish saying: 'The Turks will give you either poison, or they will give you honey. The Iranians will mix the poison in with the honey.'"

Peshmerga inspecting the place where an Islamic State rocket just landed in al-Yarmouk, Iraq (Photo by Sulome Anderson/VICE News)

For now, the Peshmerga are hopeful that their role as the region's most viable fighting force against the Islamic State will provide them some leverage with Washington. At the abandoned school in al-Yarmouk, another rocket strikes farther off with a distant bang. The mustachioed commander sips his syrupy tea, unperturbed.

"The support of the US-led coalition is crucial for us, and they know the only reliable ground forces here are Peshmerga fighters," he says. "We complete each other. We are like fish, and they are the water."

Follow Sulome Anderson on Twitter: @SulomeAnderson