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'We Have to Defeat Them': On Mount Sinjar With Kurdish Forces as They Battle the Islamic State

VICE News traveled with the Kurdish peshmerga as they fight back against the Islamic State in the Iraqi cities of Sinjar and Mosul.
Photo by Frederick Paxton

Through a cleft in the mountain, past a giant billboard of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan that announces a checkpoint, the road to the Iraqi city of Sinjar winds through a jagged, highland landscape of terraced fields and ancient stone villages.

On the roadside, blonde Yazidi children leading herds of goats wave at passing cars, with shouts of "Long live YPG," "Long live peshmerga," or "Long live PKK," depending on which Kurdish faction they guess the vehicles belong to. The blue plastic tents of the refugee encampments hidden in the valley's folds flutter stiffly in the blustery spring winds.


One year ago, the Yazidi people, an ancient and isolated Kurdish religious minority, fled their homes in Sinjar and the surrounding villages and cities below the mountain as Islamic State (IS) fighters approached.

Legally administered by Iraq's central government, but garrisoned by Kurdish peshmerga forces, the status of Sinjar had long been a point of contention between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region. But the coming of IS, also referred to as Daesh, and the collapse of the peshmerga garrison changed everything.

Those who could fled to the precarious safety of the mountain ridge, the lower slopes of which are still littered with burned-out and abandoned vehicles, and brightly-colored clothes and bedding splayed across the tarmac.

Those who did not flee in time found themselves at the mercy of IS. The men were rounded up and slaughtered, and thousands of women and children were taken to be used as slaves.

In his tent in March, a Yazidi elder and scholar known as Mam Jirdo, dressed all in white, recounted the events of last summer. "We've always lived here, not hostile to anyone, not seeking any political power. We just want to adhere to our faith and live our lives," he told VICE News. "We were in our villages, working the fields, our children were working, we were living normally. Then Islamists came in and set their sights on the Yazidis.

"They gathered all of the men and executed them, they took rings off women's fingers, and snatched earrings off their ears. They blew up old women, they even killed my brother's horse. They destroyed our shrines. They took Yazidi girls and sold them in the bazaars. They gave a little girl to an old man. What sort of religion would accept this? How do Russia, China, and Britain, who see themselves as world moral authorities, accept this?" he said.


The tribe tried to defend itself, he said, but was helpless against IS' far greater number of men and their high powered weaponry.

Last summer VICE News traveled with Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters from Syria as they opened a narrow and treacherous corridor through the Nineveh desert for fleeing Yazidis to escape IS. They fight alongside the Kurdish peshmerga, with whom they have historically had a fraught relationship but for the sake of fighting IS have come together. In March, we embedded with peshmerga units as they defended positions around the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Sinjar.

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Sinjar sits at the foot of the mountain ridge of the same name, dominated by a vast grain elevator which looms above the concrete villas of the town. Above the elevator's central tower flutters the black flag of IS. In winter, a much-vaunted joint effort by the Kurdish forces to retake the town faltered in the face of IS's determined defense, leaving 70 percent of the city still under the jihadist group's control.

Urban combat is a bloody and difficult business, and the densely-packed neighbourhoods of the town offer the ever-present coalition jets a poor selection of targets. IS propaganda videos show the insurgents pounding the few peshmerga positions inside the town with barrages of mortars and homemade rockets from the front yards of ordinary villas before presumably slipping back inside cover to hide from jets, off camera.


A young peshmerga lieutenant providing counter battery fire with a 120mm heavy mortar voiced his frustration: "When jets are overhead, they hide their vehicles between homes and shops; when they're finished they bring them back out and start shooting."

On a hilltop overlooking Sinjar, a handful of peshmerga are manning a 23mm double anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back of a pick-up truck, firing short deafening bursts down into IS positions and ducking as well-aimed return fire whistles overhead.

The whole town is visible from here, and a long convoy of IS lorries, escorted by armed pickup trucks, can be seen plying the road that runs through Sinjar, connecting IS's district hub of Tal Afar with its capital of Raqqa over in Syria to the west.

Below us, a white hut on a ridge, believed to be an IS sniper position, is taking direct hits from peshmerga tracer fire as the men around laugh and cheer. It's dusk and the valley below is filled with the crackle of gunfire. Occasionally an IS mortar, aimed at our position, overshoots and explodes harmlessly on the far side of the hill. The peshmerga we're with are crouching around a fire of burning ammunition crates, boiling tea and smoking.

"You know this road?" says one peshmerga, suddenly. "We signal the coalition and they fly over without doing anything. On some nights, fighting goes on for hours and hours before the planes come, if at all. We tell them the exact locations and description. The planes fly overhead and don't attack. They just fly off again."


Related: 'Everywhere Around Is the Islamic State': On the Road in Iraq with YPG Fighters

The overriding mood among peshmerga now is of frustration at what they see as the limited nature of coalition military support, though they always voice gratitude for the airstrikes they have seen so far. All along the Nineveh front, peshmerga grade the Western allies for their efficacy, with the US Air Force (USAF) consistently receiving the lowest score.

Now the British and French, they say, when you tell them to strike a target, they do it, boom. But the Americans just circle around for hours and then go home without doing anything. Off the record, USAF pilots have briefed journalists that their restrictive rules of engagement, designed to minimize civilian casualties, have allowed IS fighters almost free rein on the ground below, an argument the peshmerga make forcefully and incessantly to any Westerners they meet.

In their base, a villa protected from direct IS fire by a low ridge, the HQ company of the 8th Brigade lounge on mattresses in a fug of cigarette smoke and fumes from the petrol heaters used to fend off the bitter nighttime cold.

One man sings an Ottoman-era folk song; others show off grisly footage on their mobile phones of IS fighters they claim to have personally killed in the winter offensive that brought them to this hillside. Few display any real zest for the fighting, instead emphasizing that the war was forced on them.


"It's easy for Daesh, those dogs," one shrugs, "They want to die. We want to live, we have homes and families. But we have to defeat them before we can go home."

Most peshmerga fight in shifts — 10 days at the front, 10 days home on leave — but due to the Iraqi central government's refusal to pay the Kurdistan region its share of oil revenue, many peshmerga fight unpaid and spend their leave working second jobs as taxi drivers, builders or security jobs to feed their families.

As on other fronts of this faltering war, Baghdad's dysfunction is making victory here in Sinjar harder than necessary to achieve. In a ruined tower of Sinjar's ancient citadel, a handful of peshmerga are crouching low as IS sniper bullets thwack into the sandbags around them. IS positions are only 100 feet from this point — the closest the two sides are to each other in the whole of northern Iraq.

Occasionally a peshmerga peers over the lip of the sandbag wall, fires a few rounds down into the houses abutting the position, and ducks back again before IS return fire. Kadhim Sha'ban Muhammad, the peshmerga captain commanding this claustrophobic outpost, blames the Iraqi central government for the stalemate.

Related: How Kurdish Militias Have Successfully Fought Off the Islamic State

"Taking Sinjar should be easy but the problem is government troops not coming in to take the low ground," he told VICE News. "Tal Afar is the worst of all. If we get the order we'll take Tal Afar, Sinjar, and even Mosul, but no one understands this government. When they attack, they send foreigners, not Tal Afaris who know the area. They keep telling us it's not time yet, otherwise we would have retaken it by now."


While Sinjar itself has always been a Kurdish region, the lowlands below, stretching all the way to Mosul, Tal Afar, and Raqqa, contain a mixed population of Sunni Arabs and Turkmen. The historical enmity between the Kurds and their neighbours in this volatile borderland, long disputed between Erbil and Baghdad, means that it would be impolitic for the peshmerga to launch a unilateral offensive, even if they were strong enough to do so.

Any conquest of the plains around the city would have to be led by Iraqi central government forces, who, unfortunately for the peshmerga, are struggling to hold their ground in the country's heartland, let alone launch a campaign in far-off Sinjar.

The problem, as Captain Muhammad sees it, is political rather than military. "We have to take Sinjar, it's a Kurdish city, its people are all Kurds. They've been violently oppressed under [Arab] governments because they are Yazidi," he said. "We have to take it, it's a strategic point for all of Kurdistan, and we have to take it so the Yazidi people can return to live here."

And then what, I ask, still crouching down, as the sun begins to set over Sinjar and the valley fills with shadow. "The people of Sinjar say they want to become part of the Kurdistan Region, do a poll among them and see," he said. "We won't just hand it back to the central government. We're here spilling our own blood for our people. How will we just hand it back to the Iraqi government?"

All photos by Frederick Paxton

Follow Aris Roussinos on Twitter: @arisroussinos

Follow Frederick Paxton on Twitter: @freddiepaxton