The road to one front of the war against the Islamic State winds through miles of barren, cracked-clay ground. The landscape is occasionally punctuated by marshes—mostly dry this time of year—fed by the manmade Hawijah River. A bridge, destroyed by the fighting, once spanned the river about 12 miles from the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Now it lies in giant chunks of stone around the water.
At a nearby outpost, Halat Karim Agha, a slender, bald man with a thick mustache, gestures toward two soldiers manning a heavy machine gun. They are fighters in the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia battling the Islamic State.
"This is what we use to kill Daesh," Agha tells VICE, using an Arabic term for ISIS. "When they see something move, they shoot."
The men fire off a few rounds to demonstrate, puncturing the air with rapid staccato gunfire. Agha smiles patiently.
"Now we wait," he says.
The Peshmerga, backed by coalition forces that include the United States, is currently attempting to advance toward the Islamic State–controlled city of Mosul. Near Kirkuk, the fighters of the Kurdish regional government are also gradually retaking land, village by village, from the self-styled Islamic caliphate. There's a team of US Special Forces stationed at the Peshmerga headquarters close to the city, led by a commanding officer who wears traditional Kurdish dress. So the Kurds aren't in this fight alone, but it's still a fierce struggle against a powerful foe.
Agha is no stranger to war, though. As a scion of the Hamawand tribe, one of Kurdistan's oldest and most venerated clans, this is essentially his birthright.
The Hamawands have a reputation for stubborn resistance that dates back centuries. Fiercely dedicated to their homeland, they've clashed with the Ottomans, the British, Saddam Hussein, and an al Qaeda–linked group in Iraq. But now the Hamawands face what they say is the most brutal enemy they've ever encountered, one that would destroy their homes and render their lands unrecognizable.
Given their autonomous nature and single-minded commitment to their own clans, though, tribes in this area have historically troubled not just invaders, but Kurdish nationalists determined to unify their people. Which gets at the tricky question of what role the tribes—rather than Kurds as a broader ethnic group—play in the Peshmerga fight against ISIS, and whether they will put aside their factionalism if and when the group is defeated.
In 1914, the writer E. B. Soane published a book about his travels through the region called To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise . The Hamawands feature heavily in his account as fearsome bandits who terrorized the countryside:
The Hamawands, members of a race famous for bravery and lawlessness, have made a name for themselves among their countrymen, outdoing the wildest in foolhardy raids, and the bravest in their disregard of any danger, and a hostility to the Turks that has broken out continuously.
But the tribesmen themselves tell a rather different story about the period. Agha, along with his brothers, Mariwan Karim and Farooq, sit in folding chairs on the lawn at Mariwan's house. When the air in this part of Kurdistan cools at night, the sunbaked plains almost seem to sigh in relief. A nearby manmade lake, spanned by a rickety bridge, chirps with frogs and insects. Over the horizon, lights from the nearby town of Chamchamal gleam faintly, but out here there are few houses, and they all belong to Hamawands.
"The origins of the Hamawand tribe go back six hundred fifty years," Mariwan explains. He is now the tribal leader, following the death of his beloved father, Karim Agha, two years ago. Also slender and sporting a mustache, he looks very much like his brother Halat, and plays with one of his tiny nieces as he talks. Children scamper all over Mariwan's large property, but this little girl is the clear favorite, he says, because she has his mother's eyes.
"About three hundred fifty years ago, the Hamawand tribe came to Kurdistan," he says. "After that, we had many battles with the Ottoman Empire, which was occupying our lands. We were the only tribe to fight the empire successfully. We weren't making our forces obvious; we were hiding on the roads and using guerrilla tactics. Eventually, our leaders were invited to negotiations with the Ottomans in Adana [a city in Turkey]. But the Ottomans tricked them and captured nine hundred Hamawand families as slaves, then redistributed them all over North Africa and the Middle East.
"After twenty years, most of the families left Africa," Mariwan says with a smile. "They traveled back to these lands on foot. The journey took nine months."
More recently, the tribe teamed up with US forces during the Iraq war, battling Ansar al-Islam, a local affiliate of al Qaeda, as it began to emerge along the border with Iran.
"[Ansar al-Islam] killed many young Peshmerga fighters," Mariwan explains. "They would make them line up and then record their murders on video. Later on, we discovered that they sent these videos to people in other countries in order to receive funding from them."
Mariwan frowns suddenly. "Now they're back here as Daesh," he says. "They would destroy everything about our way of life, so we must defend our land."
David McDowall, historian and author of A Modern History of the Kurds, says that despite their dedication, tribes like the Hamawands have been both a blessing and a curse to Kurdish nationalistic aspirations—and the broader project of achieving regional stability.
"One thinks of tribes as social organizations, but fundamentally, of course, they're political organizations," he explains. "They're in absolute contradiction with the notion of government."
But according to General Hiwa Rash, commander of the Peshmerga in Kirkuk, the tribes have been nothing but an asset to the effort against the Islamic State.
"If we go back in Kurdish history, we can always see the impact of the tribes," he tells VICE. "In the past, whenever Kurdistan needed help, the tribes were there... In fact, most Peshmerga fighters on the front lines come from tribes, because the Kurdish population is actually made up of many different tribes. But we never fight ISIS as tribes; we fight them like an organized army."
Tribal influence seems to still play a somewhat troubling role in Kurdish politics. Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), come from rival clans. Although the long-feuding leaders seem to have settled their differences for now, relations between the parties remain strained .
At this moment, however, the Hamawands don't seem particularly interested in political affiliations—they're more focused on the existential fight against ISIS for the preservation of their heritage. In Chamchamal, Mariwan erected a small museum to honor his father, where he displays the Hamawands' impressive collection of Mesopotamian artifacts dating back to the Stone Age. Mariwan even recreated his father's bedroom to look just as it was before he died, down to a plate of food on his desk.
"After the death of my father, I couldn't open the door to his bedroom for eleven months and two days," he says, his eyes going bright and wet for a moment. "He had a pure soul. The entire city loved him, not just the Hamawands. When he died, ten thousand people were at his funeral. They walked ten kilometers carrying his coffin."
Mariwan takes a minute to compose himself, looking at Karim Agha's bedroom, preserved under the florescent lights of the museum.
"My father always taught me to honor our past," he continues. "It's our responsibility to keep our tribe's legacy alive, because we sacrificed much for Kurdistan throughout history."
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