US President Barack Obama's announcement last night that 300 military advisers would be deployed to Iraq means there could be a total of about 600 American personnel on the ground there. And while Obama insisted that these advisors would not be assuming a combat role, Iraqi officials have asked for further military action against insurgents — including airstrikes.
The insurgents, who are led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), swept across northern Iraq last week capturing territory with shocking ease. They overran Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, before taking Tikrit and many other towns and villages at lightning speed, routing local armed forces.
When they reached Iraqi Kurdistan, however, they stopped.
That's because ISIS avoided moving into areas of Iraq controlled by Kurdish peshmerga troops. In many cases, the militants advanced to the last Iraqi army position, then halted without firing a bullet within eyesight of Kurdish positions. In some cases, militants have even communicated to peshmerga officials that they had no plans to attack; for the most part, they have kept their word. There have been some confrontations, but nothing close to the chaos unfolding farther south.
The peshmerga are a powerful force. They’re well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened, and they say they will defend their territory to the death. They’ve had no obvious difficulty in holding it so far, and unlike Iraqi officials, they have not felt the need to officially appeal for international assistance.
Nevertheless, Kurdish authorities would like to see the US do more. Aso Almani, a senior Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) official who controls peshmerga forces in Kirkuk, told VICE News that he considered ISIS to be an extremely dangerous terrorist group. He spoke in a PUK office with a large photograph of George W. Bush shaking hands with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on the wall behind him.
Almani said that the PUK has had contact with ISIS via letters delivered by Arab intermediaries. In them, the Kurds warned ISIS militants that if they chose to attack it would be “very costly” for them. ISIS replied saying that they had no plans to. Almani is not convinced.
'We would like to see the US here in any possible way — on the ground, in the air, anything to help Iraq regain control of territory.'
“I don’t believe them,” he said. “They try to act innocent, but they’re not.” While he acknowledges that it is highly unlikely ISIS would attack in the short-term, he does not trust the group's intentions. “When they say that they won’t attack, that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to. If they become stronger, then they will in the future. They are against everyone.”
The risk, he said, is growing. “They become become stronger and stronger day after day.”
Brigadier General Mohammed Rostam, head of the Ninth Peshmerga Operational Force, agreed. “They won’t attack in a few days,” he told VICE News. “But if they become more powerful, [the peshmerga] would be a major target.”
ISIS has become significantly more potent within the last two weeks. When Iraqi army personnel fled from Mosul and elsewhere, they left much of their US-supplied weaponry and vehicles. ISIS snapped them up. Colonel Mahmoud Ahmed Hussein, who heads the peshmerga forces controlling the front between Erbil and Mosul, told VICE News that this had significantly boosted the insurgents' strength. “ISIS mostly had light weapons when it attacked Mosul, but the Iraqi Army left and left their heavy weapons, tanks, and vehicles.”
ISIS quickly put them into operational roles. In an attack on the contested village of Beshir earlier this week, ISIS reportedly used US weaponry. Rostam said he had seen ISIS forces nearby driving US-made Humvees.
The Kurdish authorities have made it clear that their stance is defensive, and that they do not wish to take more territory in a weakened Iraq. But they are obviously worried about ISIS being so close, and would like to see the fighters gone.
“The US were the ones who invaded, and they were part of the new Iraq," Almani said. "It would be a good thing if they come back and stop terrorist groups from taking more territory. We would like to see them here in any possible way — on the ground, in the air, anything to help Iraq regain control of territory.” He added that he thought the US should have stayed in Iraq rather than pulling out in 2011.
It is possible that US intervention would prompt the peshmerga to take on ISIS more comprehensively, since the Kurds have cooperated with the US in the past. Before America led the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kurdish troops worked alongside US Special Forces against another group of Sunni extremists, Ansar al-Islam.
The following year, they helped US troops crack down on a Sunni insurgency after Iraqi security forces failed to. Many peshmerga still have an extremely positive view of the West, and even sport US Army t-shirts and other American paraphernalia with pride.
If the US doesn’t take further military action, Hussein said, a desperate Maliki may allow a longtime US opponent to step in. Iran, the Middle East’s largest Shiite power, reportedly already has men on the ground and has made its support of Maliki’s government clear.
“If Iraq is weak and someone else intervenes," Hussein said, "the intervention will most likely come from Iran, which will makes things much worse.”