Italian-trained Kurds itch to liberate Mosul from Isis

View of Isis lines from a Kurdish position at Maktab Khaled. Photo credit: LUCA FOSCHI

SULAYMANIYA, Iraq -- “Our next enemies will be the Shia”, says Lt. Colonel Salam Manatek while Corporal Muhammad points his brand new Browning machine-gun through the embrasure at a row of small huts scattered on the horizon, three miles away, where the Islamic State’s soldiers lurk in perfect silence on the other side of the frontline.

 The no-man’s land between Isis and Peshmerga Kurdish fighters at Maktab Khaled, not far from Kirkuk, is a vast grassy plane dotted by houses that the International coalition’s air attacks have reduced to ruins. Inside the caliphate fighters’ bodies are rotting away in the calmness of a late spring morning.

 “They shoot at night,  reminding us of their presence,” says Col. Salam. “But they are doomed anyway.  What we need is just more air-strikes. We could clean up the whole area in one week. But this is not war anymore. This is politics.”

 The Maktab Khaled outpost was built in haste in the summer of 2014, when the Iraqi army collapsed leaving the Kurdish peshmergas to face alone the astonishing advance of ISIS. Just 10 minutes’ drive away, some 10 km (6 miles) along a desolate tarmac crossed by stray dogs, the oil refineries of Kirkuk emerge with their feeble plumes of smoke.

 For the first time in troubled Southern Kurdistan’s history, which began when the British and the French carved Iraq out of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago, Baghdad asked a Kurdish leader, President Massoud Barzani to save Kirkuk, the “Kurdish Jerusalem” entrusted by nature with more than 1 billion dollars worth of oil-production per year.

 Today the front line runs like an uneven 650 mile-long scar from the Iranian frontier to the Syrian border, meandering in and out of contested territories that the Iraqi constitution’s article 140 promised, back in 2005 under American occupation, to distribute in democratic fashion between Erbil and Baghdad. Now that the entire region forcefully created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement is falling to pieces like a failed political Frankenstein, force remains the only language capable of defining future borders.

 “What has been conquered with Kurdish blood shall remain Kurdish soil” admonishes General Kosrat Rasul inside the K-1 base.  Outside his office, far in the distance, Kalashnikovs utter isolated shots as Italian instructors train  new Peshmerga recruits. Later a corporal guided us round the compound where Isis home-made tanks lay wrecked like dinosaurs. “We have re-captured around 1200 sq. km” says Rasul, “and by 2016 we’ll have cleaned the whole area.”

 War, within the war, within the war-- Iraqi Kurdistan’s peshmergas are fighting their umpteenth battle for independence to regain what the Arabisation campaign of Saddam Hussein, culminating with the Anfal genocide, took away. So are the PYD and the PKK in Sinjar, Syria and Turkey. Baghdad is trying to preserve the state’s unity, backed by Iran and its new semi-official role as guardian of the region, like in the good old Shah’s days.

 The Gulf monarchies blame the situation on the American administration, punished for the Iranian affair with an oil policy that with its low prices attempts to sabotage Obama’s decision to disentangle the United States from old energy manacles. Russia cautiously supports the Kurdish irredentism, albeit trying to frame it within the limits of autonomy. Paradoxically, at present, the Islamic State represents the glue that is keeping together the Near East’s Big Bang.  Observers say new struggles will probably arise once the perfect enemy, the nemesis, is defeated.

 In Tuz Khurmatu, a few miles from the K1 base, under General Rasul’s command, the Peshmergas are at loggerheads with Shia paramilitary forces, formerly their allies. In Baghdad only one week ago the Shia cohorts of Muqtada al Sadr, the Shia powerful  leader,  stormed Iraq’s parliament after the government proved unable to sack its corrupt ministers and form a new cabinet, a measure al-Sadr had demanded two months before, imposing a deadline on Prime Minister al-Abadi.

 Unity at the front appears to be more solid up in the north. From Makhmour the peshmerga and the Iraqi troops are pushing their way towards Mosul, protected by air support. Apart from a few forlorn attempts the Caliphate army is rehearsing for the final face-off in its twin-capital, Mosul, which has become a labyrinth of land-mines, snipers and tunnels that will have to be fought for neighbourhood by neighbourhood, house by house. More than 1 million people remain hostage within the city’s limits, rendering almost impossible any air strike.

 Territorial brawls are not the only issue dividing Iraq and its Kurdish Autonomous Region. Since February 2014 Baghdad has stopped giving Erbil the 17 percent of oil revenues conceded by the constitution. The KRG, since the 2013 elections dominated by Barzani and his KDP party, has reacted by developing an independent oil market, mainly passing through Tukey’s Ceyhan pipeline. This was the only way for the Kurds to avoid complete financial collapse, due to the drop in the oil prices, war expenses and the burden of more than 1,5 million refugees from Iraq and Syria.

 Ankara has nevertheless pressured Barzani to slacken his relation with the PYD and the PKK, Syrian and Turkish expressions of the Kurdish fight for autonomy, perceived by Erdogan as a direct threat to the state’s integrity. Turkey is cracking down on the Kurdish guerrillas inside its own territory, in north Syria and in the KRG’s Qandil Mountains, where Ocalan’s soldiers hide in training compounds that Erbil decided to host in the early 1990’s.

 Erdogan’s progressive tutelage over Barzani has also polarized the Iraqi Kurdistan political system, pushing Iran towards the PUK, where a struggle for the succession of Jalal Talabani is straining the old ideological rifts of its inception.

 Goran, the party created in 2009 by PUK apostate Nawshirwan Mustafa, became the second Kurdish force after doing well in 2013 elections, but is squeezed by two parties retaining separate control over the territory, with quasi-state functions. Corruption abounds, and the population is kept together only by the peshmerga national glory on the battlefield, the last stronghold against the Caliphate’s barbarity.

 In Maktab Khaled the frontline’s placidity when a reporter visited it is just an illusion: “The problem we have in Kirkuk is not the oil, it is the soil. It’s our soil and we want it back. We have been here for millennia and whatever is here is ours. The Iraqi state operated a genocide against us and we have a right to compensation” says Abdul Razzaq Faili, a PUK founder in 1976 and for 40 years a primary party figure when it comes to decisions concerning the party’s foreign policy, says in his Sulaymaniya office.

 “The disputed areas are Kurdish. We were able to retain them after the collapse of the Saddam regime in 2003. The international forces forced us to withdraw.”

 “This does not mean we give up. Now we have patience and we want to regain these territories democratically, by a referendum. We are sure that the people will choose to live with the KRG,” he concludes.

 Democracy is a seed that was violently planted in this region a century ago and has produced only perverted fruits. So arms will decide the future here again, once the 'perfect enemy' has been vanquished.

 Luca Foschi is conducting research in the Middle East for his Ph.D. at the University of Cagliari.




A Peshmerga fighter holding the line against Islamic State forces. PHOTO: LUCA FOSCHI
Kurdish troops near Kirkuk. Photo credit: Luca Foschi