June 30, 2014

The Kurdish پێشمەرگە (peshmerga) - "those who follow death"

Kurdish peshmerga - note Kurdistan flag

One of my readers asked that I write a small piece about the Kurdish peshmerga. I am happy to do so. As I often do, I want to disclose my relationship with the Kurds.

In the mid-1990's, I served in northern Iraq - my duties put me in a close working relationship with senior Kurdish political leaders on both sides of the political division between the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - including their intelligence services and their military arms - the peshmerga.

A senior peshmerga leader and me in northern Iraq - the dagger is not a prop

The word peshmerga - پێشمەرگە in Kurdish - literally means "those who follow death." They are committed men and women who have taken an oath to defend the Kurdish people and the Kurdish homeland at all costs. They are tough, single-minded and loyal to a fault - you will find no finer irregular troops anywhere in the world.

The Kurds were the targets of the Saddam Husayn regime for years. In the 1980's, the Iraqi military's Anfal campaign was aimed at defeating the Kurds once and for all, since the effort to forcefully integrate them into the Iraqi Arab population had failed. That program, the ta'rib (Arabization) effort, attempted to move large numbers of Kurds, sometimes entire villages, into the southern part of Iraq, and at the same time, move large numbers of Arabs into the Kurdish areas.

The Anfal campaign saw pitched battles between the Iraqi Army and the Kurds - Kurdish cities were defended by the vastly outnumbered and outgunned peshmerga. On March 16, 1988, the Iraqi Air Force dropped bombs filled with the nerve agent Sarin (and possibly VX) on the Kurdish city of Halabjah, killing an estimated 5,000 people. It was later determined to be a final weapons test before launching chemical attacks on Iranian troops on the southern front. I was in Baghdad when all this occurred.

After the Iraqi defeat in Operation Desert Storm, the Kurds rose up against Saddam Husayn. As he did effectively in the south against a similar Shi'a uprising, Saddam unleashed the Iraqi Air Force and Army Aviation to brutally attack the Kurds. This led to the U.S. and NATO-imposed "no fly zone" in northern Iraq that allowed the Kurds to operate as a virtually separate enclave until the American invasion of 2003. It was during those years that I served with the Kurds in the north.

During the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the peshmerga were close allies of the United States, often working directly with American forces in the northern part of the country. They were also key players in the search for, and capture of, Saddam Husayn. It was the Kurds that played a vital role in the capture of Usamah bin Ladin's messenger, which led to the killing of the al-Qa'idah leader.

The Kurds, in accordance with provisions of the Iraqi constitution of 2005, established the Kurdish Autonomous Region comprised of the provinces of Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah (and now the newly-created province of Halabjah). Part of the Kurdistan Regional Government is the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, which functions similar to a regional ministry of defense. The peshmerga constitute the armed forces of the Kurdish area - the group consists of about 18 brigades.

Should the Kurds pursue independence from Iraq, the peshmerga will be the armed forces of the new country. They will need to acquire additional capabilities, however, including an air and air defense force.