DAR BIZMAR, Iraq—Kurdish Peshmerga forces have closed in on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which has been in the hands of the so-called Islamic State since June.
It’s been a hard-fought offensive that has flanked Mosul on three sides, but political paralysis and deep-seated sectarianism on the Iraqi side may well stall a battle to free this historic metropolis on the Tigris River from the bloody grip of ISIS.
The Peshmerga forces of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government are reluctant to fight for a predominantly Arab city and, in fact, express little interest in preserving a united Iraq. On a military base 46 miles from Mosul, Gen. Sirwan Barzani is focused on using the war against ISIS to define the border of the Kurdish state in the country’s north.
The general is the nephew of Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani and an executive member of the politburo of his Kurdistan Democratic Party. He commands Peshmerga units stretching from Kirkuk up along the eastern side of the Mosul governorate.
On the one hand the Peshmerga general insists that Kurdish fighters are doing a service to the world by leading the charge against a group that’s committing atrocities daily, including the beheadings of American and British hostages, the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot and the mass executions of uncounted Iraqis and Syrians. Still, Gen. Barzani’s lack of interest in re-establishing a united Iraq and his skepticism about the need for his troops to retake Mosul is abundantly clear.
“Our goal is to clear the Kurdish villages and put a good border between us and the terrorists,” Barzani says bluntly. “We don’t want to go into Arab villages, what we have is more than enough [territory],” he adds.
The night before, the general had overseen a skirmish between Peshmerga fighters and jihadists at two points on his front line. He had appeared completely relaxed in his base filled with captured transport trucks and armored vehicles. The Peshmerga reported that they killed 15 fighters in the attack, mostly through a phoned-in U.S. airstrike. Barzani had told me the bodies would be brought to the base to boost the morale of his men.
Kurdish forces have been taking increasing casualties in recent fighting and the depth of hatred created by the brutality of this war negates even the most basic respect for the humanity of the enemy. There is a desire for unbridled vengeance in response to the killing, torture and subjugation of Kurds under ISIS.
In the morning, in the verdant countryside around the hamlet of Dar Bizmar, a few miles from the new front line, two trucks carrying the ISIS fighters’ corpses pulled up on the edge of a village abandoned during the rapid advance of ISIS last summer. The blown-apart bodies of several of the dead jihadists were loosely tied to the bumper of a flatbed truck mounted with a heavy machine gun. Their dangling feet and hands dragged on the road until the vehicles came to a sharp stop and the Peshmerga piled out of their convoy to gloat.
The soldiers swarmed around the mangled corpses, some snapping photos with their phones while others spit into the wounds and gashes of the dead. “I’d like to take a leak over there,” says one Peshmerga, nodding toward the two trucks while taking a piss behind a mound of earth and grass. “But we can’t, with all the human rights activists watching,” he added ruefully.
It’s a level of animosity that reinforces the Peshmergas’ desire to cut any connection to the rest of Iraq, while at the same they realize the need for coordinated action to defeat ISIS. They are bitter about the expectation that they will lead the battle beyond the Kurdish region and they see no interest in trying to salvage the Iraqi state, but, still, they go through the motions. Along with the Iraqi government, the Peshmerga are training a small number of Sunni Arabs to lead the attempt to retake Mosul.
In an inconspicuous flour mill near the front line of Makhmour, southeast of Mosul, a Kurdish commander is in charge of training 350 Sunni fighters from the area. Lining up in formation, the fighters wear balaclavas to hide their features out of fear that jihadists will take revenge on their families if their identity is found out.
Peshmerga Col. “Bab Argin,” who uses a nom-de-guerre because his visits to Baghdad to coordinate with the Iraqi army make him a target, concedes that only 800 Sunni Arab fighters in total are now being trained for the Mosul fight.
“Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] is everyone’s enemy,” says Bab Argin, trying to explain the Sunnis’ interest in fighting alongside Shia-dominated government forces that oppressed them and Kurds who want to separate from Iraq.
Most of the Sunni volunteers are Iraqi army soldiers from the Mosul area who fled the ISIS takeover.
“The high-ranking officers moved on and left us soldiers behind,” says “Abu Tariq,” a young recruit donning a balaclava. He says he comes from a village under ISIS control near Mosul. “We had no one to give us orders,” he adds.
Parroting the nationalist slogans of an era before the entrenched sectarian divisions that hardened under the American occupation, Abu Tariq contends that “we are fighting for an equal and united Iraq.”
The volunteers recount a rose-tinted version of recent history, contending that Iraqis and their army were united before ISIS split the country, and that the goal of this war is to rebuild that unity. They turn a blind eye to the reprisals against Sunni Arabs carried out by Iranian-backed Shia militias and actively ignore the American occupation’s legacy of a central government that turned majority rule into majority repression.
And, yet, even after they recite the patriotic boilerplate, the Sunni fighters contend that the Iraqi government isn’t arming or funding them properly. It’s a sign that Baghdad is concerned about what happens after they finish using their weapons on the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
In a moment of sober honesty Abu Tariq is frank about Iraq being pulled apart. “We hope for the best for our country but in this war we have experienced all the hidden agendas,” he says.
Offered nothing tangible to fight for, it’s not surprising that so few Sunnis are volunteering to risk everything in order to retake the city where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi displayed his strength by declaring a “caliphate.” Despite the constant hype about the campaign around Mosul, claiming that it could deal a decisive blow to ISIS, Iraq’s sectarian divide will need to be overcome before Mosul can be taken.
Indeed, according to Iraqi Army Gen. Saad Maaen, who is based in the capital, there is no specific time set for the offensive to begin, but he believes it will happen in the middle of 2015. He dismisses the difference in goals between the Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi government, telling The Daily Beast, “There is no problem between Sunni, Shia and Kurds to tackle the Mosul problem.”
Gen. Maaen contends the Iraqi army is prepared for the battle and denies that there are only a small number of Sunni recruits. “All Iraqis are united in the fight against Daesh,” he said.
Clearly the picture that Baghdad sees is very different from the image of a splintering country evident on the Mosul front.