“Just keep driving until you get to the Daesh,” the Peshmerga checkpoint guard said. I was trying to get to the front line to follow along with the Kurdish offensive outside Kirkuk on September 11th. Can’t really blame him for his concise instructions. As our car approached the front, there were dozens of up-armored Humvees and pickup trucks. Peshmerga fighters stood around waiting for their orders, talking amongst each other and smoking cigarettes. As I got out of the car and began walking down the road, a group of Kurdish journalists looked at me and began waving their hands, saying, “No good, no good!”
The puffs of smoke from either IEDs or mortar rounds rose into the air in the distance.
Before even getting to the berm lines, I ran into a group of foreigners who had joined up with the 9th Brigade. They all wore MultiCam and balaclavas to conceal their identity. As I was soon to find out, one of them had already had his rifle confiscated because he was taking pot shots at the Pesh, mistaking them for ISIS.
Having left Erbil at 3:30 in the morning, it was now about 6 a.m. The sun had not fully risen and burned off the cloudy haze that engulfed the battlefield. The Peshmerga’s mission today was to liberate a series of villages on the outskirts of Kirkuk, pushing ISIS farther away from the city. What I had come upon was a fighting column, firing on a Daesh village called Zanghar with machine guns and tanks, while hundreds of vehicles were stacked up, ready to roll forward.
At this point I was able to get my eyes on some of the new weaponry that the Pesh had obtained from the Germans. G36 rifles aplenty, as well as Panzerfaust and Milan anti-tank systems. One Peshmerga soldier even carried a .50-caliber sniper rifle, very similar to the locally manufactured Zagros rifle that I saw female YPG snipers with in Syria months prior. The Pesh had taken their training to heart; they employed their anti-tank weapons appropriately. This was serious business, as one of the main Daesh tactics is to load captured up-armored Humvees with explosives and drive them right into the Pesh front lines before detonating.
This time, the Daesh were not putting up much of a fight, at least not with small arms fire. They abandoned Zanghar and by 6:40 a.m., the village had been liberated. Ground troops were swarming into the village. Just before I got there, an IED went off and killed a Peshmerga fighter. One of his teammates showed me the video on his cell phone of a bulldozer trying to recover his body, which had been cut in half by the blast.
The sun was coming up and the haze began to clear. With Zanghar captured, the fighting column crept forward. Peshmerga EOD teams were digging up and disarming IEDs all along the road. Sadly, the Kurdish EOD experts had little to work with besides a piece of string and a fishhook. An ambulance blaring its siren came blasting by me, picking up the wounded as IEDs were tripped and exploded prematurely.
Around this time, someone’s toy airplane started buzzing overhead. A UAV, watching us from above.
The Peshmerga advance split into three columns, moving on different villages. I trailed behind the leading edge of the Peshmerga element, noting dozens upon dozens of disarmed IEDs. Wires to command detonate the explosives ran up both sides of the road. When I asked about a cherry picker in their convoy, the Pesh said it was for clipping the power lines before they went into the villages. Some of the IEDs could have electronic detonators, which would set them off when they were stepped on, completing the circuit.
The Peshmerga doctor was someone who definitely stood out as someone earning his pay that day. He was shouting orders, getting casualties evacuated on stretchers. After an IED went off about 30 meters in front of me, a half dozen bleeding Peshmerga were carried off on litters, others limping toward the ambulance with the help of their buddies.
The Daesh were practicing a tactic called defense in depth. Instead of holding ground until the last bullet, they were quickly withdrawing under the Peshmerga assault, then detonating already prepared booby traps in the form of IEDs—nickel-and-diming the Kurdish fighters. Seven would die and 45 would be injured by the end of the day.
Moving up to record a black ISIS flag flapping in the breeze, I ran into a Kurd named Qabat. He turned out to have a hell of an interesting story. He once lived in the United States, where he worked as a bank manager for many years, then came back home to help his people fight ISIS. The situation was surreal. While we were having our conversation, IEDs were going off in front of us as well as off to our flanks. How many of them were command detonated and how many were remote detonated is impossible to say. Qabat went on to tell me that he works with Americans who have volunteered in the Peshmerga.
“Do you know Kurt?” I asked, inquiring about someone I had been talking to online for a while.
“Come on with me. They are up here.”
Walking around an armored vehicle, I heard someone shout, “Hey, I know that guy!”
Sure enough, it was U.S. Marine Corp veteran Kurt and his friend, an Army veteran named Joey. Of course our conversation quickly turned to war porn. Gun talk, showing off our knives to each other, and chatting while we waited for the next advance probably sounding the way women talk about shoes and clothes, but about war stuff. It is always nice to meet like-minded people out on the battlefield. Kurt and Joey had both done very well for themselves, but more importantly they had done well in terms of helping the Kurds. Back in Sulymania, they taught the Peshmerga basic infantry tactics, but they also got to jump into the fray during offensives like this.
Sporadic gunfire sounded amidst the occasional IED blast. Frankly, I had never seen fighting quite like this. The Daesh appeared weak and unable to defend their terrain. Instead they had cut and run, leveraging their only relative strength against the Peshmerga, the same one that so many American soldiers had faced before: remote-detonated improvised explosives.
With Qabat, Kurt, and Joey, we continued marching forward behind the armored vehicles. The sun was up now and it was getting damn hot, the kind of hot you only feel in Iraq where it seems like the sun is five inches from your head. Off on our right flank, a mass of civilians were inching toward the Peshmerga column. There looked to be about 100 of them, some driving vehicles jam-packed with their worldly possessions. They waved white sheets above their heads in surrender. One villager was herding his flock of 50-or-so sheep toward the Peshmerga lines. They were villagers from bad-guy land, trying to defect to the other side.
The Pesh set up their anti-tank weapons and security positions oriented toward the civilians, not willing to risk believing the Daesh were not mixed into the group. The Asyaish, the Kurdish intelligence officers, then showed up in balaclavas to begin interviewing the villagers to see who was or was not an ISIS collaborator. In a face-to-face meeting with one of the Asyaish a few days later, I found out that some of the villagers were, in fact, collaborators. Sadly, one of the civilian vehicles had also hit an IED on their way to surrender to the Peshmerga. The blast took off a woman’s arm and killed her baby.
Overall, I was quite impressed with the planning and preparation that the Peshmerga put into the offensive. The refugee situation slowed them down a bit, but it was not something they were unprepared for. They responded, and quickly regained their momentum. Taking a break while we waited, I sat down on the side of the road, but not for long. The vehicles were moving again shortly. A Peshmerga officer walked by, looked at me, and said, “Come on, let’s go and finish this!” It is hard not to respect that type of leadership. Even the doctor, who later took IED shrapnel to the forehead, bandaged himself up and continued to do his job that day.
In a later interview with General Ja’afer, the Kirkuk sector commander, he told me, “We are not the Army. We are Peshmerga. We don’t say go, we say come.”
Pounding down another bottle of water, I took the officer’s advice and kept moving with his men. Joey, Kurt, and I were walking forward, talking casually, when it came out of nowhere.
Black smoke shot up into the air about 100 meters in front of us. The size of the blast made it seem a hell of a lot closer.
“Stay down, stay down,” Kurt warned. “Some stuff is going to come back down on us.”
Sure enough, something zinged into the grass a few meters to my right. It turned out that there was an outhouse alongside the road up ahead. The Peshmerga were not taking any chances, so they lit it up with machine-gun fire. Sure enough, it turned out to be another IED. Fed up with the situation, the Peshmerga called in their bulldozers and began making new roads on the fly so that they did not lose their tactical momentum from getting waylaid by IEDs.
There was one more village to capture before the day was done: Hasan Sha-lal. I climbed into the back of a pickup truck and got a ride up to the village. As we cruised by, the ground was on fire around us from the massive IED that had gone off. PKM and DShK gunners were laying down suppressive fire on Hasan Sha-lal, prepping it for the ground assault force. The Pesh again used their bulldozers to make a new road up to the village and then occupied the high ground on a hill adjacent to it. With overwatch in place from two angles, dismounted Peshmerga soldiers entered and began clearing the village.
With the task mostly completed, I rode in the back of the pickup as we drove into the village on the main road and up onto the hill. I would be lying if I said that my pucker factor was not a little high at this point.
On top of the hill, a Peshmerga officer stood alongside an observer from the PKK, distinguished by his OD green uniform and sash belt. The officer was on the radio and looking through binoculars. A few puffs of smoke in the distance signified coalition airstrikes that they had coordinated. Trotting down the hill, I went inside some of the houses in the villages. They appeared lived-in, but sparsely furnished. There probably were not more than 30 or 40 people living there, at least until they left and surrendered to the Peshmerga earlier. Now it was a ghost town.
Bulldozers came in and started flattening the village. It was a type of scorched-earth policy to prevent the Daesh from coming back in and occupying the buildings. Walls were knocked down and roofs caved in under a haze of smoke. Turning around, another Peshmerga officer saw me and said I needed to go back up the hill for my own safety. He said that radio intercepts had been received that there was a suicide vehicle en route to our location. Not seeing much need to push my luck at this point, I walked back up the hill and drank some water while the village was being razed.
It was a long, difficult day for the Pesh, but they had accomplished their mission and once again disproven the myth of ISIS, that they are some unbeatable, magical Islamist force that will sweep across the entire Middle East.
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