Note: The following is a special guest post from our friend Jürgen Hatzenbichler of spartanat.com.
A 30-minute drive toward Mosul. That is all it takes to get from Erbil to the front lines of the war with the Islamic State, referred to by locals as “Daesh.” The Kurdish city, home to millions, seems calm and peaceful. For the new arrivals, the scenery might be deceiving. No extraordinary security measures and relaxed guards. Well, except for those Western arrivals after midnight, athletically built, and crossing the airport hall carrying long Pelican cases. And except for the passing of Blackhawk helicopters, departing from a base close to the airport to carry out their mission. But certainly no boots on the ground, at least not when you ask our politicians.
We accompanied a private security company (PSC) on their job in northern Iraq. With the guys from Trans Atlantic Viking Security (TAV), we made our way through the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. Our destination: the front line in the fight against ISIS/ISIL. Our route: from Erbil to Kirkuk, and from there, a bit southward to the headquarters of an Iraqi general. Outside of Erbil, anything goes. We make our way using armored SUVs. Our escort is armed, and everyone got a briefing before we rolled. It’s not unusual for vehicles to take small-arms fire. Encountering improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is also possibility. We are spared that experience, but the conversation between the team leader and the driver is telling: “Isn’t that the place we got hit the last time? Fortunately only a small charge, which only took out a tire and fender.”
On our way to Kirkuk, we pass through several checkpoints, where we, easily identifiable as Westerners, get waved through quickly. The landscape changes. Slowly, the hills are replaced with arid plains. It takes us 45 minutes to get to Kirkuk. Looking at the map, we expected a longer ride. Going through the city, one can observe several patrols roaming the streets. Before the city limits there are several compounds lining the road, but most of them look like they might be left from the time when coalition forces were here. After Kirkuk, Daesh comes dangerously close to the motorway. The defensive positions of the Kurdish fighters are easily recognizable from the car. Sometimes a small hill with a bunker on top, other times an earthen wall resembling a semi-trench. “Where you see the smoke rising over there, that’s ISIS territory,” the driver tells us.
We make our way through an obstacle course of HESCO barriers—mesh-wire baskets filled with stones—and enter an army base. There, we are invited into a paneled room with heavy couches. Brigadier General Aras welcomes us warmly. He and the Peshmerga—Kurdish units and Iraqi army—are responsible for a sizable stretch of the front lines near Kirkuk. When we enter, some local politicians are still in the room. Kirkuk is not part of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Nevertheless, the Peshmerga are at the front lines. “We jointly defend the city; we are all in this together and everyone does his part,” the general explains. He studied in Sweden. His wife is working in genetics, he explains. The door opens, and a message is delivered. The face of the officer handing over the report spells bad news…a car bomb went off. The general is unsettled; the enemy managed to strike again. “It’s not easy around here,” he states, as if some kind of apology was in order.
Currently, the front line is stable, according to the general. But there are other issues. Ordnance and supplies are scarce. But his biggest worry: His soldiers only recently got their salary for March. He finds it quite irritating that the public servants in Mosul, which is occupied by Daesh, receive their payment on time. That money might have made its way from the Iraqi treasury directly into the hands of ISIS. Also the “reinforcements” of Shiite militia are referred to as a double-edged sword: There have already been some incidences, one of which left one Kurd dead. And there is a fear that once the Shiite militias have settled in, they will be reluctant to leave. Already they have some patrols in Kirkuk.
But General Aras wants to focus on something else. His quick-reaction force (QRF) is composed solely of Western volunteers who joined the Peshmerga in their fight against Daesh. The door opens and two young men enter. They are obviously neither Iraqis nor Kurds. Three more follow, then a couple more. Greetings are exchanged in English. Most of the 15 men are Americans, predominantly from the U.S. and a couple from Canada. One volunteer is European. Some of them are former U.S. Marines—one has a Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) of the U.S. Army pinned to his plate carrier. Another says he has no prior military experience but wants to make a difference.
Most of the volunteers are between 20 and 30 years of age, with one or two outliers toward 40. “I’m here to fight against ISIS,” says one of the Americans. He already did two tours in country with the Marines. And the time to act is now. “My war isn’t over, yet!”
“You just have to fight Daesh,” another tells us. “I am here now, and if we manage to push them back, I will fight them in Syria, and afterward if necessary, in Libya.” Some of the volunteers have given up everything to fight ISIS at their origin.
More than one tells us that he has sold his car to pay for the trip and some gear to take with him. One of the medics arrived with medical gear (bandages, tourniquets) worth more than $2,000. Now he barely has enough left for his own IFAK (individual first-aid kit). Another volunteer is also former Army. They discharged him after he suffered through two improvised explosive device explosions while on duty in Iraq and possible post-traumatic stress disorder. Now he’s back with his “family,” the fighting men.
“We had everyone who came to us vetted,” the general tells us later on. “We want to make sure there are no bad apples among them.” We are pretty sure the CIA and other agencies are also interested in who’s fighting there. One can possibly expect a nice chat with officials upon returning home. But not all of the volunteers want to go back. Some would like to stay in Kurdistan.
Gear up! The men get ready to head out. The volunteers seem to have brought their own plate carriers, uniforms, and chest rigs with them. Here, they don’t get much. They don’t get paid; they only receive board and lodging. This means Kurdish food and a mat to sleep on. Being asked what they need, one of the Americans says: “MREs, please!” The Peshmerga don’t have the money for suitable rations. Most of the time it’s rice. Meat is a rare commodity. Overall, one doesn’t get the impression that they are living the high life. Weapons and ammo are often acquired locally. The medics of the team are looking for any decent medical kit, ranging from tourniquets to the full load-out for paramedics, as described in the Ranger handbook.
The convoy is on the move. Pick-ups modified as armored technicals make their way from the base through several small villages. One checkpoint follows another. During the day, things are relaxed. Soldiers walk around in sandals. There isn’t much fortification. We arrive at the front lines. We climb to a small outpost on a hill heaped up by bulldozers to get a better vantage point. The bunker is made of cavity brick, concrete “U”s turned upside down, and a masonry tower, which serves as an observation post and quarters, which give it an almost castle-like charm. Sandbags lay on top of the walls. A pick-up with a mounted “Dushka” (DShK) heavy machine gun is right behind the cover. Next to it, a grenade launcher. The whole front is made up of such small outposts or houses surrounded by an earth wall.
“Can you see the black flag over there?” It’s hard to spot in the bright sunlight. At about the halfway mark, the Kurdish flag waves in the wind. The village behind it is controlled by ISIS—that’s how people refer to them when talking English. But this afternoon, the Islamic State remains silent. According to a volunteer with multiple tours in the sandbox, the enemy is tactically capable. One time, as the Peshmerga pursued ISIS, the jihadists fell back and led them right into an ambush, which they barely escaped.
Daesh also has night vision and thermal devices, we are told. We ask how they are so certain of that. “At night, they always know exactly where we are.” During the day things are calm, which might be due to ISIS taking cover. “In the villages we retake, we often find tunnels, sometimes almost a mile long,” another volunteer tells us. That’s how the jihadists hide from the air superiority of the coalition forces. “Around here, we had two JDAMs,” we are told. When things get hot, small teams of JTACs show up and make sure the guided bombs with 500 to 1,000 kilogram payloads land on target. It might be French, British, or Canadian lads sending them.
Behind the wall, we can see wide and beautiful plains. It looks peaceful. “Over there, where you see the dogs running around, that’s where the dead terrorists are,” one of the Kurdish soldiers points out when talking about the last attack that was repelled. On the way back, things also seem peaceful. The first hamlet is right behind the outpost. Children are playing in the street, women stand by their front door. “The volunteers are very important to us,” the Iraqi general tells us. “They help us keep those villages and the people safe.” Some of them are Yazidis, and it is well known how ISIS deals with these “infidels.”
The Western volunteers, especially those with a prior service record, also bring a lot of experience with them. “The Kurds are brave and good soldiers,” one of them tells us. But they lack the military know-how necessary for more complex tactics. And one thing they are in desperate need of is heavy weapons. “We are really grateful for the international support, especially lately from the Germans,” General Aras confesses. We saw an MG3 and a brand new H&K G3 while with the Peshmerga. But the Bundeswehr’s training of native instructors, who then act as force multipliers and go out to train the Kurds on the front lines, does seem to have its pitfalls.
We hear a story where one Kurdish fighter complains about the laser of his H&K G36 not working. Being told that the G36 does not have an integrated laser, he points at the red dot sight. An additional problem is the amount of ammunition that came with those weapons. This is less a problem for the G36, which uses the NATO standard 5.56x45mm round, but there is not enough 7.62x51mm, used by the older G3, to go around. Also the costs of war are not to be underestimated, especially in the current recession that the Kurdish region faces. AK-47s sell at around $550 dollars. A round of ammunition for the AK (7.62x39mm) goes for a buck a piece. For those wanting the deluxe edition, it takes about $8,000 dollars for an M4 to change hands, plus 100 bucks per (empty!) magazine. The German reassurances that the G36 will not end up in the wrong hands seem a bit hollow. In Erbil, the G36 is valued more than the M4, so the cut to be made in selling such a weapon is substantial, and certainly highly tempting.
The soldiers and fighters we encounter make a very diverse impression. Going just by their looks, most of the best and uniformly equipped Kurdish solders are seen in Erbil, guarding either public or private compounds. At the front line, there are all kinds of different uniforms and camo patterns present, mostly made in China and bought through local “tactical shops.” The hierarchy seems strong; while discipline is of little importance, the Kurds are hardened fighters.
On our way back through the villages, we see another type of Kurdish fighter: members of the PKK have an eye on us. They are in uniform, clean combat fatigues, and also have young women among them. Everyone we talk to has the highest respect for those warriors. But people also say that the courageous battles have cost the PKK dearly, that they have bled a lot and are weakened as a result. It is a fight that was forced on the Kurdish people. “You know, our men are here to defend their homes,” General Aras explains to us. “They have families that they want to see from time to time, and they want to go back to them when they do not have to fight anymore, when the war is over.” The ISIS terrorists are completely different; they want to fight, kill, and are indifferent if they die. “They just don’t care.”
On our way back to Erbil, our armored SUV stops at the side of the road. “Here, they have the best and freshest fruits. I want to buy some,” the team leader tells us. We hang out at a small booth. All our companions have their weapons slung around their necks. Fist-sized radishes are for sale—a healthy temptation. But Erbil is also not spared by the ongoing conflict. Close to the city limits are large, well-run refugee camps for people who fled from Mosul or other parts of the territory now controlled by IS. In the center of Erbil, one can take pretty tourist-style pictures. A couple hundred yards away, close to a government building, a car bomb went off not too long ago. People relax at a BBQ 250 yards from the U.S. consulate, where another bomb recently exploded.
“The coffee shop across the street, which we frequented regularly, did not reopen,” we are told by Westerners that work in Erbil. A large number of expats, skilled workers that were sent here by their respective Western companies, have already left. This is mostly because of the recession, which is something previously unknown to the Kurdish region. Quickly the talk turns back to the terrorist threat. While we were down there, ISIS took the city of Ramadi. And there are ISIS cells operating in Erbil.
After all, the city is only 30 minutes away from the front lines.