Why Iraq's Kurdish Peshmerga are facing a deadly IS resurgence

6 min read
23 December, 2021

Since last November, Islamic State (IS) group militants have killed tens of Peshmerga, Kurdish military forces, and Kurdish civilians in insurgency attacks ramped up by a shift in the mission of US-led coalition forces from a combatant to an advisory role. 

IS seized large swaths of Iraqi territories in 2014. While Iraq officially declared the territorial defeat of IS in 2017, the group continues to carry out bombings, hit-and-run attacks, and abductions across the country.

Recently, IS has been exploiting wide security vacuums between the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga, mainly in disputed areas in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahaddin provinces.    

On 2 December, IS radicals attacked the Kurdish Peshmerga and civilians in the village of Khidirjija in Makhmur, a town some 50 kilometres north of the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil, killing 10 Peshmerga troops and three civilians, all brothers, from the village.

In Liheban, a village near Mount Qarachogh in Makhmour, local residents fled their village because they were unable to resist constant attacks by IS militants, who eventually torched the village. 

Following a high-level security meeting in Baghdad between Iraqi and Kurdish military commanders, both sides launched a joint operation and liberated Liheban village on 4 December. They have also agreed to establish joint military bases in the disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil to secure the area.

"The resurgence of IS takes place against the backdrop of ending US combat operations and general political instability"

In another deadly assault by IS late on 27 November, five Peshmerga were killed and five others were injured in Diyala province. IS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which brought the death toll to 19 fighters and civilians, and the wounding of tens of others.  

The New Arab contacted Jabbar Yawar, the Secretary-general of the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, Major General Qaraman Kamal, Vice Chief of Staff of Peshmerga Forces, Major General Tahsin Al-Khafaji, Spokesperson for the Iraqi Joint Operations Command, and Mohanad  Aleqabi, Director-general of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) Media, but they were not immediately available for comment. 

Post-election uncertainties 

The Combined Joint Task Force, an international coalition established to defeat the Islamic State, announced earlier this month that, “it has completed its transition to a non-combat mission before year’s end as agreed. The new mission is to advise, assist, and enable Iraqi forces.”  

The resurgence of IS takes place against the backdrop of ending US combat operations and general political instability.

“These IS attacks compound the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) woes since it comes on top of militia attacks, post-election uncertainties and student protests,” Bilal Wahab, a Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The New Arab.

“That is why the KRG must implement the reforms in the Peshmerga it committed to, not least because they are the conditions for US funding and assistance (as stipulated in the National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022).”

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The NDAA, which includes provisions of assistance to the Iraqi and KRG Peshmerga forces, is yet to be passed by the US Senate.  

Current security operations between the US and Iraq are premised on the Strategic Framework Agreement and subsequent strategic dialogues in Baghdad and Washington. In January of 2020, the Iraqi parliament overwhelmingly approved a non-binding decision that the Iraqi government should oust US troops stationed in Iraq. 

Washington and Baghdad agreed in July that by the end of 2021, the nature of the US military presence in Iraq will change from an active combat presence to a ‘train and assist’ mission.  

“The January 6 vote and the Strategic Dialogues were the KRG’s opportunity to voice dissent over the changing US mission in Iraq. I do not expect that IS’s renewed attacks will result in a policy shift,” Wahab elaborated. “Hence, the onus is on Iraqi and KRG security forces to join forces against IS and coordinate to fill in the security gap that IS exploits.” 

The Kurdish Peshmerga were instrumental in defeating the Islamic State group, but have recently faced a resurgence of violence. [Getty]

Why so many casualties? 

The two main Kurdish ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), each have their own separate Peshmerga forces. In the past, they have been accused of using heavy-equipped forces to crack down on civilian protesters, while leaving the Peshmerga forces fighting against IS without much-needed equipment, particularly a lack of armoured vehicles and thermal cameras.

Pressured by the US, the international coalition, and the UK, the KRG has started a reformation and unification of its Peshmerga forces, but the process is sluggish.  

“The reason so many Peshmerga troops are being martyred is not only related to the lack of arms and military equipment, as Peshmerga forces have the necessary arms and military tools for fighting IS, but also to the lack of planning, absence of strong commanders, and inability to defending the front lines. These are the real challenges,” Lieutenant-Colonel Islam Chally from the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga told The New Arab

“On the frontline axis of Peshmerga forces, there are different groups of Kurdish fighters. Consequently, it is impossible to unify them under one military command. The best solution is the termination of these axes, which have been run by inexperienced personnel, and the formation of contingents that includes four brigades.” 

"These IS attacks compound the Kurdistan Regional Government's woes since it comes on top of militia attacks, post-election uncertainties, and student protests"

The Kurdish commander also said that the disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil are agricultural areas where many people work as farmers, making it difficult to discern IS militants from local populations. He stressed that despite many joint meetings between the KRG and Iraqi government, Iraqi security forces have been slow to assist the Peshmerga in their fight against IS.

Regional dynamics

In September, Iranian rockets bombarded Kurdish villages targeting opposition groups in the region. Iran has warned the Kurdish political leadership of further repercussions if they were to make alliances with Muqtada al-Sadr’s party, who secured 70 of 324 seats in Iraq’s October general elections and now wants to form a majority government. Pro-Iran Shia parties lost seats in the election that witnessed a historic low voter turnout of 41%. 

Since its emergence, IS has been exploited by different countries and agendas for their own ends. Some Kurdish political analysts have speculated that there are dubious motivations behind the recent resurgence of IS in Kurdistan, and that IS attacks help make the case for continued US and coalition support to secure the area. 

 “Meanwhile, let's not forget the KDP & PUK strategies, especially the KDP's, of which they want more ISIS attacks so that US & coalition will continue aiding & funding the KDP & PUK Peshmerga. That's all beside the Peshmerga remains a militia in the hands of the KDP & PUK,” tweeted Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish writer living in Germany.  

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The Islamic State has taken advantage of these political tensions, as hostility between Kurdish forces and the PMF has exacerbated the resurgence of IS.

“These recent attacks are, to some extent, associated with the controversies between the Kurdish forces and the PMF,” Wahab said. “One complicating factor for the KRG in filling the security gap is the presence of PMF factions on the other side of the disputed territories.” 

With the rise in attacks, there are also reports that IS is reinforcing its fighting base. "Over 200 militants of Jundallah (God's Army) recently pledged allegiance to IS in Syria and were sent to Iraq to escalate attacks in all provinces," Gen. Mohammed Rostam, Peshemrga commander of Qaratapa- Hamrin told VOA Kurdish on 4 December. 

As it stands, a rocky political landscape and fragile alliance between the Peshmerga and Iraqi state forces seems unlikely to prevent a resurgence of IS in the Kurdish region.

Dana Taib Menmy is an investigative freelance journalist from the Iraqi Kurdistan region writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities. His work has appeared in Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, The National, among many other outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy