ERBIL, Iraq – In the sky above northwestern Iraq, the Battle for Mosul looks like a well-coordinated campaign. Airstrikes are carried out on all fronts by the American-led coalition and the Iraqi Air Force, which is still in the process of being rebuilt with a mixture of new American and Russian combat aircraft. American and Iraqi helicopters, as well as those of the Kurdish Peshmerga’s small air force, are working together, ferrying troops and evacuating the wounded from the front lines.
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On the ground, however, totally separate battles are being fought out. The Iraqi Army, the Peshmerga, Shi’ite-Iraqi militias and United States Special Forces teams are all rival forces, albeit with a common enemy, for now. They are all fighting ISIS while pursuing very different agenda.
The Iraqi Army are not even allowed into the territory of the Kurdish Regional Government without special authorization, and the Peshmerga constantly complain of how almost all the new weapons supplied by the Americans have gone to Baghdad’s forces, with the Kurdish fighters receiving only scraps.
“The Americans don’t learn,” says one Peshmerga officer. “The Iraqi army will just run away, leaving their new American weapons to ISIS. Just as they did two years ago.”
Read more on ISIS: The inconvenient reality behind the long, messy battle for Mosul: a special report ■ Part 1 | Iraqi forces marching toward bloodbath with ISIS ■ Part 2 | Dawn of ISIS: How the Islamic State Took Power in Iraq and Syria | U.S. to launch battle to retake ISIS capital in Syria 'In next few weeks'
While for now, at least, the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga are cooperating in the Mosul campaign, on the airwaves the PR battle between them rages. Each force wants to be seen as leading the battle and playing the central role in defeating ISIS. Local Kurdish television camera crews are right beside Peshmerga in the firing line, reporting breathlessly on the Kurdish sacrifice and fighting spirit. Iraqi state television and other Baghdad-based networks are doing the same with army units, highlighting how the Iraqi military – which was humiliated just two years ago when its men fled Mosul and other cities, abandoning them to ISIS – is now, so they claim, an effective fighting force. Abandoning all military notions of low visibility, the armored vehicles fly either large Iraqi or Kurdish flags going in to battle.
The PR rivalry is also being played out on foreign media channels as well. Western news organizations find a much friendlier working environment among the Kurds, though Peshmerga press officers warn foreign journalists “not to report outside the official statements.” Iranian television networks are embedded only with the Iraqi army, boosting the narrative of the Shi’ite-dominated Baghdad government. There are tensions on either side between military and media. Peshmerga expelled an Al Jazeera news team, protesting against the way they referred to slain ISIS fighters as “Shahids” but did not say the same for Peshmerga’s martyrs.
For the Iraqi government in Baghdad, this is an opportunity to try and show that they are leading a united nation. Their reporters highlight the fact that there are also Sunnis and Kurds in the national army. For the Kurds, this is yet another attempt in their generations-long campaign to present themselves to the world as an independent nation.
The Mosul campaign is making the Kurdish region a center of international attention, though perhaps not for the best reasons. Last week, when U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited Baghdad for meetings on the progress of the Mosul campaign, he made sure also to visit the Kurdish capital Erbil. On the city’s military airfield, U.S. Army Apache and Blackhawk helicopters are lined up, while USAF C-17 cargo planes land, bringing more ammunition and special forces teams.
Hundreds of international journalists and aid workers have descended on the city to report on the battles and the expected stream of refugees expected to arrive from Mosul. So far the new refugee camps being erected are still empty and the numbers of refugees are smaller than originally envisaged. Is it because ISIS are threatening anyone planning to leave with death, or those Sunni Iraqis still in Mosul prefer living under ISIS to an uncertain future as refugees?
While the Peshmerga have been on the front lines against ISIS since mid-2014, and have prevented the Islamic State from spreading into the KRG, from conversations with Kurdish officials and businesspeople it is hard to avoid the impression that they see the government in Baghdad as their main enemy. Until 1991, when the West imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, preventing Saddam Hussein’s regime from bombing civilian areas, there was all-out war between Baghdad and the Kurds. From then on, Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed a wide degree of autonomy, with its own president, government and military force.
But it is still not an independent sovereign nation. As far as the Kurds are concerned, it is the Shi’ite-dominated government which is the main obstacle to their national development, in its staunch opposition to allowing the KRG to sell oil from its territory directly to neighboring Turkey.
Around Kurdish cities like Kirkuk, you can literally smell the oil close up to the ground. Not that long ago, there were hopes in the Kurdish region that they were on the way to being the next Dubai. Massive new office buildings and hotels were being built and trading companies were formed. Hundreds of foreign investors arrived, impressed by the security in this part of Iraq, which seemed to be so much safer than the rest of the country.
But the argument with Baghdad over how much of the oil revenue would remain in the KRG, then the capture of Mosul by ISIS in June 2014 and the plummeting of global oil prices, have frozen much of the development. Building projects have been suspended, new road works abandoned, the Dohuk Sheraton closed. The frustration of locals, who always believe that Baghdad is giving them a raw deal, grows.
Kurdish flags and national symbols are everywhere and Iraqi flags are almost nowhere to be seen. It has government departments and ministers and police. Kurdish is the language and most of those who were educated since 1991, when Saddam Hussein’s regime lost control of the region and its education system, don’t even speak Arabic. But the international community is loath to countenance a breaking up of Iraq, and regional powers Iran and Turkey will do everything in their power to prevent Kurdish independence. Only about a quarter of the estimated 30 million Kurds live in the KRG. The rest are in Turkey, Syria and Iran.
Kurdish nationalism has been underground, by necessity, for so many decades, that making the transition to a fully functioning state is difficult. Its politics and finances are still deeply nepotistic, controlled by the Barazani and Talabani clans, who dominate the two main Kurdish political parties. And while the Peshmerga is a fighting force, it is also a pressure-group of 200,000 men who have spent most of their lives in uniform, until 1991 underground, and are today underemployed and unemployable. Many of them live off meagre KRG salaries and moonlight as security guards, with their AK-47s. Still they are the Kurdish national pride. In recent months the Peshmerga have received training from the American and other Western military advisers (as they did back in the 1960s from Israel). It still remains at heart a tribal militia.
Sabah Retullal, a former member of the Kurdish parliament who is now a volunteer officer with Peshmerga, says that while the U.S. and Iraqi army are now providing air strikes, this is still very much the Kurds’ battle. “For two years and two months since this area was captured by ISIS, we have been here. We haven’t seen anyone else here. Not the Iraqi army and not the Americans. It’s just been the Peshmerga here stopping ISIS,” he says.
He says that once the area around Mosul is cleared from ISIS, no one knows for certain what the next stage will be, and who will enter Mosul. “It’s up to the Peshmerga ministry in Erbil and the Defense Ministry in Baghdad.” At this point it isn’t clear whether there is a plan for retaking Mosul itself. “Peshmerga liberated eight villages in the first few hours of the campaign,” he says with pride. “It took the Iraqi army the entire day to liberate just one village.”
Independent or not, Iraqi Kurdistan, or Kurdish Iraq, clings to its own ways. To reassure Western visitors, most hotels have metal detectors at the entrance, but Peshmerga veterans, many of whom are working now as security guards for foreign media crews and NGOs, stride in to the lobby carrying their Kalashnikovs, ignoring the signs asking them to leave their weapons at the reception desk.
Another proud tradition is religious tolerance. Though most of them are Muslim, they consider also Christians and Jews who lived among them for decades as Kurds and defend their secularism. Few of the fighters could be seen praying before battle this week and there were no cries of “Allah u-Akbar” as they attacked.
On Saturday, the Shi’ite majority in Iraq’s parliament passed a law prohibiting the sale of alcohol in the country. The response of the barman in one Erbil’s packed bars was to offer drinks on the house. “Nothing they say there in Baghdad matters to us,” he laughed.