Peshmerga and the Ongoing Fight against ISIS

A solitary Peshmerga soldier keeps watch on the front line near Mosul (photograph S R Valentine).

A solitary Peshmerga soldier keeps watch on the front line near Mosul (photograph S R Valentine).

By Dr Simon Ross Valentine:

One of the most significant “players” in the fight against ISIS (the Islamic State), is the Peshmerga, the Kurdish army of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi-Kurdistan.

“The Peshmerga are brave fighters who punch above their weight”, stated .Lt. Gen. Barbero, the former Head of US Training of the Iraqi Army. Barbero is but one of many military and political figures who readily acknowledge how Peshmerga fighters “take on bigger enemies such as ISIS and perform bravely”.(1) All told, the Peshmerga has re-captured 8,000 square miles of territory from ISIS in the past twenty months.

But what is Peshmerga; why is it successful as a military force and what are the difficulties it faces in eradicating ISIS from Kurdish soil?

What is Peshmerga?

Peshmerga, (a term derived from two Kurdish words meaning “those who face death”), is the army of the Kurdish people of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Numbering anything from 80,000 to 240,000, the Peshmerga consists of 36 military brigades presently assembled on a 650 mile long front line with ISIS. While the majority of the Peshmerga forces are Muslims (nominally so anyway), some are Christian, while others are from the Yazidi community, a religious minority group that ISIS has persecuted, to the point of genocide.

To the chagrin of ISIS fighters generally – who believe that they will not enter paradise if they are killed by a woman – there are presently about 600 female Peshmerga fighters, including those of the women only 2nd Battalion, 6th Brigade, based in the city of Sulaymaniyah, which has undertaken front line duties identical to their male colleagues.

Fired by a love for Kurdistan, and appalled at the brutality of the Islamic State, the soldiers I have spent time with on the Makhmour Front and elsewhere were confident and resolute, eager to remove, as one Peshmerga remarked, “the cancer of Daesh (ISIS) from our precious homeland”.

The Peshmerga in history

Since ancient times the Kurds have been referred to as fierce fighters, seeking freedom from oppression. They are mentioned by the Greek historian Xenophon as the Carduchi, “warlike tribes that in antiquity occupied the hilly country along the upper Tigris near the Assyrian and Median borders, in present-day western Kurdistan”.(2) The fighting spirit of the Kurds, and their zeal for independence, was seen in their courageous struggle against the Ottoman and British Empires, and later against the anti-Kurdish government of post First World War Turkey.

It has been said with justification that “the twentieth century was a period of false promises, betrayal, and abuse for Kurds”.(3) The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, instead of bringing about long hoped for independence, led to the partition of the Kurdish community in four separate regions: Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

Following an unsuccessful revolt against the Hashemite Monarchy in Iraq, the Kurds (under Mustafa Barzani, “the godfather of Kurdish nationalism”,(4) and father of Masoud Barzani, the present leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)), fled to Iran in October 1945. There, in the town of Mahabad under Soviet protection, the Kurds, led by Mustafa Barzani and Qazi Muhammad, formed a Kurdish government. Qazi Muhammad was elected as the first Kurdish president and on 22 January 1946 the Republic of Kurdistan was born.(5)

It was during this period that the Peshmerga was officially established as a fighting force and, due to their courage in battle, given the name Peshmerga, “those who face death”. The Mahabad Republic was short lived however. Gaining oil concessions from Iran the Soviets withdrew their support. The Kurds, no match to the overwhelming might of the Iranians, were easily suppressed. Qazi Muhammad was sentenced to death, and hanged on 30 March 1947. Mustafa Barzani and four hundred Peshmerga managed to escape to Russia.

After the fall of the Mahabad Republic, Peshmerga forces re-emerged as guerrilla organizations that would go on to fight the Iranian and Iraqi governments for the remainder of the century.(6) From 1961-1970 the Peshmerga fought bravely against an Iraqi Baathist government that refused to acknowledge the Kurds as a people, culminating in the March Manifesto, a 12 point autonomy agreement which seemed to support Kurdish political rights. However, In 1974, due to the Baathist failure to honour that agreement, fighting again broke out between the Kurds and the Baathist regime.

“The fighting was hard, but we were determined”, stated Zrar Sulaiman Bag Dargallay, a 96 year old Peshmerga fighter and history teacher, whom the author interviewed in Soran. Talking with alacrity about his experiences fighting on Zozek and other local mountains he described how the Peshmerga units fought boldly despite having little food, ammunition or weapons. “Many of us”, he said, “had only single shot breech loading rifles and grenades against machine guns, tanks and planes”. Using hit and run tactics, Zrar and his Peshmerga companions proved however to be effective adversaries, inflicting considerable damage on the Iraqi army.

The Algiers Accord, signed on 13 June 1975, seen by the Kurds as a betrayal by the US, reconciled Iran and Iraq but ignored Kurdish rights. As part of the Algiers agreement the Shah of Iran agreed to stop supporting the Kurds. Abandoned by Iran and the US the Peshmerga was effectively crushed.

Saddam Hussein and the Al-Anfal Campaign

One of the darkest periods of Kurdish history occurred during the presidency of Saddam Hussein, particularly in the Al-Anfal campaign of 1986-89, during which the Baathist party attempted to annihilate, not only Kurds, but other minority groups such as Assyrians and the Yazidis.

Throughout this campaign “Kurds saw many atrocities and mass killings”, stated an engineering student to the author at Soran University. “The purpose of Saddam”, he explained, “was to eradicate Kurdish ethnicity and to take their freedom, because freedom is a priority”.(7)

Saddam appointed a cousin, Ali Hassan Al Majid to carry out the Al-Anfal campaign. Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali”, was responsible for many atrocities including the chemical attack on Halabja “in which 3,200-5,000 Kurdish people were killed, most of them civilians”.(8) Elsewhere the Iraqis bombed and straffed surrounding villages, often with phosphorous shells, killing many of the residents.  In an attempt to prevent help being given to the Peshmerga fighters hiding in the mountains, the survivors of such attacks were taken to live in Nahiha, new towns, constructed and organised as concentration camps.

Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence agency, carried out systematic imprisonment and torture of those suspected of aiding the Peshmerga. Baathist oppression of Kurds also involved the policy of Arabization under which Kurds were relocated to poorer areas of Iraq; Kurdish towns and cities were given Arabized names, and attempts were made to remove all traces of Kurdish culture.

In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, at the request of US President G W Bush, the Kurds rose up against Saddam. The Peshmerga, and deserters from the Iraqi army, made considerable advances against Saddam’s forces capturing strategic locations such as the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. The Americans however, seeing Iraq as a useful bulwark against Iranian fundamentalism, then turned a blind eye to the counter-attack carried out by Saddam against the Kurds.(9)

Unhindered by the international community, Saddam’s reaction to the Kurdish revolt was brutal, sending an estimated one and a half million Kurds fleeing to Iran and Turkey. Help eventually came for the Kurdish refugees in Operation Provide Comfort (1991) in which supplies of food, medicine and basic necessities were given to Kurds hiding in the mountains on the Iraqi-Turkish border. Further to this, in Operation Northern Watch (1997), an attempt was made to protect the Kurds by enforcing a no fly zone over Kurdistan, and by establishing a safe zone sixty miles into Iraq.

After the second Gulf War and the downfall of Saddam, although the Kurds did not gain the independence they desired, under the Coalition Provisional Authority set up to aid in the reconstruction of Iraq, the Peshmerga effectively gained legitimate status as an army. In this capacity the Peshmerga participated in operations with coalition forces.

The author with Peshmerga soldiers at Checkpoint Demoocratic, Bashtiq, near Mosul

The author with Peshmerga soldiers at Checkpoint Demoocratic, Bashtiq, near Mosul

The Peshmerga and the fight against ISIS

On 10 June 2014, ISIS, an extreme jihadist group claiming to be the final, the “true” Caliphate, occupied large areas of Iraq and Syria including the city of Mosul.

The Peshmerga has been valiant in its fight against ISIS. Notable achievements of the Kurdish forces has included the recapture of the Yazidi city of Sinjar in November 2015.

This and other victories however have been achieved at considerable cost to the Kurdish people. Since the beginning of the conflict with ISIS over 1,300 Peshmerga have been killed and 7,500 wounded. Most of these fatalities and injuries were caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the insurgency version of a landmine.

The KRG and the Peshmerga are experiencing a severe economic crisis. In 2014 Baghdad refused to give the KRG its 17% share of the federal budget. A steep drop in the price of oil, which has long been the KRG’s main source of revenue, has further crippled Kurdistan’s economy.

Why has the Peshmerga been successful against ISIS?

One of the main reasons for Peshmerga success can be seen in the resilience, and fighting spirit of the Kurdish people. General Kirkuki, one of the leading commanders on the Makhmour Front, explained the spirit of the Peshmerga well when he stated:

“What makes us strong is our will and our capacity. It has been the will of the Iraqi Kurdish forces that has stopped the IS group from establishing their pagan, pre-Islamic nightmare in Kirkuk. It is the will of the Iraqi Kurdish military that will continue to defend and protect Kirkuk, and the rest of the Kurdish region”.(10)

Similarly General Hussain Mamand remarked to me in a private interview at his home in Choman:

“We are strong because we do not fight for money, we fight because we hate what we see in Daesh, we fight so as to protect our land and our families from this evil group”.

The Kurds are in the puzzling and unenviable position of having their own culture, language, parliament, president, flag, army and national anthem yet have no country of their own. As such, as a student at Soran University wrote in an assignment: “The dream of every single Kurdish man and woman, is the independence and the union of great Kurdistan”.(11) For the Kurds therefore, their fight against militancy is inexorably linked to this idea of political freedom. The Peshmerga has come to represent the Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq, fearlessly fighting for the protection and liberty of the Kurdish people. This aspiration was expressed with clarity by another Kurdish student who declared to the author:

“We [are] never afraid of anybody as we have the power of Peshmerga heroes, and we [are] going to fight till the last of our hearts with Peshmerga. We love peshmerga, We are all Peshmerga”.(12)


Facing constant strife and oppression, usually standing alone, the Kurds have often said: “only the mountains are our friends”. Today, however the Kurdish people do have friends within the international community. Kurds are grateful for the help they are receiving from the US, and from various other western powers, in its fight against ISIS. However, although truly grateful for the military; financial and advisory assistance provided by such allies, the KRG and the Peshmerga are in need of even greater assistance if ISIS is to be completely destroyed.  

Major General Sirwan Barzani, commander for the Makhmour frontline near Mosul, expressed his concerns to the international media, stating:

“I have lack of ammunitions, my needs are mortars, doschers (Russian machine guns), heavy machine guns especially, I have maximum 5% of my needs, Believe me, we need night visions, thermals, we need everything”.(13)

Putting things in perspective he stressed how: “We have more than 1,000 kilometre frontline, it’s not an easy war”.

Similarly Col. Nahida Ahmad Rashida, the commander of the only all female brigade in the Peshmerga, recently stressed the need for better military equipment. “Clearly, all weapons of the retreated Iraqi army landed in the hands of the IS terrorists”, she explained, “which means that they are equipped with modern arms. Moreover, they also receive help from outside, whereas the Peshmerga fighters mainly have light arms and rifles, which are far from being new”.(14)

Analysts and politicians alike are seriously concerned at the use by ISIS of chemical weapons, a tactic ISIS could possibly use in European and American cities. Apart from anything else the possible use of chemical weapons in western localities is a cogent reminder that ISIS is the enemy of the world and not just the Peshmerga. As such the Peshmerga should be supported as the most stable and effective fighting force in the Middle East opposing ISIS. David Phillips is absolutely correct when he states in his book The Kurdish Spring: “In today’s Middle East, America has no better friend than the Kurds”.(15)


  1. “US Ambassador to Iraq does not support Kurdistan’s Independence”, NRT, 4 January 2016.
  2.  See article entitled “Carduchi”, Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  3. D. L. Phillips, The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East, Transaction Publishers, 2015, p. 3.
  4. D. Korn, “The Last Years of Mustafa Barzani”, Middle East Quarterly, June 1994, vol 1, no 2.
  5. See article titled “Republic of Mahabad”, Wikipedia,
  6. See article titled “Peshmerga”, Wikipedia,
  7. Razhan Jabar Ahmad, second stage chemical engineering student, University of Soran in a piece of assessed writing, February 2016.
  8. Entry titled “Al-Anfal Campaign”, Wikipedia,
  9. See D. Phillips, The Kurdish Spring, op.cit., p. 41.
  10. “Interview Kamal Kirkuki: Kurdish military ‘Will not withdraw’ from the Disputed Territories”, Niqash, 6 November 2015.
  11. Zana Qader, engineering student, Soran University, Kurdistan.
  12. Swayla Ali Aziz engineering student, Soran University.
  13. Major General Sirwan Barzani, “Kurdish Peshmerga Fighters Waiting for Mosul Battle Plan”, Voice of America, 15 March 2016.
  14. “We are world’s last line of defence against terrorism – Kurdish female fighter”, interview with Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashida, RT, 28 August 2015.
  15. Phillips, Kurdish Spring, op.cit., p. xviii.

Dr S R Valentine is a lecturer and freelance writer currently living in Kurdistan, and writing a book on the Peshmerga. He would be pleased to hear from any Kurds with personal anecdotes and information on Peshmerga that he can use in the forthcoming book:

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