VICE NEWS – The Islamic State’s blitzkrieg advances across large swathes of Iraq have reached the gates of Iraqi Kurdistan and the last week has seen some of the heaviest skirmishes between Kurdish forces, the peshmerga, and the Sunni militants.
Islamic State fighters sought to overpower the ancient Christian and Yazidi settlements around Mount Sinjar, northern Iraq, by using the element of surprise against the peshmerga deployed nearby. By August 7, thousands of religious minorities were fleeing their ancestral lands, trying to escape the Islamic State ultimatum of convert or die. Many were forced to take refuge, and dozens have died, on the barren mountain without food or water.
Seizing several strategically valuable towns, the Islamic State rapidly gained ground on Erbil, the regional capital. Peshmerga forces attempted to push back the militants, but were met with strong resistance. And the jihadist push for Erbil has revealed some weaknesses with the peshmerga, which was thought to be the only effective bulwark against further Islamic State expansion.
Iraq’s Yazidis who fled to refugee camps say they will never go home. Read more here.
Outdated Arms and Inadequate Logistics
While the peshmerga is technically one force, the two main political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both have their own affiliated peshmerga groups. Both KDP and PUK forces have large stocks of Soviet-era weapons, vehicles, and artillery at their disposal.
When Saddam Hussein fell from power, the peshmerga was able to capture significant amounts of the Iraqi army’s battle tanks, howitzers, and sizable stock of small arms. However, a source from within PUK’s peshmerga told VICE News that spare parts for armored vehicles and artillery are scarce, making it hard to maintain offensive capabilities. Then there’s a very real shortage of small arms ammunition and artillery rounds, so the peshmerga forces are starting to lose the upper hand in battle.
The fall of Mosul on June 10 also meant a remarkable equipment upgrade for the Islamic State (then known as ISIS), as the Iraqi government’s roughly 30,000 soldiers abandoned their bases, leaving behind a massive cache of US-supplied armored vehicles and heavy weaponry. This hardware made its way to frontlines in Syria and elsewhere in Iraq, bolstering the Islamic State’s rapid annexation of the Mosul Dam and Sinjar.
Even though the peshmerga can easily outgun the Islamic State in numbers, the Sunni fighters may nullify that advantage with their better-quality weapons and more effective tactics.
Lack of Hands-On Battle Experience
This may seem strange, as the Kurds are well known for their decade-long armed struggle for freedom. The thing is, the higher-ups in both KDP and PUK peshmerga forces fought Hussein and his army back in the day with guerrilla tactics, using Kurdistan’smountainous geography to their own advantage.
Back then, the enemy was a large, conventional army, untrained in guerrilla warfare and with a rigid hierarchy and bureaucratic chain-of-command. These peshmerga cadres are now facing a completely different foe: well-equipped to the task at hand, battle-hardened through years of unconventional fighting in Syria, and made up of smaller units supported by a flexible command chain. (read more)