Peshmerga on front-lines lament lack of funding for weapons
Tel Saqf, Iraq - Mike, better known as @peshmerganor on Instagram, serves in the Dohuk anti-terror unit under the command of General Wahid Kovle on a frontline with the Islamic State group in Bakufa, Iraq.
Many days go quietly for the Norwegian peshmerga volunteer of Kurdish origins, who came back to the country of his birth in 2015 to help the peshmerga fight IS.
However, on April 3, he finally got his taste of the action, being sucked into a full-scale battle.
"Four hundred IS fighters and nearly 30 armoured suicide vehicles were involved," Mike told The New Arab. "The fighting was pretty intense and unlike anything I've experienced so far."
That day, IS attacked the peshmerga and some of its allied Christian paramilitary groups from IS-held Batnaya, temporarily taking the town of Tel Saqf, and leaving one American as well as an unknown number of peshmerga and allied soldiers dead.
Later in the day, the peshmerga - backed by coalition air support - retook the town. IS militants were killed.
Tel Saqf and Bakufa sit in Iraq's Nineveh region. Administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) -possibly the world's next state - some of its locales remain occupied by IS. While local peshmerga units remain confident in their ability to retake the entire region, they believe they are suffering from inadequate funding and a lack of heavy weaponry.
In the aftermath of the fierce Tel Saqf attack, their concerns prove valid.
|At the start of the fight with IS, we lost so many lives because we had no heavy weaponry. With the proper weapons, we can fight IS without casualties|
Brigadier General Maran serves in Tel Saqf's peshmerga Unit 44 under General Tarek Suleiman. He laments what he believes to be inadequate funding of his unit. "We haven't received our salaries in three months due to cuts in Baghdad's budget," he told The New Arab.
Maran believes the peshmerga is still feeling the impact of the drop in the price of Iraqi oil beginning in January, 2016. "The cuts are due to the lower oil prices," he said.
Jabar Yawar is secretary-general of the ministry of peshmerga in Erbil. "Oil affects us a lot, especially regarding salaries," he said. "The KRG is in big trouble with the lower price of oil... Any lowering affects everything."
The peshmerga further requires yet more heavy weaponry, according to commanders and soldiers alike. "We have lots of problem with equipment," said General Maran. "We have only simple weapons and lack heavy weapons as well as ammunition."
Maran believes this has cost his unit lives throughout the conflict with IS. "At the start of the fight with IS, we lost so many lives because we had no heavy weaponry," he told The New Arab. "With the proper weapons, we can fight IS without casualties."
Yawar agrees, albeit with a more positive outlook. "We have more or less enough weapons, but we especially need more heavy weapons," he said.
At least some soldiers agree with peshmerga higher-ups on the lack of heavy weaponry. "There's a general lack of anti-armour weaponry in the peshmerga," said Mike, who declined to give his full name.
Mike, who served with the Norwegian military in Afghanistan before volunteering with the peshmerga, believes this had an adverse effect on last week's battle for Tel Saqf.
|Peshmerga fighters captured a drone during
recent fighting with IS [@peshmerganor]
"When a convoy of suicide vehicles approached the front, certain units panicked and left their posts, making it easy for [IS] to take over Tel Saqf. My unit stayed put, though," he said.
In fact, the situation is so desperate that Mike claims the peshmerga needs to take heavy weaponry from IS to continue the fight.
"We obviously don't have enough supplies and the fact that most of the unit's heavy weaponry is taken from IS says it all," he added, after the firefight relented.
Pictures Mike later shared with The New Arab show a drone and an armoured vehicle his unit took from the battlefield following an IS attack.
Peshmerga fighters were reportedly worried about running out of bullets during the Tel Saqf attack. Maran is not the only one who believes his unit requires more ammunition.
Tel Saqf is presently controlled by Unit 44 of the peshmerga, and is located just over 8km from IS territory in Batnaya. The Nineveh Plain Forces - an allied Christian paramilitary group - is in the town as well.
The peshmerga's Dohuk anti-terror unit serves in neighbouring Baqofah, along with Dwekh Nawsha - another Christian paramilitary group. US troops are also sometimes spotted in the area, north of Mosul, IS' stronghold in Iraq.
Political tensions between Erbil and Baghdad factor into the peshmerga's struggles. Discontent with the central government in Baghdad runs throughout the KRG's ruling parties.
On May 6, Masrour Barzani, chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, tweeted: "Compulsory coexistence has not worked. Iraq is a conceptual failure. #Kurdistan region will hold a referendum."
Barzani is a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and son of Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani.
|At the very least I think we should declare sovereignty in the areas that are under Peshmerga and Kurdish administration|
In an interview with Rudaw, Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, a member of the Patriotic Union for Kurdistan (PUK), also indicated such frustrations - albeit with a more measured tone. "If we're going to have a referendum and there is a strong vote for independence, some steps should be taken," he told the Kurdish news site.
"At the very least I think we should declare sovereignty in the areas that are under Peshmerga and Kurdish administration,” he added.
On the front-lines, the Kurds have several friends in their quest for autonomy - but the relationship with Baghdad remains complicated, especially regarding the forthcoming bid to re-take Mosul. "Coordination with the Iraqi Army is difficult," said Maran. "We can't trust them."
He spoke more highly of Kurdistan's western allies: "I think US and European forces should come here to participate. There must be a political solution to the Kurdish-Sunni-Shia conflict. Personally, I think it's necessary that western forces temporarily help liberate Mosul."
While Maran does not speak for the peshmerga, his comments begin to indicate the degree to which trust has fallen between the peshmerga and Baghdad.
Maran speaks with confidence regarding his unit's ability to defeat IS. However, with commanders and soldiers alike noting the difficulties caused by their apparent lack of support, doing so will be no easy task.
For those hoping to return to a Nineveh region devoid of IS, it remains a most troubling state of affairs.
Khasraw Hamarashid contributed fixing and field translation services in the production of this report.
Adam Lucente is a freelance journalist. He has worked in Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and across the region. Follow him on Twitter: @Adam_Lucente