Kurds vs. ISIS: Who is defending Kirkuk’s frontline?

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Peshmerga forces deploy to repel any possible ISIS attacks from Mekteb and Halid regions in Kirkuk, Iraq on November 26, 2014. Anadolu Agency/Ali Mukarrem Garip

By: Franco Galdini, Andrea Lombardo

Published Thursday, November 27, 2014

In a two-part series, Al-Akhbar English examines the mobilization and alliances, as well as challenges, emerging between various Kurdish factions as they confront the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The first part explored the prospect of establishing a united Kurdish army. The following is the second of the series, in which Al-Akhbar English interviews Havel Kani, a PKK field commander based at the outskirts of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

Security is tight at the checkpoint entering Kirkuk on the Kirkuk-Baghdad road. Cars and trucks form parallel lines for several hundred metres, as the police proceed to search every vehicle. The city’s security forces fear that Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) bombers may infiltrate the city and carry out attacks, as happened on August 23, 2014, when three simultaneous car bombs killed 15 people and injured 60.

“All main roads coming from the south and west into Kirkuk have been closed to traffic save the Kirkuk-Baghdad road. This is to avoid car bombs and IEDs [improvised explosive devices],” according to Aso Mamand, member of the PUK political bureau in the city.

He adds that the Iraqi Kurdish pershmerga have been shouldering the responsibility for the city’s security, since the Iraqi army dissolved in the face of ISIS’ advance.

“Kurdish cooperation has increased remarkably due to the fight against the Islamic State. There is a strong feeling of solidarity among Kurds and this is a very positive development. However, it is the peshmerga who are leading the fight here. The PKK has offered to help, but they are present just in symbolic numbers.”

Al-Akhbar English drove down the Kirkuk-Baghdad road to the village of Matara, along the frontline with the ISIS. Black flags can be seen fluttering in the wind on the other side of the front, about 1.5 kilometres away. The entrance to the Matara base is manned by peshmerga forces, but dozens of PKK fighters can be found resting from their shift at the front, drinking tea and smoking.

Heval (‘comrade’) Kani is from Kobane. He joined the PKK in the 1990s and spent years in the organisation’s stronghold in the Qandil Mountains. He is one of the PKK field commanders at the Kirkuk front.

Al-Akhbar English: How strong is the PKK presence along the frontline in Kirkuk?

Heval Kani:The PKK has 200 fighters in the Kirkuk region. From their positions, the PKK guerrillas conduct reconnaissance operations behind enemy lines, as well as joint attack operations with the peshmerga. They are deployed as snipers in the first line of defence, while the peshmerga are positioned in the second line with heavy artillery. [This was confirmed by a Kurdish activist who had been to the trenches]. The attack group goes behind enemy lines while the second line of defence provides cover with heavy artillery.
Moreover, the PKK is training able-bodied men and women in the villages along the frontline to defend themselves. Villagers are instructed on how to prepare defence positions and organise shifts for village guards.

Al-Akhbar English: What degree of cooperation is there between the PKK fighters and the peshmerga forces?

HK: As you can see, we share the same premises with the peshmerga: both forces are present in this base. Operations and logistics are organised jointly, and so is the planning, when roles and duties are assigned to the different formations. During an operation, PKK and peshmerga forces have a joint command. For example, two commanders for the former along with two others from the latter. Of course, each commander is responsible to communicate orders to their men, but decisions are taken jointly.

The peshmerga have bigger numbers and heavy weaponry, whereas the PKK operates in very small guerrilla groups of five fighters each, equipped with light weaponry. We don’t need big numbers to be effective, as we are trained in guerrilla warfare. All we need are people committed to the cause. You see this poster? Our comrade Merwan Gezgor had been injured in one operation and, rather than being taken prisoner by ISIS, he blew himself up with a hand grenade.

Al-Akhbar English: Where else is such cooperation in place?

HK: In Makhmour, the PKK has increased its presence and works along with the peshmerga in the same way as in Kirkuk. Along the frontline with IS, we are present with hundreds of fighters. In Shangal, we are organising the so-called Shangal Defence Units by training the local population so that they are able to defend themselves.

Actually, during ISIS’ assault on Shangal, we were able to dispatch forces there in such a quick and effective manner because we have been planning for such an eventuality since 2007, when the then Islamic State in Iraq struck Shangal with suicide bombings. We later offered help to the KDP and the PUK, but they assured us that that wasn’t necessary because all security measures were in place. Now things have changed significantly.

Al-Akhbar English: In what way?

HK: The military cooperation on the ground between different Kurdish groups has created a new atmosphere of optimism and solidarity within the Kurdish camp. This is part of the reason why calls have been renewed to hold a National Congress, which could become a permanent structure, a ‘Kurdish authority’ (marja’iyakurdiya) that would create a joint strategy and defence policy, along with a joint Kurdish defence force. Such a force could be called upon to defend Kurds in all the four parts of Kurdistan, if need be.

Al-Akhbar English: If that is the case, why are Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) officials downplaying the PKK’s presence here?

HK: This subject is very sensitive for the neighbouring countries, such as Iran. [In informal conversations, another PKK commander confirmed that the group had withdrawn its fighters from Khanaqeen and Jalawla due to the proximity to the Iranian border.] Likewise, to be fair, there are still divisions within the Kurdish camp, where some disagree on the creation of a joint defence force, as they are attached to their narrow political interests. Creating this joint structure won’t be easy, but this is our long term strategic aim and we’ll continue working for it. This is also a form of struggle. People are ready, but politicians aren’t.

Al-Akhbar English: If you create a joint force for Kurds, how are the other peoples in Kirkuk, for instance, going to react?

HK: The force should not only be Kurdish. It should be open to the other components of society. In Kirkuk, there are many different peoples, and all should be allowed to participate via the creation of defence units. For example, in Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan], the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have been formed and their name says it all: they are the people’s, not the Kurds’.

Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist and analyst specialising in the Middle East. In 2013, he was the political and media analyst at the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Andrea Lombardo is a consultant and freelance analyst of Kurdish affairs.


when PKK does well, everybody does well.

@ raja & agitpapa: take a deep breath. count one, two, three, four. hold it. then breath out. four, three, two,one. rell-lax!

The real elephant in the room is Barzani. Now that he has all but sidelined his rival Talabani, Barzani sees his ambition of being the supreme ruler of the Kurds within reach and isn't going to share power with the PKK. In fact he actually collaborated with the IS against Rojava before the IS turned and headed for Arbil. For some reason no one talks about that shameful ditch he dug at the border to starve out the Rojava Kurds or the fact that his KDP-S stooges in Syria are part of the anti-Assad coalition that massacred Kurds.

The so-called "solidarity" that we see now will quickly degenerate into a barfight when the IS is defeated and it's time to decide how to divvy up the oil of Kirkuk. In fact tensions will probably surface much sooner, when Barzani starts hogging all the new weaponry coming into Iraqi Kurdistan from Germany and other Western donors.

Of course once the IS is gone, the Kurds will have to fight Iran's Shiite proxies for that city. The honeymoon between the Quds Force and the Kurds has a very limited shelf life.

So no questions about the collaboration with the US air force permitted? That's a pity, as there's nothing that interests us more than that. We'd also like to know what role have the US played in the PKK abandoning the ML positions and turning to federalism, and what's in it for them? How much has the west invested in Kurdistan, as it's clear that they're prepared to defend them fiercely, and we all know the US won't interfere if their direct economic interests aren't at stake. So why on earth have you failed in at least scratching those issues?

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