there is something incredibly odd about seeing the black flag of the islamic state flapping in the wind; particularly when it is not on a television screen but through a pair of binoculars that you see it.
it was today that my journey led me to the front line dividing the kurdish forces ‘peshmerga’ from what has been called the biggest threat to the region and the world. talalward is one of several basements in the province of kirkuk that is held and defended by the kurdish forces. but the fame of their enemy is not what makes them special. it is the fact that these peshmerga are unified under the ministry of peshmerga. what may seem as an obvious banality is in fact a rare speciality for the region. within the kurdish regional government, life, territory and the security sector are divided among the party lines of the kurdish democratic party (kdp) and the patriotic union of kurdistan (puk). it was only after the us-led invasion of iraq that patterns began to shift, cooperation began to increase and some change occurred by bringing a third party into the government, ironically even called ‘change’ (gorran). with these baby steps into a more unified direction taken, the armed forces still remain largely divided, however. following recent numbers i came across, there are 200.000 peshmerga currently deployed (leaving open the question of whether and which paramilitary units are included in this equation). that in combination with some older figures that suggested that 40.000 men of 100.000 belong to the unified forces, leaves to question whether it was the unified or the party forces that grew ever since the conflict, or whether the different estimations measure with different cups in the first place. in any case, with this politically and military tangled situation given, it is all the more surprising and encouraging to find a united front at one of the most vulnerable spots of the kurdish region. not only is talalward one of the closest points to the islamic state, but it also protects two gigantic oil operations and one core electricity plant, which are just as much in sight to the trenches as the isis flag. in addition, this front is closely connected to the main kirkuk compound k1, a former iraqi army area that was reused after the iraqi’s left, and from there it is only another 15 minutes into the city.
even more surprising then, in an area like that, is that i found rather relaxed looks, smiling faces and the offer of hot tea, while several cameras and phones where clicking in an ongoing rhythm, documenting the happenings. i could not help but wonder about the weirdness of this situation: on the one hand, i was trying to wrap my brain around how to feel about my own journey. after all, the only two scenarios that i, western girl, know of ‘going somewhere to look at something’ are a visit to the zoo or a touristic travel. and while knowing that my own purpose and meaning of being there served an academic purpose, celebrating a bottom-up approach to the gathering of knowledge – one that was applauded by the people i met on the front-, i could not help but wonder about the oddness of this 21st century academic tourism. on the other hand, with all the camera clicking going on, i was not sure whether it was actually them who were the ‘attraction’ for me, or the other way around. but, to be fair, i guess they don’t get to see a red haired austrian girl everyday.
so there, sipping tea and taking pictures, i had the voice of my driver and translator in my ear, giving me a glimpse into the different conversations about the latest movements of the islamic state, the problems the peshmerga face with the local arab population, and the most prominent front line cases of the current conflict, from sinjar to kobane. i was even lucky to run into a gathering of everything from one to three star generals coming from the ministry to check on the front. with three star general said salah, in charge of this front line, as my host and the son of a martyr as my translator, i was able to sit in along these ranks like a fly on the wall.
one of the most fascinating things i got to know in these meetings was the irony of kirkuk. while a sight of conflict and contestation for decades, with a forceful arabization under the saddam regime and a re-kurdization after 2003 splitting the area in half between kurds and arabs, the mixed city has actually become safer since the islamic state put up camp around its borders. with the iraqi army fleeing due to the isis-threat and the kurdish army upping their already stationed troops, the city turned from a sight of everyday bombings into a place of relative stability. and while it might sound ironic, thinking about it, turns out it is actually not; because as soon as there is not several security forces in charge but one, there is no more debate about who’s responsibility it is to keep the city safe. some even say that it has been the iraqi army itself that supported kirkuk terrorists and planted bombs regularly. some hinted at there having been a separate division in the k1 compound that focused solely on the building of bombs as a source of evidence for these presented assumptions. in any case, even with the iraqi army gone, the bombings becoming less, and the kurdish peshmerga holding the many front lines around the city and its most valuable energy projects, the distrust against the arabic population in the area remains high. about as high as the kurdish pride for showing their capabilities in keeping both the front line and the city stable and safe.
in addition to the conversations i was able to follow and the interview i held with the leading general kak salah, the mere being at several points along the front was a valuable experience in the insight i was able to obtain by simply taking a look around. while i am not going to share details on the composition, equipment or locations, in order to not endanger the men on the front by an overly motivated journalistic approach, i will report some basic impressions. for a first, i want to point towards the misleading depiction by diverse news agencies. while media from both the islamic state and the european and american news outlets are presenting everyday fighting in an almost hollywood stunt like manner, the reality i found reminded me more of the trenches of the first world war. the conclusion drawn from this might be less worth a headline but it leads towards a politically relevant understanding of the front: the peshmerga are not there to gain territory, they are there to defend it. and they are not planning to leave. this fact, being the second issue i want to report, derives from two factors: one, the conviction that kirkuk is and has always been part of the kurdish territory and is hence rightfully defended, and two, the strength, value and heroism of their military leaders. while sometimes derided by european and us-american military strategists, those ‘old men with a belly’ carry a might that can not be measured in muscular strength: the kurdish peshmerga are different from the professionalized armed forces. their dead are not fallen soldiers, they are martyrs. and this war is not a job they do, but a calling to defend the nation they believe in. and particularly the historic fights, today, are a source of pride and national sentiments for the entire region. on the basis of this self-perception, the old warriors, who have fought side by side with great martyrs and who have been leading in not one but two or three defenses of the nation, are not ‘veterans’, they are legends. the mere presence of them at the front sparks respect from all ranks and parties and creates this willingness to go through hell or high water in the honorable defense of their nation. at that, having former ‘mountain fighters’ join the young on the front, a greater sense of historical importance, relevance and esprit de corpse is created – a valuable asset in any conflict. for a third and last observation, i can note that it is not just the old heroes who have joined the front lines. walking into the k1 compound, about to meet rasul latif omer, the general responsible for the entire kirkuk area, my translator gasped ‘oh, pkk‘. when i asked him how he knew, he responded that they were easily visible on their footgear and clothing. personally i could not support this statement, as i myself still find it incredibly incomprehensible to make sense of the literally non-existing structure of uniform clothing, which, on all levels from shoes, gear and insignia resembles nothing less but a confusing pluriformity. so i have to rely on my knowledgable company that the bunch of men in traditional kurdish clothes with several ak’s and mg’s around their shoulders were indeed pkk. but even if this group we passed on our way into the k1 was not pkk, i was informed by others in the font line meetings that there are indeed several pkk members fighting on kirkuk lines. after all, just because the kurdish territory is divided among four states and their parties disagree upon a few things, it is still the kurdish nation that needs to be defended.