greetings from the front lines: bahshika mountain

only 30 km away from mosul city, the mountain ranges of zartk and bahshika stand majestically facing the flat lands in front of them. smoke spirals toward the sky on several spots down at the low lands. there is something peaceful about this view – if one neglects the fact that you are hiding beind sacks filled with sand and a newly built stone wall, facing the enemy territory below. the black flag of the islamic state flaps in the wind; it looks like both a greeting and a warning as it swings in the rhythm of the sandy wind.

bahshika mountain is reached from the city of bardarash, a maily christian and yezidi dominated town at the edge of what is considered to be the kurdish regional government. while already being within the province of nineveh and official iraqi territory, the kurdish armed forces peshmerga have dug their heels in on the convenient position at the mountain top, observing every move of their opponent. as with every front line, there is something telling about the set up of the line. different from
what i have encountered in kirkuk at talalward, there is only one trench up on this mountain and it is built around a major oil project. the rest of the line is built as a simple wall, putting one stone above each other. it figures to a posture that leaves the possibility of a further moving of this line. so far there has no major forwars pinching into enemy lines happend. and while to the outside reader, the story of the fight against the islamic state might seem to have more thrilling potential, it is actually the politics on the ground that lead to more excitin findings.

stationed high up in the mountains there is a unified peshmerga unit that sits as a back up line to the very front. the unified forces refer to a ministerially encouraged merging of the former two divisions 70 (aligned to the party puk – patriotic union of kurdistan) and 80 (aligned to the party pdk – kurdish democratic party) that are now working side by side under the official institutional control of the ministry of peshmerga – at least according to the books… on the ground there are still big differences and historical tensions left between the two parts. after all, the ministry did in fact understand the merging as a literal process of splitting the entire force of 800 men into 400 from each party. not surprisingly one would expect for tensions to occur in a living together side by side, as well, and even more threatening, as in the obliging of commands in the battlefield. and in most unified forces it is also still the case that the major general in charge of the front line will always belong to the party that has a stronghold in the according territory. a
all the more, i was then surprised to find a puk general within the smaller divisions at the front, that commanding a unified force stationed in a ‘yellow’ (pdk) territory. this puk general was living a two minute car drive from a pdk general who was comanding his division in the next smaller town. it was encouraging to see how the pdk invited the puk for lunch as they had just moved up to this new post and were still setting up logistically. and this is how i got into the fortunate postition to sit between a puk and a pdk general at a unified front line. given the deep frictures between the parties, some of which were still visible in small gestures of respect or the lack of it, it is encouraging to see the pragmatism in the soldiers behavior, at least for what they portray to the outside world. but just given the fact alone that the puk general took the pdk invitation, while at the same time there was a division 70 – puk- stationed a five minute drive up the mountain, seems to be at least one step in a unified direction.

another hint into a more pragmatic and conflict-based approach of the soldiers and their leading generals is the fact that a division 70 is officially stationed in a pdk territory. it is not just a puk general commanding a division of unified soldiers within a pdk stronghold, but it is a clear cut puk-peshmerga force that is also operating within the same area. more than that, it is them who are guarding the very front line and according to a statement made by leading general said jawad he has not had contact with the 70-command since the conflict started as he is coordinating with the operational head quarters responsible for the front line around mosul – led by a pdk major general.

it is with this observation that i judge, while there is still tensions and deep frictures remaining, the current conflict poses a unique opportunity to put pragmatism over ideology and history and join forces in the battle to defend people and territory as well as their long fought for liberties. and particular up this mountain there is a first step towards not just working side by side but actually working with each other possible. there is only one comman that puk general of the unified forces would refuse to accept from thr pdk command: to retreat. but as long as this is not the case, the soldiers are up on the mountain todether, working and living together, and sharing bread and salt.

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