(Peshmerga General Ali Rashed/photo credit Taylor Smith)
Last December, Peshmerga General Ali Rashed’s unit was ambushed by ISIS insurgents as they stood guard at the gateway between ISIS territory and the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan on the outskirts of Bardarash.
Rashed lost 40 men in the battle, but they were able to keep ISIS at bay.
“I didn’t sleep for 32 hours,” Rashed said. ”I know more about war than my men, so I want to protect them.”
War has become a way life for Rashed. He’s been a soldier in Kurdistan for nearly 30 years. Before ISIS, Rashed said he fought against Saddam Hussein in the mountains of Iraq. His reward was a five-year prison sentence.
“Somebody told his men, this man is Kurdish peshmerga, and they took me. But, after a while, they let us go. I think it’s because Saddam was in jail and he knew what it was like,” said Rashed.
Today, he commands the 1st unit of the 3rd force of the Safin Peshmerga, all of whom hail from the tiny village of Horan outside Shaqlawa. These men, who vary in age and stature, stand guard on the outskirts of Bardarash, a once quiet town on the side of the road between Erbil and Mosul.
Their bunker is located in the middle of a picturesque green valley between two mountains, and evidence of the standoff is subtle yet apparent. Every hundred meters or so, a dirt wall runs between the mountains as an additional barricade.
So far, these limits have not been tested due to the resistance of the 40 soldiers. Spending most of their time staring out over a concrete wall and barbed wire entanglements into the ISIS-controlled town of Bashika, the men have managed to fend off four attacks in the last year.
Peshmerga, which literally translates to “in the face of death,” is the military force of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. They are divided by the two political parties in the region, but both pledge allegiance to the Kurdistan Regional Government.
General Rashed moves among his men quite comfortably and amiably. The difference in rank between them is nearly indiscernible. He eats lunch side by side with them, even moving the biggest pieces of chicken off his plate to the soldier on his right.
“I don’t feel like a general around them. They are my brothers. I want to die before them,” he said.
The feeling is mutual. The rookie warrior, Aram Yasim, joined their ranks a little over a year ago when ISIS attacked Iraqi Kurdistan.
“I wanted to fight ISIS. And I feel happy with my unit. They are like my brothers,” he said.
While it may sound like it’s all in a day’s work, these soldiers have not received payment for their efforts in over four months due to economic crisis. But it seems that no monetary reward can replace the honor of defending their homeland.
“This is my city. If I don’t fight, who will?” said Adam Rajid, a 32-year-old peshmerga soldier.
In light of recent stories detailing the desertion of many paid soldiers in the Iraqi Security Forces along the front lines of Makhmour, this strong morale proves particularly unique.
Shamsideen Baji, an unassuming 20 year old, shrugs at the inquiry of why they fight. “We want to save Kurdistan. If we are not able to stop them, we will be refugees again,” he said.
Their duty to Kurdistan isn’t the only point of pride for the unit. All of their weapons were bought by the soldiers themselves, which they are proud to point out. General Rashed recently wrangled an M4 and totes it around as his prized possession.
“We have powerful guns. But we have no bullets for them,” he said.
Falah Mustafa, the foreign minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, blames the Iraqi central government for the lack of ammunition and funds. The Iraqi government in Baghdad was supposedly meant to be treated and trained as part of the Iraqi national defense system, but so far, that has not happened.
“We learned before that the government should buy these weapons for us. But the government only gives weapons to the Iraqi Army. They send all weapons to Baghdad, and it is hard for us to get them,” explained Rashed.
Rashed says this war is very different from the war against Saddam. “There is a big difference. Before, we were fighting in the mountains. Now, it’s much harder because this land is flat,” he said.
In the valley, peshmerga are constantly on watch. Two soldiers stand guard during the day and four at night. They perch on worn school desks, which they took from a nearby reclaimed town. The men pass the idle time playing dominoes and gamma, a chess-like game comprised of stones. They never play music.
“You have to think: ISIS could attack at any time,” said Ramzi, a peshmerga solider of four years.
“Sometimes, they are so close we can talk with them,” said General Rashed.
Overall, they have grown accustomed to the situation. “I used to shake when holding the gun, but now I feel strong,” said Ishmael, the unit’s cook.
Things may be going well on the battlefield, but the effects of the Kurdish Regional Government’s debts are growing worse. These effects include the salaries of government employees, including those on the front lines, being slashed or frozen for four months now. With the government being roughly $16 billion in debt, there is much cause for concern.
The Ministry of Peshmerga estimates that roughly 7,000 of its soldiers are wounded and in need of treatment. Approximately 1,500 peshmerga are waiting to be sent abroad to Europe or Turkey for medical treatment, but there’s no money to transport them.
Combined with the Iraqi government’s frugal supply of weapons to the peshmerga, the soldiers are feeling abandoned more and more every day.
“We are not a country, so nobody will give us weapons,” said General Rashed.
While General Rashed and his unit may be willing to go it alone for now, it’s only a matter of time before their empty wallets outweigh their resolve to stay and fight. Since the start of the war, peshmerga forces have reclaimed 10,000 miles of territory from ISIS. As the U.S.-led coalition gears up for its toughest battle yet to free Mosul, the capital of ISIS, it will become more important to fuel the peshmerga’s fighting power.
“We have everything, even our own government,” Rashed said. “But we won’t become a country until the big countries trust us.”