ISIS Operates in the No-Man’s Land Between Kurdish and Iraqi Forces

August 5, 2019Kevin Knodell
Coffee or Die Photo

“Even right now they are burning the fields,” said General Zirean Shex Wesahni as he points to several burning fields in the distance. “Most of them belong to Kurds, but there may be some that belong to Arabs, too. From here, it’s hard to be sure.”

Wesahni is a Kurdish Peshmerga commander who oversees forces in the Qarachogh Mountains overlooking the predominantly Kurdish town of Makmhur. Makmhur is currently in the hands of Iraqi militias known as the Hashd al-Shaabi — or “Popular Mobilization Forces” — groups who often have close ties to Iran.

Kurdish farmers in Makmhur and nearby villages have complained of ISIS militants burning their fields after they refused to pay taxes to the militants. In May, video emerged of militants threatening locals and burning crops. Later in the month, the ISIS-produced newsletter al-Naba published an article proclaiming, “soldiers of the Caliphate burn the farms of the apostates in Iraq and al-Sham, IS warns of a ‘hot summer.’”

Kurdish Peshmerga commander General Zirean Shex Wesahni, second from left. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Today the Peshmerga watch in frustration. They say the militants are actually hiding in the mountains on top of which the Peshmerga operate — some may even be in tunnels beneath them. But they point to a nearby cliff and explain that ISIS is below it — and they can’t get to them without putting themselves in view of the Iraqi forces below and causing a fight.

“This area is under the control of the Iraqi government, not the Kurdish government. But they’re not doing anything about it,” Wesahni said. “That’s their responsibility.”

The Peshmerga and the Iraqi militias have been in tense standoff over the disputed territory for nearly two years now. “Every day Hashd al-Shaabi has ISIS in their sights, but we never see movement — they don’t do anything about it,” said Issa Abdullah Mustafa, a 20-year veteran of the Peshmerga who has fought against both ISIS and the Iraqi Army.

This road is the checkpoint entering Makmhur, manned by Hashd al-Shaabi, as seen from Kurdish lines. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Makmhur was the scene of bloody fighting when ISIS militants seized it in 2014. The Peshmerga retook the town with the help of Kurdish PKK guerillas from Turkey, and during the battle of Mosul both Iraqi and U.S. troops operated from the town. But when the Kurdish Regional Government held a referendum on independence from Iraq in 2017, the Peshmerga fought against the Iraqi Army in a brief conflict that killed several on both sides.

Kurdish forces lacked air support and had few armored vehicles compared to the Iraqi Army, which came at them with American Abrams tanks. Outgunned, many Peshmerga were forced to pull back, and Iraqi forces took control of many formerly Kurdish territories — Makmhur being one of them. ISIS, seeing an opportunity, has seemingly taken advantage of the conflict between the two sides. It has exploited the no-man’s land between them in several places to conduct operations and hide.

General Wesahni observes a Hashd al-Shaabi position. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

“ISIS has not really been uprooted. The group has only lost the territory it ruled. It has completely regrouped and is stronger than before,” Peshmerga Commander Wasta Rasul told local Rudaw Radio in June. “[There] are ISIS sleeper cells in Sunni neighborhoods of Kirkuk too. That is why anything is possible to happen to Kirkuk.”

In May, a bomb killed five Kirkuk locals and injured 10 as they worked to put out a crop fire. In June, two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) exploded on two public buses in Kirkuk city center, killing one person and injuring 17. The local provincial council blamed the attack on ISIS remnants. From Qarachogh, crop fires could be seen between Kurdish and Iraqi lines near Kirkuk.

According to locals in Makmhur and the surrounding area, the militants have spray-painted “Islamic State is here to stay” on walls and houses on several occasions. Most of the graffiti has since been removed by locals. The Peshmerga believe there may be as many as 300 ISIS members hiding out in Qarachogh.

Two Peshmerga stand watch on Kurdish lines. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

Though the Peshmerga can’t reach the ISIS stronghold, they’ve had violent confrontations with the militants since the fighting during the referendum. They killed 45 ISIS in a firefight and lost five Peshmerga. In another incident last year, militants tried to assassinate Weshani, wounding him and several of his bodyguards. Wesahni and his men killed eight militants in the engagement. He shows off the bullet holes that are in his truck’s doors and seats from the attack.

“It sometimes feels like Hashd al-Shaabi are using ISIS to fight us because they’re too scared to fight us themselves,” said Peshmerga fighter Mashdar Hassan Jamil. However, while several Peshmerga implied that the Iraqi militias don’t fight ISIS, they’re not on friendly terms by any means. On March 7, ISIS killed six Hashd al-Shaabi militiamen and wounded 31 when militants ambushed a bus carrying them as it passed through Makhmour.

Still, while ISIS is an ongoing threat, some of the Peshmerga stationed on the ridge at Qarachogh see Hashd al-Shaabi — and especially their Iranian allies — as a bigger problem. 

Peshmerga fighters Issa Abdullah Mustafa, right, and Mashdar Hassan Jamil. Mustafa has fought against both ISIS and the Iraqi Army. Photo by Kevin Knodell/Coffee or Die.

“I’m more concerned about the Hashd al-Shaabi down there who took our land and are burning Kurdish farms than I am about Daesh,” said Mustafa. “Our land was invaded.”

While ISIS has taken credit for burning farms, there have been widespread allegations of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias burning crops as well, including those of Arab Sunnis in Anbar province and near Mosul, in addition to Kurdish ones, further underscoring the complexity of the ongoing conflict. The Peshmerga admit that from their position on the ridge, sometimes they can’t tell who is doing what down below.

“All this land belongs to the Kurds. It’s sad to see it in the hands of Arabs and Hashd al-Shaabi,” Mustafa said. “We wish we were down there.”

Kevin Knodell
Kevin Knodell

Kevin Knodell is a freelance journalist and author. His work has appeared at Foreign Policy, Playboy, Soldier of Fortune, and others. He’s the associate producer of the War College Podcast and a former contributing editor at Warisboring. He’s the co-author of the graphic novels The ‘Stan and Machete Squad, and he currently writes the Acts of Valor comic series for Naval History magazine.

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