ERBIL, Iraq, Feb. 24, 2020 —
In the Makmuhr mountains of northern Iraq where fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are regrouping and reforming, the Kurdish Peshmerga operate a small military base close to a series of lookout posts where ISIS fighters have attempted to infiltrate Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
Just last week, ISIS fighters attacked and injured several local shepherds in the area before local fighters killed them.
A portion of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Security Force Assistance Brigade is in Iraq on a mission to train, advise, assist and enable local security forces. This time, the brigade has partnered with the Peshmerga’s 3rd Battalion, 14th Regional Guard Brigade, training side-by-side to increase their capabilities.
The Peshmerga is a volunteer military force operated by the Kurdish regional government in Iraq. Not only are they a standing army, but they also assist civilians, similar to what the National Guard does in the United States. Peshmerga troops help provide locals with medical care, as well as identify unexploded ordnance, which is a persistent problem in the area. Militant groups like ISIS have placed some of the explosives. There is also a large number of unexploded ordnances remaining in the area from the Iran-Iraq war, which occurred more than 30 years ago.
Peshmerga literally translates to “those who face death.”
This week, the Peshmerga unit is running a class on how to deal with unexploded ordnance. The 3rd SFAB is assessing what the Peshmerga’s knowledge level is and how their leadership conducts operations, simultaneously looking for opportunities to enhance the Peshmerga’s capabilities.
“They requested us to go with them,” said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Duehning, 3rd Security Force Assistance Brigade team leader. “Partly because we have experience with these people and this job as well as the assets.”
The course consisted of classroom instruction, followed by practical exercises and a culminating event where the Peshmerga identified unexploded ordnance and responded to the threats appropriately, calling in explosive ordnance disposal units if necessary.
The Peshmerga soldiers might not have to wait very long to put their training to use.
“Of course, we’re going to see it … I’ve seen those firsthand,” said Maj. Ihason Zebari, Peshmerga’s 3rd Battalion, 14th Regional Guard Brigade executive officer, through a linguist. “This training is actually very important not just for the military but also for civilians. We could save a lot of lives.”
Zebari said there is still a large amount of unexploded ordnance remaining from the Iran-Iraq war, which took place before the Gulf War. People continue to walk and drive over the ordnance, and animals and livestock are casualties as well.
“Those IEDs have been planted in the ground from the 1980s,” Zebari said. “And nobody knows.”
ISIS is also planting IEDs in the region, Zebari said.
The cooperation needed to defeat threats in the region stems from the trust that the American and Kurdish forces have built through months of working together. U.S. and Peshmerga troops lived side-by-side with each other on the same base, in some cases.
“They’re not hard to work with,” said Staff Sgt. Kimberly Chavez, 3rd SFAB logistics advisor. “All the training that we did, we can see the interest that they had.”
Not only do Peshmerga seem to enjoy working with U.S. troops, but locals have also displayed affection for the help and security that the Americans provide in the region.
“They are also very friendly to us,” Duehning said. “They wouldn’t, I say, consider the Americans heroes. But kind of, almost. That’s why all the people on the street when you pass by are smiling and waving.”
However, Zebari warned that the security in northern Iraq should not be taken for granted.
“ISIS is very dangerous because we think they’re coming back,” Zebari said. “They’re making a comeback. We are and we have been fighting against ISIS on behalf the whole world. But we are also fighting with the help of the Americans, and we want that help to continue.”
Several U.S. Army AH-64 Apaches provided additional security during the unexploded ordnance training, scanning the area where ISIS fighters are known to be hiding, highlighting the threat the militants still provide.
“The fight against ISIS is not over because they are still here,” Duehning said.