Oct 1, 2014 4:45 PM

Iraqi Kurds fight Islamic State with aged weapons

The Associated Press

MAHMOUDIYAH, Iraq (AP) The exhausted Kurdish fighters leaned against a pair of antiquated green cannons on a hill overlooking this northern Iraqi village, the ground around them littered with shrapnel from fierce battles with Islamic State militants.

One of them, Moustafa Saleh, tapped the cannon with his mud-caked boots. "Russian-made," he said, with a smirk. "My grandfather used the same one."

Iraqi Kurdish fighters on the front lines of battle say they have yet to receive the heavy weapons and training pledged by the United States and nearly a dozen other countries to help them push back the Sunni militants.

U.S.-led airstrikes have forced the militants to retreat or go into hiding in towns and villages across northern Iraq, paving the way for ground forces to retake territory seized by the militant group in its lightening advance since June across western and northern Iraq.

But without more sophisticated weaponry, the Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, have had to rely on aging arms like the Soviet-era cannons, a centerpiece of the offensive Tuesday to retake Mahmoudiyah and the nearby strategic towns of Rabia and Zumar.

While some newly sent arms have stacked up in the Kurdish capital, including a shipment from Germany this week, Kurdish officials say they can't be distributed until the Kurdish fighters are trained. The delay shows the difficulties on the ground as the U.S. and its allies bomb the militants from the air.

"Peshmerga were only trained before to save Kurdistan and to prevent terrorists from coming inside Kurdistan," said Halgurd Hekmat, spokesman for the Iraqi Kurdish force in Irbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. "We plan to send the heavy weapons, but only after making sure the soldiers know how to use them in battle and fix them when the weapons have a problem."

At a checkpoint outside Rabia in northwestern Iraq, some two dozen peshmerga soldiers stood guard Wednesday to secure the town they had just retaken. Only one wore a flak jacket. "We don't have them," Special Forces commander Hakar Mohsen said. "One of many things we need."

A half-mile away, the Rabia hospital remained an active battleground, with Islamic State militants holed up inside sniping at the Kurdish soldiers. At one point, the Kurdish fighters fired off a round from one of their aging cannons, to a chorus of cheers, though it was unclear if it hit its target.

"We could retake the hospital so easily if we had the right rockets," said Mohsen. "Most of our injuries here were from (roadside bombs), which could have been limited if we had bomb detectors, for example."

As he spoke, several Kurdish units were fanning westward to try to reclaim the strategic town of Sinjar, which would almost certainly secure the main road between Syria and Iraq, used now by militants to ferry weapons and fighters between the two embattled countries.

The U.S. and Western allies including Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands have committed to arming the Kurds, agreeing to send machine guns, assault rifles and ammunition. Hekmat said some units had received the ammunition, since it requires no training. However, fighters at more than a half-dozen units interviewed by The Associated Press said they had yet to receive anything.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, a former U.S. commander in Iraq who just returned from a trip to Irbil, said it was clear to him that the U.S. is not delivering the weapons the Kurds need to fight the Islamic State group.

"The short answer is 'no,' they are not getting the heavy weapons they need," he said, adding that the Kurds were in great need of American technology to counter roadside bombs. "They took a lot of casualties in the fight on the Syrian border."

Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon press officer, said in an email that efforts by the U.S. to arm the Kurds, "have already begun and will accelerate in the coming days with more nations also expected to contribute. "

Kurdish fighters on the front lines said they could not have retaken the towns in Iraq's northern Nineveh province were it not for the U.S.-led airstrikes. "We could not do this without the help of America," said Captain Hoshyar Harki, a peshmerga fighter based in Mahmoudiyah.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, Kurdish fighters have been on the defensive as the Islamic State militants pressed a relentless assault on the strategic northern town of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, near the Turkish border.

Nine Kurdish fighters, including three women, captured in clashes in the border region were beheaded by the Sunni extremists, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Dozens of militants and Kurdish fighters were killed in the fighting, it said.

Images posted on social media networks showed women's heads placed on a cement block, said to be in the northern Syrian city of Jarablous, which is held by the militants. The photos could not be independently verified but corresponded to AP reporting of the event.

The creation of the peshmerga in the 1920s coincided with Kurdish independence movements following the collapse of the Ottoman and Qajar empires, and for much of their history, they have operated much like a rebel movement. During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the highly disciplined peshmerga swept down from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and established a strong presence in a belt of largely Kurdish towns and villages stretching south toward Baghdad.

The disintegration of Iraqi forces in the face of the Islamic State group's advance in June led the peshmerga to assume full control in areas they have long coveted, further enhancing their autonomy from Baghdad and undermining U.S. efforts to bring about a stable, multiethnic Iraq. They have fought well, many analysts say, considering their lack of training.

"Peshmerga is fundamentally a militia," said Richard Brennan, an Iraq expert with RAND Corporation and former U.S. Department of Defense policymaker, who said that much of their arsenal to date includes AK-47s and a few Soviet-era weapons and vehicles.

"But they are fighting for their homeland and they are motivated unlike what we saw with Iraqi security forces in Mosul when they fell apart upon the first sign of threat."

The Islamic State militants captured many of the weapons left behind by the Iraqi army, including Kalashnikovs, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and mortars, said an Iraqi intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. The militant group is also in possession of about 35 Iraqi military tanks, about 80 armored police vehicles and hundreds of Humvees.

"They got so many weapons from the Iraqi military that they're taking some to Syria now," said Khalil Abdulrahman Zebari, one of the Kurdish fighters in Mahmoudiyah.

As for the pershmerga's aging weaponry, Mohsen, the Rabia commander joked: "We are so used to fixing old, broken weapons that peshmerga fighters also have a good future as weapons repairmen."


Associated Press writers Ken Dilanian and Sagar Meghani in Washington contributed to this report.


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