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Foreign volunteers in Kurdistan Region shift focus to medical aid

Qalubna Ma’kum, a group of foreign volunteers in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, offers the peshmerga forces medical treatment and training and is not participating in combat directly.

“We’re here to offer assistance. The last thing we want is to be seen as cowboys playing war in a place not our own,” Michael Wagnon told Al-Monitor in Amman, Jordan, awaiting a connecting flight to Erbil, Iraq. Wagnon is a former US Navy medic and founding member of Qalubna Ma’kum (Arabic for “Our hearts are with you”), a group of foreign volunteers serving in the peshmerga, the military of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.

At least several dozen foreigners are volunteering with the peshmerga at present. But unlike past volunteers from Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere, Qalubna Ma’kum is largely focused on providing medical treatment and training, as opposed to participating in combat directly. They believe this will improve the image of foreign volunteers in Iraq and better help defeat the Islamic State (IS). Peshmerga commanders on the front lines welcome this new contribution.

Qalubna Ma’kum was established in 2015 by Wagnon and three other volunteers from the United States, France and Russia. Kat Argo leads the group, going by the pen name she created while covering the war in Ukraine as a freelance journalist. Previously, Argo was an intelligence officer and analyst in the US Army who deployed to Afghanistan three times. Wagnon too deployed to Afghanistan while in the Navy.

They arrived in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region in December 2015. They are presently near Kirkuk, Iraq, in a peshmerga unit with both Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party officers, according to Argo.

Qalubna Ma’kum provides a variety of medical and other training to the peshmerga, drawing from its members’ experience serving with the US military in Afghanistan. According to Argo, this includes “infantry, react to contact and evacuating medical personnel [training] or training the peshmerga on weapons they managed to get — sometimes from dead or retreating Daesh [members],” using a derogatory name for IS popular among Kurds and others.

Providing medical treatment occupies a large part of the group’s time. “Today [Jan. 6], we stood in no man's land with a refugee family from Hawija, Iraq. Mike [Wagnon] treated an ailing woman and a baby and we stayed with them until the [peshmerga] moved to bring them safely over the wall into their controlled area,” Argo said. “No man’s land” refers to the area between two front lines held by the peshmerga and IS.

Assisting refugees from IS-held locales like Hawija is an unprecedented role for foreign volunteers with the peshmerga. Argo further claims that they have treated an outbreak of the flu among their peshmerga counterparts. Other volunteers in the KRG have been focused on fighting IS militarily.

But Qalubna Ma’kum hopes to do more. “We will move to training the peshmerga on medical evacuation and infantry tactics soon, but after a month it hasn't happened yet. We are also fighting to go help conditions at the refugee camps … doing medical aid,” Argo said. She was referring to ongoing conversations between herself and peshmerga commanders, who need to approve much of what Qalubna Ma’kum can do.

Gaining access to the front in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region can be daunting. In July 2015, another foreign volunteer fighting in Iraqi Kurdistan told Al-Monitor of the difficulty in obtaining the necessary permission from KRG officials to participate in combat.

Other hindrances Qalubna Ma’kum says it has faced include a lack of supplies and funding. Like other groups of foreigners fighting IS, Qalubna Ma’kum is funded by private donations via the Internet. 

The peshmerga forces welcome foreign volunteers into their ranks. Speaking in his Erbil office in August 2015 at the height of foreign volunteers coming to the region, Brig. Gen. Helgurd Hikmet Mela Ali, the general director of the Ministry of Peshmerga-General Directorate of Media, told Al-Monitor, “We don’t [officially] have foreigners in the peshmerga, but on the front there are some volunteers. Whoever comes to fight the terrorists is welcome.”

Today, peshmerga commanders still share this sentiment. In a video about Qalubna Ma’kum posted in late December 2015 by Kurdish-language media outlet Rudaw, an unnamed peshmerga commander praised the group for their medical and military roles.

“Terrorism is against the whole of humanity. We are fighting for the world,” added Ail, further demonstrating the connection between the peshmerga and its foreign volunteers.

Qalubna Ma’kum is motivated by a desire to “spread medical knowledge in the battle with IS,” according to Wagnon. On why they decided to go to Iraq and not Syria — where several dozen foreigners have joined the Kurdish People's Protection Units in their fight against IS — Wagnon said, “Iraqi Kurdistan is the area most manageable for US and European personnel.”

Wagnon believes there is a pressing need for such training, saying, “We hope to assist in stabilizing and transporting casualties so more can reach [hospital] care alive. … The ‘golden hour’ passes very quickly.”

Aside from the practical, they also have moral motivations. “People need to see Westerners aiding in a nonmilitary capacity,” Wagnon said.

Argo agrees, adding, “We are members of the peshmerga, but we serve all victims of IS, and work in their name.”

In a speech on state television after the New Year, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, “2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when [IS'] presence in Iraq will be terminated.”

If this is to be the case, the peshmerga will need to take more territory from IS in the coming months. Westerners continue to volunteer in this struggle, and Western aid will remain an important asset to the peshmerga.

However, as the first group utilizing its medical expertise from the war in Afghanistan, Qalubna Ma’kum has the potential to help the peshmerga in a nonmilitary way as well and improve the West's image in the Middle East in the process.

Samad Rashid contributed fixing and interpreting to this report.

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