President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani is also the commander-in-chief of the peshmerga. Because he considers the war with the Islamic State (IS) an existential battle, Barzani spends most of his time on the front line, meeting with leaders of various units and making surprise visits to stations.
In the operations room near the long border with the area IS controls, Barzani met with Al-Hayat. We asked him to tell the story of this war, which he acknowledges is tougher than the previous confrontation with Saddam Hussein’s army. Here is the first part of the interview:
Al-Hayat: On June 13, 2014, you cut short a trip abroad and returned to Erbil. How did you find the Kurdistan Region three days after IS had entered Mosul?
Barzani: I found the Kurdistan Region in a new and sensitive situation. The region now had a 1,050-kilometer [652-mile] border with a new neighbor, IS. Unfortunately, when IS entered Mosul the army of [former Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki collapsed. In the span of 24 hours, IS reached the outskirts of Baghdad and headed east to near the Iranian border. It's a new and dangerous situation.
When IS targeted the Kurdistan Region, taking advantage of the weapons they plundered from the Iraqi and Syrian armies, they made some breakthroughs and progress. We adopted a two-stage strategy: first resisting IS attacks, and second going on the offensive against them. In less than two weeks we were able to contain IS attacks and stop the group. We then transitioned to the attack stage, and the first thing we did was recover the Mosul Dam, which constitutes a strategic goal. Subsequently there was a succession of battles and victories, bringing us to where we are now. I can say that the peshmerga forces managed to break the “thorn” of IS and achieve great victories.
Al-Hayat: How many victims were there from the peshmerga?
Barzani: About 800 martyrs, including 300 commissioned and noncommissioned officers. This is in addition to 4,000 wounded.
Al-Hayat: Were a large number of senior leaders martyred?
Barzani: Our leaders are at the front of the forces. Two major generals and 10 brigadier generals were martyred, in addition to colonels, lieutenant colonels, staff sergeants and others.
Al-Hayat: How do you feel when you hear that a major general, brigadier general or lieutenant has been killed?
Barzani: These are the dearest to my heart. In a number of instances, I had met with one in the morning and then learned of his martyrdom that evening. I know a large number of them. Some of them are themselves the son or grandson of a martyr. Even a drop of blood spilt is painful.
Al-Hayat: What have been the most important battles fought by the peshmerga so far?
Barzani: The battle to recover the Mosul Dam, the battle of Makhmour, the battle for the Rabia border crossing, the battle to liberate Zammar, the battle to liberate Mount Sinjar, the battle south of the Mosul Dam, the battle of the Kasak Junction between Mosul and Tel Afar, the battle to liberate Jalawla and Saadia, and the battle of Tel Warad southwest of Kirkuk. These were intense battles.
Al-Hayat: Did the peshmerga fight by itself?
Barzani: Yes, but with air support from the coalition forces. The airstrikes were effective and very precise.
Al-Hayat: How much has this war cost financially?
Barzani: The war is very expensive, exceeding the capacity of the [Kurdistan] Regional Government (KRG). But the Kurdish people did their duty and bear the burden of the crime committed by Maliki when he cut off the KRG’s budget. [The people] are bearing the burden of this malicious plot, and both the wealthy and the poor have taken the initiative to provide support, each according to his or her ability. Some wealthy individuals took it upon themselves to provide food for military units at their own expense.
Al-Hayat: How many peshmerga members are involved in the confrontation with IS?
Barzani: The border with [the region controlled by] IS stretches 1,050 kilometers [652 miles] from Sinjar to Khanaqin. The forces involved in the fighting from our side number about 70,000. This is a long border, and thus sometimes there are unannounced operations, especially given the absence of quick and advanced capabilities to transport troops.
Al-Hayat: Did those who provided weapons have an impact on the course of the battles?
Barzani: I must thank all the countries that have provided assistance. Indeed, US air support was significant. French President [Francois] Hollande called [me] immediately and expressed France’s readiness [to provide support]. The German chancellor contacted [us], as did Britain’s prime minister and foreign ministers from a large number of countries.
I must point out that there has been air support from the French, British, Canadians, Dutch and Belgians. The French provided excellent machine guns. The Germans provided MILAN missiles, as well as another less anti-armor type. German arms contributed to thwarting a number of car bomb attacks. The MILAN missiles have proven to be very effective. We also received assistance in the form of ammunition manufactured in Eastern Europe. Many states supported us, such as Canada, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Croatia and Albania. Indeed there has been support, and the most prominent was the French machine guns, the German missiles and other less sophisticated missiles.
Al-Hayat: Did you receive heavy weapons?
Barzani: We have yet to receive heavy weapons, which would allow us to resolve the entire battle. The peshmerga forces are confident, and if they had received the weapons they needed they wouldn’t have hesitated. IS has not resisted any large-scale attack by the peshmerga, but the group has resorted to surprise operations, car bombs and suicide attacks. Seventy percent of our losses were the result of car bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Al-Hayat: Is IS skilled in these forms of attack?
Al-Hayat: Where did they get this experience?
Barzani: They have experts from various countries of the world. They have attracted retired officers from the former Soviet Union army from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Chechnya, as well as Tartars. They have members from Pakistan, in addition to a large number of officers from the Iraqi army. There are officers from Arab armies who joined IS. They have experts on using sniper rifles as well.
Al-Hayat: What is IS’ strong point?
Barzani: Car bombs driven by suicide bombers, IEDs and snipers. They are also proficient in the use of artillery due to the presence of professional officers in the group.
Al-Hayat: A rush of those eager to “go to paradise”?
Barzani: This is how they think and behave. IS has a so-called “caliphate army” comprising foreign immigrants, and they fight with viciousness. I think the majority of them are from Chechnya, as well as other [places]. The bodies they leave [in the wake of battles] show the presence of multiple nationalities [among their ranks]. I also saw bodies of Africans. Their members are from Asia, Europe and Africa. They have another fighting entity comprising those who were members of al-Qaeda. After [IS] took control of various areas, those who wanted to protect themselves from IS’ evils joined the group.
Al-Hayat: How many people are estimated to be fighting under the IS flag?
Barzani: About 50,000 in Iraq and Syria combined.
Al-Hayat: Is this a large army?
Barzani: Of course.
Al-Hayat: What about their military arsenal?
Barzani: They have looted weapons from the Iraqi and Syrian armies. They seized the strategic storehouses in Beiji, and it could take them two years to complete the transfer of their contents. They also obtained Syrian army weapons in Raqqa and elsewhere. IS captured about 1,700 armored US-made Humvees, which are resistant to gunfire from Kalashnikovs and PKC [machine guns]. These are armored vehicles that protect occupants. But they are not in a state of retreat.
Al-Hayat: Was the Iraqi Kurdistan Region facing an existential threat?
Barzani: Certainly. It was a very serious threat.
Al-Hayat: Iran was the first to send you ammunition. Who did you meet with from the Iranian side?
Barzani: I received the foreign minister and a delegation from the Iranian parliament.
Al-Hayat: Was Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the first person you received?
Barzani: He confirmed Iran’s readiness to provide support, which arrived via two planes at Erbil.
Al-Hayat: Is [Iran] continuing to send ammunition?
Barzani: From time to time.
Al-Hayat: What other parties have supported you? The Americans?
Barzani: Yes. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Commander of United States Central Command Gen. Lloyd Austin contacted me. They expressed US readiness to provide air support, which they did and it had a big impact.
Al-Hayat: Has the air support caused you human casualties, or did it allow you to avoid losing the battle?
Barzani: There is no doubt that, without the air support, the battle would have been more difficult and the losses greater.
Al-Hayat: If the peshmerga forces stopped in their current positions, would you considered yourselves to have won the war?
Barzani: We do not place limits on where we strike IS. If we can strike them in any location, we will do so. They are criminals and monsters who have committed unforgivable crimes. Our troops have now reached the borders of the Kurdistan Region. The next steps depend on the readiness of the Iraqi army and residents of these regions to cooperate with us — and we are ready. For our forces to advance from their current positions requires study and thought.
Al-Hayat: Has Russia provided you any assistance?
Barzani: I think they have just sent a plane of humanitarian aid. I met with [Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mikhail] Bogdanov about a week ago and he expressed his sympathy and willingness to cooperate, but he didn’t offer anything specific.
Al-Hayat: There is talk about complications in the Russian arms deal with Baghdad.
Barzani: Yes, because of Western sanctions on Russia.
Al-Hayat: If I asked you, "What is IS," how would you respond?
Barzani: IS is an extremist organization that brings together religious and nationalist fanaticism. It is a combination of extremist jihadist thought and the chauvinism of some Arabs. The coming together of these two elements produced this organization, with its backwards, violent and dangerous ideology and its cruel and offensive practices. Here I’m talking about the essence of IS. As for penetrating the organization, or using or impacting its practices, these are other issues.
Al-Hayat: Could the [Kurdistan] Region coexist with a permanent IS presence on its borders?
Barzani: This would be very difficult, even impossible. No one could coexist with these people, who can be considered monsters. This is not to mention that they don’t even believe in the idea of coexisting with others.
Al-Hayat: What is the role of the Baathists in IS’ mission?
Barzani: In the beginning, those who stood against the political process in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein [supported] IS. Now, I think that IS is dominant in Sunni areas and the role of Baathists and their ilk has receded.
Al-Hayat: Are there a large number of former Iraqi officers in IS?
Barzani: Yes, a very large number. They are currently in charge of leading IS military units.
Al-Hayat: Is this the reason that IS is able to enter into simultaneous battles in regions separated by hundreds of kilometers?
Barzani: IS is strong and dangerous. It has limitless fanaticism, experience, money and violence. It also has a number of people who are willing to commit suicide. It is a great honor for the Kurds that IS has been militarily shattered at their hands.
Al-Hayat: Can you say it has been shattered?
Barzani: I can almost say "yes." It is about to shatter.
Al-Hayat: What is the level of coordination between you and the Iraqi army?
Barzani: Now, after Haider al-Abadi became prime minister, there is more room for coordination. And this exists currently.
Al-Hayat: Do Iraqi warplanes support the peshmerga?
Barzani: In fact, [support] is still weak, but there is coordination between us. We know the situation of the Iraqi army, and if it improves the coordination will produce good results. We are ready to cooperate.
Al-Hayat: There are those who say that the war against IS will take years.
Barzani: This is difficult to predict. Also, confronting IS is not limited to the military part. The confrontation should take place on several fronts: militarily, economically, socially, politically and ideologically. Moreover, IS is not only present in Iraq, it also has a presence in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon. IS has almost taken the place of al-Qaeda.
Al-Hayat: How does IS attract youths from Mosul, for example?
Barzani: I think there are several factors. They deceive the youth and promise them paradise and virgins. Then there are also the effects of the sectarian conflict, which pushes some youths to consider IS as a source of strength and a savior. There are a lot of [Arab] chauvinists who feel empowered by IS against the Kurds and are under the delusion that the organization has dominated the Kurds and is forcing them to return to the mountains, thereby ending the issue of Article 140 [of the Iraqi Constitution] that talks about a mechanism for resolving the problem of the “disputed areas,” as they are commonly called. Perhaps in Syria, Egypt and Libya there are other factors relating to the political situation and the composition of these countries.
Al-Hayat: Do you have prisoners from IS?
Al-Hayat: Did you obtain information about the organization from them?
Barzani: Of course. Some cooperate, while others won’t utter a word.
Al-Hayat: Some are cooperating?
Barzani: Yes, some are providing good information.
Al-Hayat: Have you uncovered sleeper cells in Kurdistan?
Barzani: I can’t say that IS does not exist at all, but it is certain that the existing cells are small and limited. Establishing fixed and permanent bases is very difficult. There may be some infiltration, but this has become more difficult with the changing fronts. There are certainly sleeper cells in Kirkuk, which was the site of forced Arabization operations. Unfortunately, there are those who initially rejoiced at IS’ victories, forgetting that they came to the Kurdistan Region as guests and enjoy security and services.
Al-Hayat: Do you rely on a Kurdish consensus on the fight against IS?
Barzani: Yes, there is a consensus on this matter. There is an unprecedented national unity. Kurds are united against this danger.
Al-Hayat: Is the fight against IS harder than the fight against Saddam Hussein’s forces?
Barzani: Yes, it is. We are now an organized force confronting unorganized groups. Also, the battle [against IS] involves different methods. We held courses for young engineering specialists in order to be able to confront car bombings and mines. We have made clear progress in this context. I repeat: IS is not a "legend" that is unbeatable. The peshmerga have struck down this image, which was prevalent.
Al-Hayat: We frequently hear that the Sykes-Picot borders are a thing of the past. What is your opinion?
Barzani: The fact is the Sykes-Picot borders were always artificial.
Al-Hayat: The Baathists were saying this, too.
Barzani: Each side speaks based on its rationale and interests. But these borders are truly artificial and not natural. Any forced division cannot last indefinitely. The new borders in the region are those drawn in blood, rather than the Sykes-Picot borders.
Al-Hayat: Do you mean there is no going back to the former Iraq?
Barzani: A new Iraq must be formulated. The former Iraq failed. Kurdistan has transformed into a safe haven for other components of society, including Christians, Turkmens and Arabs who reject the policies of IS and its cohorts. If a referendum were held, perhaps some residents living outside of the [Kurdistan] Region would request to be part of it. The Kurdistan Region today is hosting 1.5 million displaced Iraqis. This is in addition to 250,000 displaced Syrians.
Al-Hayat: How would you describe relations between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq?
Barzani: Unfortunately [they are not good]. We wish that they were good, and if we could help improve them we would not hesitate. If you want the truth, relations between the Shiite and Sunni components are bad.
Al-Hayat: What does the US want from Iraq?
Barzani: I wish I had an answer to this question, and I hope to find the person who has the answer.
Al-Hayat: What does Iran want?
Barzani: Iran wants to have the greatest influence in Iraq, and I think that’s what is happening now.
Al-Hayat: What does Turkey want?
Barzani: Turkey also wants to have influence in Iraq. Yet Iran has acted more accurately and faster.
Al-Hayat: Have any Arab countries provided you with assistance?
Barzani: Yes, some have, and I would like to thank these countries. I won’t specify names, because perhaps they don’t want that.
Al-Hayat: Was what happened in Mosul truly a surprise?
Barzani: Sometime before IS entered Mosul, we received information that extremists were establishing bases in al-Khudr, a region southwest of Mosul near the Syrian border. I sent messages to Maliki via Ammar al-Hakim, [current Deputy Prime Minister] Rowsch Shaways, and the US ambassador at the time, Stephen Beecroft. I told them: “Tell [Maliki] that he is preoccupied with Anbar and uninterested in Mosul, which has become an open arena.” I suggested that we carry out a joint operation to prevent extremists from gaining control of Mosul and its environs.
Al-Hayat: When was this?
Barzani: In December 2013, seven months before Mosul fell into the hands of IS. Maliki was unconcerned. I contacted him by telephone, I think in early 2014, and said: “My brother, the situation is very dangerous in Mosul, let’s carry out a joint operation. I can’t send the peshmerga alone, because this would raise sensitivities between the Kurds and the Arabs. Also, the government forces are present in the area. There is the second division of the Iraqi army, as well as a division from the federal police and others. We are prepared to bear to largest burden, but let’s carry out a joint operation.” He responded: “My brother, look after the [Kurdistan] Region and don’t worry about anything outside it. The situation is under control.”
I have heard that Maliki denies these contacts. The [involved] people are alive, you can ask them.
Al-Hayat: And what happened next?
Barzani: IS expanded. The truth is the organization hadn’t even dreamed of gaining control of Mosul, and didn’t expect this. Our information indicated that [IS] had contacted guards at Badush Prison [Barzani points to a location on the map 10 kilometers (6 miles) west of Mosul]. They wanted to liberate IS prisoners being held there, and [planned] to engage in fighting with an army base [to distract them] to implement this mission. In the past, skirmishes had occurred … and Maliki sent the commander of ground forces and the deputy chief of staff for operations, given that they were two prominent officers.
IS launched bombs in the direction of al-Ghazlani military base as a distraction for the operation to liberate prisoners. The two officers sent by Maliki fled and were joined by the commander of the division. This state of fragmentation spread like wildfire and the division dispersed. There was a quasi-alliance in Mosul between the opposition forces and those disgruntled with Maliki’s policies, in addition to sleeper cells and the remnants of the Baath Party. The army disintegrated and left the city entirely, so the [IS] operation expanded.
Al-Hayat: Are you certain that IS wasn’t expecting Mosul to fall into its hands?
Barzani: They never imagined this would happen. This is a significant and terrible issue. The army did not resist. Senior officers took refuge at peshmerga checkpoints. We saved them and sent them to Baghdad at their request. There are areas [outside the Kurdistan Region] that we protected, such as south Kirkuk and regions near the Mosul Dam. Some criticized the fact that our forces entered these regions. It’s strange — would they have preferred we left them to IS?
There is something strange here. After the fall of Mosul, Maliki and those around him began talking about us being involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Mosul. These lies reached the point of claiming that there was a joint operations room between the peshmerga and IS. [They used] this seas of lies and slander to cover for [their own] scandal. After the city fell they said to us: “Send your forces to the city.” We said: “[This request] is too late, I can’t contribute to provoking Arab-Kurdish fighting.” Had Maliki listened to us at the appropriate time, everything we see now wouldn’t have happened. Following what happened, the Kurdish parties met together. We said we would monitor the situation and defend our borders if they were subject [to attack]. Thankfully the situation later changed — there was a new government and an opportunity for coordination.
Al-Hayat: Why did IS do this?
Barzani: I believe [IS] is being paid to carry out two agendas. First, to curb the Kurdish issue, after it reached a very advanced stage in terms of the issues of a referendum and independence. I want to say that neither IS nor any greater [force] can break the will of the Kurdish people. The process will continue. The second agenda involves Arab chauvinists who tried to strengthen themselves via IS and supported the group on the basis that this would settle the fate of the so-called “disputed areas.” But they miscalculated. They didn’t expect that US and European support would come so quickly, and they didn’t properly estimate the peshmerga and Kurdish people’s ability to remain steadfast.
Al-Hayat: When the Kurdish parties said “we are defending our areas,” do they mean the “disputed areas” as well?
Barzani: We did not allow IS to take control of some areas such as Kirkuk, Tuz Khormato, Zammar and Sinjar at the time.
Al-Hayat: What is the size of the area defended by the peshmerga today?
Barzani: More than 60,000 square kilometers [41,631 square miles].
Al-Hayat: This is a large area?
Barzani: And a rich one as well [laughing].
Al-Hayat: Has a role for Izzat al-Duri [a former deputy of Saddam Hussein] appeared in this war?
Barzani: In the beginning, the Baathists cooperated with IS in the same way they dealt with other Sunni organizations opposed to the political process. Now, IS completely controls the areas it occupies and I don’t think others play any role. IS does not believe in allies or partners. IS wants allegiance [from others].
Al-Hayat: Does this mean that the goal of striking the Kurds was a fundamental part of IS’ program?
Barzani: Yes. The attack targeting the Kurds is large and dangerous.
Al-Hayat: Isn’t it strange that you have yet to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi?
Barzani: The fact is I am very preoccupied with the situation in Kurdistan, the war and the fronts. I haven’t had a chance to visit Baghdad, and [Abadi] is very preoccupied as well. I was hoping there would be a meeting, whether in Baghdad or in Erbil. I hope this happens in the future.
Al-Hayat: How did you feel when you saw what happened to the Yazidis? Do you imagine the Kurds could face a similar fate?
Barzani: I felt sorry, anger and determination when I saw the scenes. Yazidis are [ethnically] Kurds, only their religion is different. I had not ruled out that IS would kill Kurds, but I never thought that any group — regardless of how brutal and criminal it may be — would enslave women. I never expected this, and this had created a fissure that can never be mended between those who committed these crimes and the Kurds. We will not forgive them and we will not be silent about their crimes.
Al-Hayat: Were [these crimes] committed at the hands of militants coming from abroad?
Barzani: This was the work of militants from abroad, but local militants at least played the role of guides. They fled from the scene of the crime, but we know who they are. We will carry out random acts of revenge. The accused will appear before the courts, where all conditions of justice are provided. It is impossible for us to forgive anyone who participated in enslaving women and rapes.
Al-Hayat: Were [these accounts of] rape real?
Barzani: Yes, even worse [than reports].
Al-Hayat: And the enslavement of women?
Barzani: Yes. Can you imagine that in this day and age, militants enter a village, kill the men, take the women and rape them, and then announce their enslavement. This is terrible. In war, you kill and are killed. You detain and are detained. Let me be frank, we [the Kurds] have been subjected in the past to the Anfal campaigns, chemical weapons and mass graves. All of these crimes were less severe than the issue of enslaving and raping women.
Al-Hayat: How did you feel when you learned of this?
Barzani: My heart almost exploded.
Al-Hayat: What did you decide to do?
Barzani: I decided to go to war with IS to the end, and without leniency. The proof is that I met you today on the front line and not in Erbil. It is a battle for destiny. They wanted to eliminate the Kurds.
Al-Hayat: Are there Iranian experts in Kurdistan?
Barzani: No. We have a number of Western experts and trainers, and officers to coordinate with the air forces.
Al-Hayat: What is the most important battle waged by the peshmerga?
Barzani: From a moral perspective, the battle of Mount Sinjar. From a military perspective, the battle of al-Kasak.
Al-Hayat: Was the battle at al-Kasak difficult?
Barzani: Very. IS put up fierce resistance in this area, which lies at the midway point on the road between Mosul and Tel Afar. The peshmerga regained control of this area after fierce battles on three axes: one to the west of the Tigris River, one to the east of the river and the Hassan Jallad axis. The battle ended with cutting the road between Mosul and Tel Afar and liberating the region south of the Mosul Dam to the Tigris. IS used many car bombs and suicide attacks.
Al-Hayat: What is the estimated size of the regions liberated by the peshmerga in this war?
Barzani: I can’t provide you with a very precise figure, but it's about 17,000 square kilometers [10,563 square miles].
Al-Hayat: How can you get out of this war?
Barzani: By breaking IS’ back in the war militarily, politically, economically and ideologically. Look at Afghanistan — large, powerful and advanced armies have been fighting there for 14 years. There is also what happened in Algeria. I don’t think [the war against IS] will end quickly, but I can say that IS’ open control of fronts will not last long. Yet when it comes to completely eliminating IS, I cannot speculate on this topic.
Al-Hayat: If you were given a suitable military force, could you resolve the battle against IS?
Barzani: Militarily, if we received advanced heavy weaponry we would resolve the battle militarily very quickly.
Al-Hayat: Where can you obtain these weapons?
Barzani: From [the Iraqi federal government], via [the federal government], or directly. If the Kurds are expected to play a decisive role in the battle against IS, we must have appropriate weapons.
Al-Hayat: What are these weapons?
Barzani: Tanks and combat helicopters. Sometimes helicopters are more effective than combat planes in these types of wars. Tanks are also essential, along with armored transport vehicles for soldiers.
Al-Hayat: It’s unlikely that Baghdad would agree to hand over these types of weapons, especially after you said that borders are drawn in blood.
Barzani: Let me clarify the subject of the borders. Let’s be realistic, new borders are drawn in blood — sometimes between states and sometimes within states. These are borders for groups, roles, fears, guarantees and aspirations. The crises experienced by most countries are crises of components and identities. Look at what’s happening in Yemen and in Syria. Other states are experiencing tribal and regional problems, such as Libya. The equations that have lasted for decades and emerged from World War I have been violently shaken.
I’ll return to the question. If the Iraqi government does not agree to provide such weapons, we’ll cross the bridge when we come to it. Right now Iraq is lacking capabilities. If the capabilities are provided, then what we agreed upon should be implemented — i.e., the peshmerga gets a share of the military equipment received by Baghdad. We won’t accept a repeat of what happened with Maliki, who confiscated our share of weapons and equipment. We won’t be silent about this from now on. We must get our share. If Iraq receives 300 tanks, we must take our share of them.
Al-Hayat: And if Iraq receives combat helicopters?
Barzani: Yes, as long as the peshmerga is part of the Iraqi defense system, it should not be excluded.