Just a few kilometres away fighter planes belonging to the international alliance fighting against Sunni Muslim extremists are making bombing runs. “But these areas are now part of Iraqi Kurdistan and our forces will not withdraw from them,” says Anwar Haj Othman, the deputy leader of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, waving his arm toward nearby hills; the Peshmerga are the regular army of the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Othman went on to talk to NIQASH about the importance of the weapons that the Iraqi Kurdish forces had been given by international partners – some of the soldiers escorting Othman were quick to agree that their new arms had changed the balance in their fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, or IS.
Othman also spoke about whether the IS group are a threat to Baghdad and how long he believes the extremists will survive in Iraq.
NIQASH: In your opinion, why do you think the Islamic State group were able to make such big gains in Iraq in early June this year?
Anwar Haj Othman: The IS group was preparing for this well before June 10. The organization was confident that about 85 percent of local Arabs – Sunni Muslim Arabs – and anyone connected to the Baathists [Saddam Hussein’s former, now outlawed political party] would support them and that it would therefore be able to control several areas within a short time period. And we expected their fighters to head for the Kirkuk – Hawija area after they occupied Mosul because they also had a lot of support there, as well as sleeper cells prepared.
NIQASH: It is generally accepted that a lot of Sunni Muslims cooperated with the IS group, at least when they first took over. If that’s true then why have so many Sunni Muslims fled the IS group’s advance?
Othman: We did not say that all Sunni Muslim Arabs collaborated with the IS group. Some of them have been victims of this organisation too. In terms of refugees and displaced people, it is true that some of them may well sympathize with the IS group. But anyone like that is under strict surveillance by our intelligence services and anti-terrorist units.
NIQASH: What kind of a difference have the arms sent by European countries and from the US and from Iran made?
Othman: They have certainly changed the balance of the war in favour of Iraqi Kurdish forces. I can tell you now that the IS fighters tried to attack Iraqi Kurdish fighters 28 times over the past four months and we’ve been able to defeat them every time.
But we are fighting terrorists whose weapons were mostly made in the US [Editor’s note: many were taken from Iraqi army bases in Mosul, after the Iraqi army fled]. Meanwhile we were using weapons made in Russia during WWII. Many came from the Iraq-Iran war and the Kuwait-Iraq war.
But now with new weapons we’ve been able to change the balance of this fight in our favour. For example, Germany gave us anti-tank weapons which we needed almost more than air strikes. We owe the countries who have given us these weapons a lot and we are very thankful for their help.
NIQASH: Did the weapons come with any conditions attached?
Othman: As military commanders, we have no idea about any conditions put upon the Iraqi Kurdish government. The only condition we know about is that these weapons must be used in the fight against the IS group, as part of the global war against them.
NIQASH: Has the Iraqi government in Baghdad helped out with arms at all?
Othman: Yes but only in small quantities.
NIQASH: Why did Baghdad send you weapons, do you think? After all, there are still big political and economic disagreements between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Othman: There are shared military and security interests though. Both governments want to confront the IS group.
NIQASH: Do you think that Baghdad came under external pressure to provide weapons?
Othman: Yes, pressure was exerted by the US.
NIQASH: Do you know anything about a potential military base that the US was supposed to be building in Erbil?
Othman: It’s all about timing. The US will definitely build a base here but only the US knows when that will happen.
NIQASH: There are some rumours that the IS group wants to attack Baghdad. What are your thoughts on that, and do you think the standard Iraqi army will be able to protect the capital?
Othman: We saw what the Iraqi army was capable of in early June this year. So I don’t expect much. However I’m sure that the US would never allow the IS group to enter Baghdad. If that happens – and there do seem to be a lot of rumours about this – then the US will bring in additional forces to control the situation.
NIQASH: Air strikes are taking place only a few kilometres away from where we are standing. Who’s flying there?
Othman: British warplanes as well as US planes.
NIQASH: Over the past few days, we have heard that Iraqi Kurdish forces have been instructed to aid fighters in Kobani, over the border in Syria.
Othman: Aiding Kobani’s fighters was approved by Iraqi Kurdish leaders. There will be attempts to send Iraqi Kurdish ground forces to Kobani, via Turkey, now.
NIQASH: You’ve been in the military a long time and seen a lot. When do you believe that the IS group will be evicted from Iraq?
Othman: If we could separate the actual physical fighting from the politics, then the IS group could be gone within three months. It can’t survive these air strikes and it will experience defeat every day. However given that politics and this fight are inextricably connected, then it might be more like three years.