'Kurdish Troops Must Fight the Islamic State in Mosul, It Will Always Be A Threat'
Military commander Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa explains why Baghdad is hampering the Iraqi Kurdish fight against the extremist Islamic State and discusses whether his troops will fight to liberate the city of Mosul.
'Our troops always have great morale': Peshmerga commander Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa. (photo: Shalaw Mohammed)
Over the past three weeks or so the Iraqi Kurdish military in northern Iraq - widely known as the Peshmerga - have boasted of a number of significant successes against the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The Islamic State, or IS, group control the nearby city of Mosul and villages around the Kirkuk district; part of the latter is held by the Iraqi Kurdish and there are multiple front lines.
However over the past few days the territory held by either group changed, with the Peshmerga, aided by the international coalition also fighting the IS, making significant advances in the south of Kirkuk, apparently capturing around a dozen villages in just one day.
NIQASH met with a senior member of the Iraqi Kurdish military, Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa, a former Minister of the Peshmerga and commander of a Peshmerga unit, to talk about why the Iraqi Kurdish had switched from defensive to offensive in the ongoing security crisis.
Mustafa also spoke about Iraqi Kurdistan's ongoing bad relationship with Baghdad and how that is hampering the fight against the IS group, as well as why he thinks Iraqi Kurdish troops will be dispatched to liberate the mostly Arab-populated city of Mosul.
NIQASH: There hasn't been much fighting between the Peshmerga and the IS group over the past few months. Why?
Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa: All fighting was suspended for the past two months, even though the IS group did attack the Peshmerga. Over the past few months we have had [the month long Muslim holiday] Ramadan and then it was extremely hot. From a military perspective, that's a bad time for fighting. Extremely cold weather would also be difficult.
The IS group wants to control anything and everything that it can.
NIQASH: And last week fighting started again?
Mustafa: It became clear to us that the IS group has lost it's offensive edge and that it is now on the defensive. We discussed this a few days before we started fighting again. Our focus was on several villages south of Kirkuk that the IS group controlled; these seemed like strong positions for them. These posed a threat to other villages nearby. But with the help of forces from the international coalition, we were able to push the IS group out of an area of about 250 square kilometres.
NIQASH: So will the Peshmerga continue to attack? Or will you go back on the defensive?
Mustafa: We know that the IS militants don't have any morals. They are always waiting to attack us, whenever they see any opportunity. So we won't be waiting until they do that. The Peshmerga will remain on high alert, ready to liberate other parts of the surrounding area.
NIQASH: In your opinion, what parts of the country are particularly important to the IS group?
Mustafa: The IS group feels that any area in Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan is important, it wants to control anything and everything that it can.
We think that they consider the Kirkuk province particularly important though because of the city's oil resources and also the mixture of population [Kirkuk's population is split between four main groups: Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians]. They believe that if they can control Kirkuk, those who do not like them will simply flee into the Iraqi Kurdish region.
NIQASH: We have heard that the Peshmerga are working and fighting in pretty terrible conditions.
Mustafa: When it comes to their salaries, that has not improved. In fact, it has become worse. Regarding new equipment there has been some small improvement but not as much as we hoped for. If we had what we needed, this fight against the IS would be different. But when it comes to morale, our forces are always keen.
Turkey has not fought the IS group the way one would expect them to.
NIQASH: With regard to the question of equipment and weapons, how are you cooperating with the US?
Mustafa: The US has decided to train three brigades of Peshmerga and provide them with US-made military equipment. The equipment was supposed to arrive here in August 2015 but for reasons unknown to me, it hasn’t yet arrived.
NIQASH: And what about your cooperation with the federal government in Baghdad?
Mustafa: If the Iraqi government had enough power on its own, it wouldn't even have allowed the Peshmerga to have any military equipment or weapons. I believe it prefers that parts of Iraq be under the control of the IS group rather than under the control of the Peshmerga. The federal government holds a serious grudge against the Kurdish. It is always trying to control us. I am expressing this concern to you and the international media to let the world know how the Iraqi government is treating us. We have also shared this concern with the coalition forces.
NIQASH: And what about your other neighbours: Turkey and Iran?
Mustafa: The IS group is a threat to Iran and this is why Iran is serious about fighting them. It supports Iraqi forces publicly. However Turkey has not fought the IS group the way one would expect them to. Instead they have allowed themselves to be a gateway for the IS militants, and these have made their way through Turkey and into Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.
NIQASH: Does the current political impasse in Iraqi Kurdistan about the position of the region's President affect the military here?
Mustafa: It does not.
NIQASH: Do you think it is a good idea to have the Peshmerga participate in fighting to liberate the city of Mosul and the Hawija area from the IS group? After all these areas are mostly populated by Arabs, some of whom support the IS group, and well outside the sphere of Kurdish interests.
Mustafa: As long as it is present nearby – whether in Mosul or Hawija – the IS group is a threat to Iraqi Kurdistan. So I think it is imperative that the Peshmerga take part in these fights. But only provided there is an agreement on this issue and that our forces are supplied with weapons and equipment in an organised way, not just in a random way.