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Kurdish Fighters Mull Whether to Defend Iraq

Jabar Yawar runs his pointer along a map of Iraq, indicating the territory now controlled by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“We are sharing a thousand-kilometer border with the terrorists,” said Yawar, General Secretary of the Ministry of Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces alarmed by the ISIS gains. “Right now the Peshmerga just want to defend and strengthen this line and stop the terrorists from entering Kurdistan.”

As ISIS militants advanced, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts, and the Peshmerga quickly moved in, filling the security vacuum and laying easy claim to contested lands. So far ISIS has made no threats on the Kurdish territory, but it’s not clear if that’s a recognition of the Kurdish claim, or an unwillingness to open new front in their offensive, particularly against the capable Peshmerga fighters. The Peshmerga battled Baghdad and Ankara for national recognition and territory for decades. Many in the West recognize the Peshmerga from images of their female recruits with military fatigues, long braids and Kalashnikovs training in the mountainous region between Iraq and Turkey.

Years of combat against large, if not well-trained armies, and ingrained nationalism fueled by decades of oppression, left the Kurds with a strong fighting force.

“There is great national soul inside our fighters,” Yawar said, adding that retired soldiers have been asking to reenlist to fight against ISIS.

Today, there are many young recruits lingering outside Yawar’s office at the Peshmerga ministry building. Most have never seen combat, as the Kurdish fighters haven’t been in a proper war since they fought the Iraqi army more than a decade ago.

Still the 200,000-strong force might be the best chance to fight ISIS, as the U.S.-built Iraqi army remains ineffective.

Even with internal political dissent, the Peshmerga are a source of national pride among the Kurdish population. In a shop in Erbil, a group of men watch their forces maneuver in the desert against ISIS on a Kurdish TV channel. The soldiers in camouflage fly their sun-crested Kurdish flag against a patriotic soundtrack.

“I’m Peshmerga,” said Wali Mustafa, smiling. Like many here, he fought with the Peshmerga when they were a less formal force. “The Iraqi government needs the Kurds now,” he said. “We don’t have to prove anything, but this is definitely an opportunity.”

But officials in the Kurdish administrative center of Erbil say they won’t be quick to join Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s fight. Erbil warned Baghdad about the impending assault on Mosul and the northern province, according to sources in the Kurdish government, but there was no action from the capital. Once ISIS entered the city, there was a call from Baghdad requesting Peshmerga assistance, but at that point it was declined. So far, there has been no official request for Kurdish forces to cross their newly-held border.

“We are not a force that takes requests,” said Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir. He is the Head of the Department of Foreign Relations for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)—essentially a complicated title for a man who heads-up foreign affairs for an entity which is not a formal state, but looks and acts like one. “How could al-Maliki ask for this when he has not respected the Peshmerga forces. … They were supposed to be paid, trained and equipped by the federal [Iraqi] government as part of the national defense system, but they have been ignored.”

For the last six months, Baghdad held the purse strings of the KRG, failing to transfer the 17 percent of the Iraqi budget Erbil is mandated under the constitution. Further, Baghdad objected to independent Kurdish oil sales.

“Before June 10 there was already an atmosphere of mistrust between Erbil and Baghdad,” said Hoshang Waziri, an Iraqi political analyst. “You can’t reduce it to one issue, but a big part was the Kurdish acting like there was no central Iraqi government, but still saying ‘give us our 17 percent’.”

Wazir said both sides have resorted to finger pointing in the current crisis, with the Kurds blaming Baghdad and Baghdad claiming the Kurds are using the instability to their advantage.

But Kurdish affection for Washington is strong—even on Kurdish military compounds, young fighters wear “US Army” shirts bought in a local market. Still, while the U.S. has been a longtime ally, Kurdish leadership has been burned before, supporting American objectives and getting little in return. In 2003, the Peshmerga fought alongside American forces, running Saddam Hussein’s army out of the north and taking important cities including their aspirational capital, Kirkuk. But the Kurds left Kirkuk shortly after, at the Americans' request.

Bakir says he feels Washington sides with Baghdad over Erbil.

“We did everything to support the political process in Iraq that was initiated by the Americans, but unfortunately in return we were not rewarded,” Bakir said.

Beyond security and American let-downs, Bakir said his people are not willing to support tyrannical rule from Baghdad. He said American airstrikes alone will not solve Iraq’s crisis. “The point is we don’t have democrats in the country,” he said, “we don’t have democracy yet in Baghdad.”

Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June 19.
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June 19.Reuters
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June 19.
A satellite image shows smoke rising from the Baiji refinery near Tikrit, Iraq, June 18.
Al-Qaeda inspired militants stand with captured Iraqi Army Humvee at a checkpoint belonging to Iraqi Army outside Baiji refinery some 155 miles north of Baghdad, June 19.
Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during a military-style training in the holy city of Najaf, June 17.
Newly-recruited Iraqi volunteers, wearing police forces uniforms, take part in a training session on June 17 in the central Shiite city of Karbala.
Personnel from the Kurdish security forces detain a man suspected of being a militant belonging to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the outskirts of Kirkuk June 16.
Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Basra, June 16.
Demonstrators chant pro-al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16.
Iraqi security forces fire artillery during clashes with Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Jurf al-Sakhar June 14.
An Iraqi security forces member with his weapon takes position as people, who fled from the violence in Mosul, arrive in their vehicles at a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Erbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region June 14.
People hold posters showing Iran's spiritual leaders Ayatollah Khomeini, while Iraqi Shiite fighters deploy with their weapons in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 southeast of Baghdad, June 14.
Iraqi Shiite men, some of them wearing military fatigues and guns given by the government, raise their weapons as they gather in the Iraqi town of Jdaideh in the Diyala province on June 14, to show their support for the call to arms by Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Iraqi men board military trucks to join the Iraqi army at the main recruiting center in Baghdad on June 14, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents.
Peshmerga military direct traffic at a Kurdish check point on June 14, in Kalak.
Traffic from Mosul queues at a Kurdish Check point on June 14,in Kalak.
Iraqi women gather at a temporary camp set up to shelter civilians fleeing violence in northern Nineveh province in Aski Kalak, 25 miles west of Erbil, on June 13.
Iraqi children carry water to their tent at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint on June 13 in Kalak.
A Shiite man cleans weapons as he gets ready to defend his Sadr City district in case of an attack by Sunni extremists, on June 13 in Baghdad.
An Iraqi soldier bodychecks men as they arrive to volunteer to join the fight against a major offensive by jihadists in northern Iraq on June 13, 2014, at recruiting center in the capital Baghdad.
Iraqi policemen dig trenches at checkpoint in the Iraqi town of Taji, at the entrance of Baghdad, on June 13, 2014, as security forces are bolstering defenses in the capital.
Men chant slogans against the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), outside of the main army recruiting center to volunteer for military service in Baghdad, June 12, 2014.
An Iraq army vehicle is seen burned by militants in Mosul, on June 12, 2014.
Refugees fleeing from Mosul head to the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region in Erbil, north of Baghdad, June 12, 2014.
Families fleeing the violence in the Iraqi city of Mosul arrive at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Erbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region June 12, 2014.
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014.
Civilian children stand next to a burnt vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the northern Iraq city of Mosul
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Stat
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