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The Assault on Kirkuk: A Firsthand Account

This article originally appeared in French in La Règle du Jeu, by Rebin Rozhbayane

Here is the firsthand testimony of Rebin Rozhbayane, a young Kurdish peshmerga officer, who on October 16, 2017, the day of the assault against Kirkuk by the Iraqi military and General Qassem Suleimani’s Iranian Shiite militias, was responsible for the defense of the city.

It was Rozhbayane who, several days later, after having ordered the withdrawal from Kirkuk in order to save his men, organized the resistance in Alton Kupri—the city where, halfway between Kirkuk and Erbil, the peshmerga blocked Iraqi advances and saved what remained of the Kurdish territory.

These two events—the battles of Kirkuk and Alton Kupri—are the backdrop for the first pages of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s latest book, Empire and the Five Kings, which will appear in English in the coming months.

The book concludes with a moving homage to the Kurdish soldiers, who, betrayed by the West, continued to resist against all odds, and in particular to Rebin Rozhbayane.

In 2016, Lévy and Rozhbayane met in extraordinary circumstances that might otherwise have been comical but in this context were tragic.

It was the first day of filming of Lévy’s documentary, The Battle of Mosul.

I was with Lévy and the film’s cameramen, Camille Lotteau and Ala Tayyeb, in an American tank, on the frontline heading in the direction of Fazlya, in the heart of the Nineveh plain.

The frontline had been ambushed by ISIS. Two soldiers had lost their lives at the hands of snipers, one shot directly in the head.

We were on the road, shocked and overwhelmed. We had been placed under Rebin’s protection by the head of the battalion so that we would be returned in one piece to our home base. A silence befell the group and Rebin looked at us with a cold and almost hostile gaze.

In an attempt to break the uncomfortable silence, I introduced our group to Rebin…

“Yes, yes,” he responded, “I know who you are; but I don’t like BHL because of the role he played in the imperialist war in Libya.”

This was how our exchange with Rebin began.

Knives drawn, mines everywhere, enemy lines, on the edge of ISIS ambushes, all of us in the same boat fighting for our lives—and instead of thinking about the imminent danger, we entered into a surreal political discussion.

Lévy and I saw Rebin in Erbil at a later date and put the Libyan debate to rest. And from that moment forward, a true friendship emerged.

Last November, Lévy screened his film, Peshmerga, at the United Nations for ambassadors and officials from 193 countries. Rebin attended. Sad, defeated, lost at sea with his absent gaze, he explained that, indeed, he was the man who, during the worst hours of the Iraqi siege, had ordered the retreat of the peshmerga and organized the resistance.

Bernard-Henri Lévy asked him to tell his story.

This is the story of a betrayal and of the man who faces the enemy head on.

Of a courageous solider, who does not yet know, as his father and elders have known for a century, that the future lasts a long time.

—Gilles Hertzog


Kirkuk    13 October 2017
The peshmerga commander Wasta Rasul ordered the withdrawal from a number of positions around southwest Kirkuk (Section 4), saying they had to pull back to strengthen their position. This was a surprising move because the peshmerga had already fortified their positions.

14 October
I woke up in Erbil and had to go to Tuz Khormato south of Kirkuk. The night before there were clashes between the peshmerga and PMU [Iraq state-sponsored militias]. The peshmerga had until midnight on 15 October to leave Kirkuk or the government would attack it.

I moved from Erbil to Tuz Khormato and until I reached Dibis town everything was normal. I then saw Kamal Kirkuk, another peshmerga commander, fortifying his berms and positions between Kirkuk and Bajwan village. It was like a frontline between Section 4 and Section 5.

I entered Kirkuk and drove to the Baghdad road. At the 1st Hozayran checkpoint there was a peshmerga MRAP with a Xoshke 23mm gun parked in the middle of the road under a bridge. This was the first abnormal thing I saw but I kept driving toward Tuz Khormato. When I arrived in Taza south of Kirkuk, I saw lots of Iraqi 9th division BMGs on the other side of the street.

I continued to drive to Tuz Khormato and all peshmerga checkpoints on the way were normal. I reached Tuz Khormato and I called peshmerga Colonel … and he sent a car to the Tuz Khormato bridge to take me to the their base.

Inside Tuz Khormato, the town was almost empty of cars and people.

The peshmerga were holding their lines at the edge of the Kurdish neighborhoods. The PMU held their lines at the Shia Turkman neighborhoods. Colonel … told me that the Shia forces had two bases and that Iranian forces also were there, including General Qassem Suleimani. The Colonel told me the reason for the movements of the Shia and Iranian forces was to give an excuse to the Iraqis to send more troops to take over Tuz Khomrato and force out the Kurdish peshmerga and civilians. Later, I went back to the Kirkuk Road. Everything seemed quiet and people were not worried as if they did not care the Iraqi forces were going to attack Kirkuk tonight.

When I reached Kirkuk, it was dark. I ate dinner and called Ala and told him I want to meet some volunteers. We met 100 volunteers in Shorija Street who were about to go to the town center to demonstrate and tell  the Iraqi government that Kirkuk is Kurdish and they are ready to defend their city.

Then I got news that there was a meeting in Kirkuk between peshmerga commander Wasta Rasul and Lahur Talabani and Hadi Amre, the leader of the Shia militia, at PUK Politburo headquarters in the Shoraw neighborhood. People of Kirkuk were awake that night waiting for the Shia militias. More people were coming to demonstrate with weapons to show that they were in charge of Kirkuk. I went to the frontline at the Kirkuk-Baghdad Road and it was calm and there was no movement. We spent the night and thought maybe the Iraqis will attack but this did not materialize.

15 October
I woke up when the phone rang and it was my friend Captain Salim from Bashing Mountain. He asked if everything was OK and I told him it was. He told me that their peshmerga forces were on high alert and expected an attack from the Shia militias.

I told him the Iraqis were not going to attack because we had warned them that any vehicle that approached the peshmerga lines would be destroyed.

Also that day there was a meeting in Dokan between Masoud Barzani and all PUK leaders and Iraqi Kurdish President Fuad Masum. They agreed to stand united against the Shia militias and Iraqi threat.

It was very good news that all the peshmerga decided to be united and stop the Shia militias. At that moment I personally didn’t believe the Iraqi troops would attack the peshmerga because ISIS had just been defeated and no one had the appetite for another war. I also thought the Iraqi troops weren’t able to fight against the peshmerga. I was also thinking that America and coalition forces wouldn’t allow Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to use force against the Kurdish people. We thought that we had friends and they would come to our help if we needed them.

It was 20:00 and I told my peshmerga forces that they had to be ready even though I didn’t think we would be attacked. I called all the other officers who said they saw no Iraqi movement.

Mohamed Azo, one of my peshmerga, came and told me he heard the sound of vehicles starting their engines. I went up to the bridge and, yes, there was some noise but far away and not coming toward us. I called other commander friends on other front lines and they told me there was no movement.

Liutinad Obaide called me and said one of the PUK peshmerga called him to say they got an order to withdraw from the Tal Ward area in southwest Kirkuk, which is on one of the main roads from Hawijah. That frontline was held by a PUK peshmerga commander by the name of General Ramadan Dekone. I sent two of my close friends there and they told me they saw PUK peshmerga at the frontline and they were not withdrawing. A few minutes later, I saw Shia forces firing mortars at us and I shouted to my peshmerga to be careful. Fighting started at 23:50 and they started to move toward us. We destroyed three vehicles with 106mm cannon and killed about 16 Shia militia fighters. We lost five peshmerga. One of our MRAPS was hit by the Shia fighters using an American Abrams tank. Then the Shia militia withdrew but they were still lobbing mortars at our positions and we responded with DShK heavy machine guns and small arms.

00:45 (16 October)
They started another attack against us. We responded with heavy machine guns and a 106mm that was in a good position. There were also two SPG-9 anti-tank [guns]. They all fired at the Shia militia and I saw four of their vehicles set ablaze and once again they retreated back to Taza.

I kept looking to the sky and heard the sound of planes from the U.S. Air Force.

Our frontline was calm but I still heard shooting near Laylan Road. Colonel Mohamed Fars of the 1st Brigade said that they came under attack but responded with all the power weaponry they had and did not allow them to advance even one meter.

At 4:00 a.m. I went to the 1st Hozayran checkpoint. There were some police and volunteers. I climbed up the hill and saw there was still fighting and could hear DShK machine guns and mortars being exchanged on Laylan Road between the peshmerga and Shia militias.

I received a phone call stating that PUK Support Force 2, the heavy artillery unit, and other peshmerga were withdrawing from Tal Ward. Initially I did not believe the news but when I contacted some friends, they said that PUK officials Lahur Talabani and Pavel Talabani ordered peshmerga commander Wasta Rasul to withdraw and not fight the Iraqi forces. They then abandoned one strip of land and the Shia militias breached the Kurdish defensive line. Suddenly the peshmerga were cut off by advancing Shia militia forces.

It was a difficult decision to stay and fight or to withdraw because the Shia militias were pouring forces into the back of our lines and we would be cornered. The Shia militias had not believed they could enter Kirkuk so easily.

Then I saw the peshmerga forces of 1st Brigade retreating and I was surrounded on three sides. It would take 20 minutes to reach Kirkuk from where I was. I only had some peshmerga and friends around me.

My brother called to say that a huge force had arrived at the Arafa neighborhood from Erbil. He advised me to retreat to Kirkuk and help them defend the city there and spare my brave peshmerga fighters.

My road back was 1st Hozayran Road, the only road to Kirkuk. We saw so many Shia militia vehicles going into Kirkuk. We went through the industrial area and arrived at Arafa, which is close to the K-1 base where the Americans were based that night.

On the way back I saw many PUK tanks being carried on long trucks withdrawing toward Kirkuk. Kurdish civilians were burning tires to block the road and not allow the peshmerga to withdraw. They hurled insults at them for withdrawing and fleeing the Shia militias. Some peshmerga fighters were covering their faces because they felt embarrassed. Some were crying. Some said they received orders from Lahur Talabani not to fight.

When I reached Arafa hundreds of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Asayish were coming from Erbil to protect the city. All the PUK peshmerga left Kirkuk and only volunteers and KDP peshmerga were left there fighting.

The Shia militias were advancing slowly because there was a deal to hand over the city to them and the PUK was providing intelligence to them about what was going on inside the city.

Then a rumor spread that Kosrat Rasul, a legendary commander whose forces fought bravely that night, had been killed. This was a deliberate ploy to destroy the morale of the peshmerga.

I went to near the airport [where] there were some volunteers with small arms and still no Shia militia. I went to near the K-1 base and there was Asayish and they were holding their positions.

Suddenly Asayish got orders to retreat back to Erbil Road because they said Shia militias from the Dibis side had advanced toward the Kirkuk-Erbil Road and could cut off the road to the retreating forces.

I felt ashamed of myself for withdrawing and leaving Kirkuk so I told my peshmerga that we were going to stay in Faylaq neighborhood and not by the K-1 base.

All Asayish forces retreated and the road was opened to the Shia militias to enter Kirkuk. I had an AT-4 in my hand and I was waiting to fire at an Abrams tank. I could see the Abrams tank but was too far for my AT-4.

Some volunteers retreated and then the Abrams tank turned toward them and fired. Three guys were thrown out of the car and two others burned in the car. I then fired my M-4 rifle even though I knew the tank was too far. This was just to cover my friends who were carrying the three wounded to the back and from there to a hospital. One had lost both legs and died on the way to hospital.

After what happened, I and a small number of peshmerga fighters were on the same street where the Abrams tank was. I had faced danger many times in my life but that day I thought I would die and was counting my steps before I was hit.

I wanted to hit the Abrams tank but Major Islam Chali pulled me inside a store and said there were 200 armored vehicles and tanks around 300 meters from us and we had to leave the area. We got into a car and the Shia militias fired at us with small arms and DShK but we were lucky and they did not hit us.

Then we pulled back to Altun Kupri with other peshmerga and slept there that night. The following day we went to see what was happening and saw the Shia militias in charge of the Avana oilfields.

18 October 
We got news that 20 Humvees were moving from Kirkuk to Erbil and they would attack the peshmerga [if] they reached near Hasar. We started shooting at them and they responded and after two hours of fighting, we destroyed two Humvees and they moved back. It was the first time we had stopped Shia militias in this Iraqi offensive on Kirkuk. It was so easy and we had no casualties; we could stop them.

19 October
It was calm at the frontline but we saw thousands of Kurdish civilians fleeing from Kirkuk to Erbil. They said that Shia militias mistreated them and they could not live under Shia-militia rule. They preferred to leave Kirkuk and live in camps. They said the Shia militias were killing Kurds, looting and burning Kurdish houses. They also said the people feared that the Shia militias might take Kurdish girls and women.

Later in the day we knew that the new Iraqi forces were moving to Erbil Road with heavy artillery, including the Khurasani militias loyal to Tehran.

20 October
We woke up with artillery shelling at 07:00. It was the most heavy artillery shelling I have ever come across. Initially it was just shelling but after 10:00, I saw some Humvees coming from Kirkuk to Erbil. We were at an elevated position and started responding with mortars and artillery.

Both sides were lobbing artillery and mortar at each other’s positions. In the first three hours we lost around 25 men.

The first shot of an anti-tank missile was very successful and destroyed an Abrams tank. The Shia militias moved back and started firing more artillery and mortars.

Then I saw the Counterterror Forces of the KRG arriving at the frontline and I realized that this was a battle to protect Kurdistan. More men died on our side as the artillery was very accurate. We had no other option and had to stand and fight until death or stop the Shia militias from advancing toward the Kurdistan capital.

The Iraqi forces including the Shia militias started another push toward Erbil and I told the peshmerga to prepare the anti-tank missiles.

I checked the distance and it was 2,350 meters and took five minutes to prepare the missile. The missile hit the first vehicle, which was a Humvee and the rest pulled back and stopped crossing the bridge.

This article originally appeared in French in La Règle du Jeu.

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