Peshmerga, which means, “those who face death,” is the military of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraqi Kurdistan. Their existence dates back to the mid-20th Century when Mustafa Barzani picked up arms to fight for Kurdistan autonomy.
“No Friends But the Mountains”
But the tradition of a guerrilla resistance force fighting for Kurdish autonomy goes back to the origins of the Kurdish people. Because the land area has always been subject to regional and major powers vying for dominance, a resistance force always emerged as they took refuge in the mountains.
Up against much greater forces in the Iraqi Army and Air Force, the Peshmerga was not successful until after the 1990-1991 Gulf War when the U.S. and U.K. enforced a no-fly zone in the North of Iraq.
After the Kurdistan Regional Government was established, the Peshmerga officially became the armed forces and responsible for the security of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Kurdish Civil War: Peshmerga Divided
Originally, the Peshmerga was led by Mustafa Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), but in the aftermath of another failed revolt, which resulted in the defeat of the Peshmerga by Iraqi forces in the mid-1970’s, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) arose and formed their own Peshmerga.
The ideological split along both tribal (Barzani family) and political (PUK is more progressive and liberal) lines divided Kurds, and eventually led to the Kurdish Civil War of the 1990’s. During the Civil War, the Peshmerga took sides and opposing forces were responsible for Kurds killing and maiming other Kurds. It ended when KDP’s Head, Massoud Barzani, signed a peace treaty with the PUK Head, Jalal Talibani.
According to the 1992 Constitution of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the President of Kurdistan is the Commander-in-Chief of the Peshmerga Armed Forces. In an effort to unite against the Islamic State in August 2014, KRG President Massoud Barzani issued orders to the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs to reform the Peshmerga under a unified single command structure.
The Peshmerga and the U.S. Military
In addition to functioning as a military force, the Peshmerga has intelligence gathering capabilities. The Peshmerga, the KRG and the U.S. share information to make the area and the world safer from terrorist organizations and activities. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led Coalition Forces, the Peshmerga played a part in capturing Saddam Hussein.
In 2004, the Kurds (Peshmerga) on instructions from the CIA apprehended and captured an envoy traveling through Kurdistan to get to Iraq. His name was Hassan Ghul and he in the employ of Osama bin Laden. While the Kurds interrogated him (he was not tortured), Ghul revealed that bin Laden always used the same courier to send and receive messages — Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. This was the key piece of intelligence that led to finding the location of bin Laden’s hideout and his eventual execution.
The Peshmerga and ISIS
When the ISIS forces burst onto the battlefield in Syria and Iraq capturing large swathes of land, infrastructure and resources, the Kurdish Peshmerga mobilized while the Iraqi Army fell into full retreat. Peshmerga forces immediately moved in to take control of Kirkuk, and have been defending against an onslaught of offensive attacks by ISIS ever since.
Although the media have portrayed the Peshmerga as a reliable and effective modern force in an area where the news reports are more gruesome day after day, significant challenges lie ahead. Peshmerga training and equipment may not even be up to par with the Islamic State, since the latter was able to capture American-made equipment and munitions originally supplied to the Iraqi Army.
With the ISIS onslaught, the Peshmerga has gotten the attention of the U.S. as well as regional powers that the Peshmerga is best positioned to defeat ISIS — but they’ll need support, training, equipment and arms.