'Junk Weapons' are Killing Kurdish Troops
“When I shoot, the top of the rifle flies off,” Mahd Abdul Basit, a 28-year-old Peshmerga fighter told me while we stood a few hundred meters from Islamic State’s front line.
Unlike many Kurdish troops, who must purchase their own weapons, Mahd’s rifle — a taped-up Kalashnikov appearing to be made from several different rifles— was issued to him, and could still one day cost him his life.
Mahd stood in one of the Peshmerga’s newly-built fortifications, known as “citadels.” The sandbagged position, just 15 days old, is one of many that now punctuates the arid flat land on the front line southwest of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Before January, this was Islamic State territory. A Kurdish offensive drove the militants back several kilometers — and both sides dug in for a long fight. Islamic State fighters are now entrenched about 800 meters away from the position, and still definitely a threat.
Coalition air strikes, advisers and weapons are helping, but the coalition’s strategy for arming the Kurds has been criticized for worsening divisions in the already fractured Peshmerga. During a recent visit to the front line, we had a chance to observe the situation directly.
A trickle of Western weapons have circulated among the Kurdish troops — but they’re still not enough. Most Peshmerga fighters still rely on ancient Kalashnikovs that have suffered through decades of wear and tear. Soldiers are going months without pay.
But if the fighters have few decent weapons, they have fewer good options. If Islamic State breaks through the lines and the Kurdish cities fall, their families would almost certainly be killed or enslaved.
The United States Senate recently blocked direct weapons shipments to the Kurds under the proposed $1.6-billion “train-and-equip” fund. To receive weapons the Peshmerga must go through the Iraqi central government— which hasn’t always seen eye to eye with the Kurdistan Regional Government.
To make it clear, American and German weapons have reached the Kurds, but these stumbling political blocs have left some soldiers unprepared for battle.
When War Is Boring interviewed Peshmerga Gen. Hussein Mansoor in July 2014, he said his troops’ equipment was old and worn out. The situation has changed little since then, and that’s directly affecting the combat performance of soldiers on the ground.
“Each day there is usually a fight with Daesh,” Sheikh Jaffer, a Kurdish adviser to generals on the front line near Kirkuk, said. “Often gunshots are exchanged, sometimes they [ISIS] come close to the front line.”
Peshmerga fighters aligned with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan are the main force in this area — although they’re not the only ones. The PUK is an opposition party that holds power in Iraqi Kurdistan’s eastern regions.
Jaffar said that the MILAN anti-tank guided missile, supplied by Germany, is the best weapon for dealing with Islamic State’s huge explosive-packed armored vehicles. The terror group often sends these vehicles and their suicidal drivers to soften up Kurdish lines before conventional assaults.
But he said they still need equipment to deal with countless explosive devices littering the battlefield. Islamic State typically plants booby traps whenever its fighters retreat. And by far, improvised explosives are the number one cause of Kurdish casualties in Iraq.
When asked about weapons sent by the coalition, Jaffar said they don’t receive enough. “Sometimes the coalition doles out weapons unevenly,” he said.
At the headquarters for the Peshmerga’s 1st Battalion, 6th Brigade, deputy commander Col. Sulaiman Ali held up a rifle in an office that doubled as his bedroom. Numerals inscribed on the left side of the battered and scarred Kalashnikov dated it to 1975 — the rifle has been in use for 40 years.
When Kurdish fighters told me that they fought with weapons from Saddam Hussein’s time … it’s not the type of weapons they were talking about. They literally meant the actual, specific guns they held in their hands.
Islamic State, on the other hand, has seized millions of dollars worth of modern equipment including rifles, tanks and heavy crew-served weapons following victories over the Iraqi army. Some of its suicide vehicles are captured American-made Humvees and mine-resistant armored vehicles.
Not surprisingly, many Peshmerga fighters criticize Western aid to the Iraqi army — that it’s basically the equivalent of just giving it all to Islamic State.
A ZU-23–2 23-millimeter anti-aircraft cannon and 82-millimeter mortar in a platoon position atop on of the Peshmerga’s “citadels” near Kirkuk. Matt Cett-Roberts photo
Sulaiman’s headquarters sat near Maktab Khalid, a Turkmen area southwest of Kirkuk. At one point, the no-man’s land between Islamic State and Peshmerga lines narrowed to around 30 meters, with each side facing off across a small bridge.
Sulaiman was not happy with the battalion’s armaments. “The weapons are old, sometimes they stop shooting,” he said.
The Kurdish fighters also have trouble hitting their targets. That has a lot to do with the fact that Kalashnikovs are the most common weapon here — and they’re not built for fine-tuned precision at a distance.
Many of the Kurds’ rifles have old and worn-out barrels, which further decreases accuracy. The barrels’ conditions have continued to deteriorate after a year of heavy fighting.
Sulaiman’s battalion, like many other Peshmerga units, received some German-donated G36 and G3 rifles — about 40 for for 600 men. But the actual figures for weapons sent to the KRG in total, either directly or through Baghdad, is vague and usually calculated in cost, rather than in definitive per-weapon numbers.
Soldiers like to complain — that’s a fact of military life around the world. But to be sure, the Kurdish fighters have some legitimate grievances.
Universally the Peshmerga fighters I’ve spoken to say they’re fighting to defend their homeland — and there’s no reason to doubt that. They’re willing fight … and die. It’s a major reason why Islamic State hasn’t made it through to Iraqi Kurdistan’s major cities, with the exception of the occasional suicide bomber and even that is rare compared to Baghdad.
But many fighters have families to support, and money worries are taking a toll. The KRG still relies on the Iraqi government in Baghdad for money, and the lack of cash has driven some Kurdish troops into debt. At the time of my June 14 visit, fighters in this part of the front line had not received pay for around 100 days.
“Some Peshmerga have had to leave because they cannot support their families,” Sulaiman said. He pointed to a wedding ring and said that many fighters have had to sell theirs to feed their families.
Back at the citadel, Mahd and his platoon ate lunch beneath a blue tarpaulin held up by wooden posts. It was a moment of respite from the baking heat. A few meters away in a dug-in defensive position, an 82-millimeter mortar and a truck-mounted ZU-32–2 anti-aircraft cannon sat waiting in case of an attack.
“It is the only job I have to support my children,” Sgt. Yaseen Al Rasheem, a 10-year Peshmerga veteran, said. “Jobs are hard to come by these days.”
The war has put pressure on his family, forcing them to cut back expenses. “I asked them to not spend too much money, take less trips to see family and save on food,” he said. “Sometimes they do not eat meat.”
His time away hasn’t made their situation any easier. Since the conflict began, he’s been called back from leave 15 times — sometimes only spending enough time at home to change his clothes before heading back to the front line.
Mahd, the fighter with the taped-up Chinese rifle, has experienced similar financial problems. Like many members of the Peshmerga, he has another job — when he’s off duty — to pay the bills, something unthinkable in many Western armies.
“I am a laborer, mostly moving construction materials in Kirkuk,” Mahd said.
An average 10-hour working day brings in $16. His time away from the front line doesn’t leave much time for relaxing. “When I return home I head straight to work.”
In contrast to Mahd’s battered Kalashnikov, Yaseen has a German-supplied G36 rifle, which he received nine months ago. Despite problems with the weapon that provoked the German army to consider dropping it, the Kurdish fighters love them.
“It is reliable, it does not stop,” Capt. Niqib Yasim said.
Niqib is responsible for the deployment of troops along the 1st Battalion’s defensive line. He credited the G36’s built-in sights for enabling his soldiers to shoot further and more accurately.
Despite potential logistical problems arising from many different types of ammunition in service along the front, for some Peshmerga units the only problem is not having enough bullets to go around, according to Niqib. The Kurds must frequently conserve their ammunition during firefights.
“Sometimes when shooting at ISIS and they are a long distance away, the guys with Kalashnikovs must sit and do nothing,” Niqib said. “Only the G36, G3 and 23-mm [the ZU-23–2] are good enough.”
Making matters more complicated is the Peshmerga’s sheer size — and the question of how big it actually is. Nobody seems to know. Estimates run anywhere between 80,000 to 250,000 soldiers, including volunteer fighters.
The Peshmerga also includes units loyal to two different factions — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party. In addition, there are more units answering directly to the Ministry of Peshmerga which comprise around 30 percent of the force’s total strength.
At the moment, everything comes down to the fighters on the front line such as Mahd, with his ancient Kalashnikov. When he said he’s afraid of his rifle failing him, he’s not alone.