Iraq Crisis: Effort to Aid Kurdish Forces Puts Iran, U.S. on Same Side

Islamic State Seen as Mutual Enemy – ByNour Malas & Joe Parkinson – Updated Aug. 15, 2014 4:04 a.m. ET -THE WALL STREET JOURNAL –

MAKHMOUR, Iraq—The struggles of the embattled Kurdish Peshmerga to repel Islamist insurgents have put the U.S. and Iran on the same side, with both rushing to reinforce a revered fighting force to defeat a common enemy.

U.S. airstrikes this week helped the Peshmerga retake two towns on the outskirts of Erbil that they had lost days earlier in a stunning defeat that put the radical Sunni group Islamic State 20 miles from the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region.

On Monday, as Peshmerga fighters basked in relief in one of those towns, Makhmour, a reporter witnessed senior Kurdish commanders meeting with Iranian advisers in the operations command center there.Thirty miles away in Erbil, U.S. advisers huddled this week with Peshmerga and Iraqi air force commanders to a similar end.

The parallel tracks demonstrated clearly that the U.S. and Iran, longtime competitors for influence in Iraq, have found common cause in the effort to resuscitate the Peshmerga, long mythologized as Iraq’s most capable fighting force. (See Iraq’s power players.)

The State Department has acknowledged that the U.S. and Iran share an understanding of the threat of the Islamic State, but “that doesn’t necessarily mean we have a shared strategic interest,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said in June.

Across a 650-mile frontier that once housed Iraq’s safest and most prosperous region, Kurdish forces now face an insurgency-turned-army many fighters say they never expected to face.

The Peshmerga pulled out of towns as the Islamic State militants advanced toward Erbil, laying bare the challenges for a force viewed within Iraq and abroad as the first line of defense against the extremist group.

The swiftness with which the militants marched last week east of their stronghold in the city of Mosul toward Iraqi Kurdistan has turned both the reality and long-held assumptions about the Peshmerga on their heads.

Iraqi, Kurdish, and U.S. officials alike got a quick reality check when many of the Peshmerga, which means “those who face death,” retreated as the insurgents advanced.

Kurdish officials say it is the urgency of the threat that has gathered unlikely allies around the Peshmerga, better placed than any other fighting force in the Middle East to become a proxy in the fight against a group intent on carving out a radical Sunni statelet.

“Our whole border is threatened. The entire thing is a battlefront,” said Helgurd Hikmet Ali, a Peshmerga spokesman.


Mr. Ali said he wasn’t aware of Iranian involvement on the Makhmour battlefront, but said it was expected and welcome for regional states to offer support to the Peshmerga.

“Iran has shown support,” said Raman Majid, a political representative for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, one of two main factions that make up the Peshmerga. The PUK has historic ties with Iran.

For the U.S., the Peshmerga is at the forefront of the strategy to beat back the Islamic State in Iraq. While U.S. airstrikes against insurgent positions that began last week aim at halting their advance, it is the Kurdish forces U.S. officials hope will push them far back.

The effort has drawn nearly 1,000 U.S. military personnel into Iraq and forced cooperation between the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad after a nearly two-year freeze in military relations. France on Thursday also began sending weapons, urging other European nations to follow suit.

Now, every morning, the Peshmerga minister meets with other Kurdish commanders, Iraqi military commanders, and U.S. advisers in a joint operations room in Erbil. Fighters on the front line credit the coordination for the reversal of their loss on Sunday in this town, Makhmour, some 30 miles southwest of Erbil.

The battlefield losses have shaken Kurdish confidence in the Peshmerga as the noble protectors of their identity and confronted commanders with the litany of challenges they face.

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga troops watch as smoke billows from the town of Makhmur during clashes with Islamic State militants Saturday. Reuters

The men are poorly dispersed along the border of Kurdistan, either stretched too thin or clustered in hot spots such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. They lack the weaponry to pierce the armored vehicles the insurgents use to blast into their towns. Other tactics have left the Peshmerga stunned.

In places such as Makhmour, fighters said they were shocked to see non-Kurdish Iraqis joining the insurgents in droves.

“We told the Americans and others: the Peshmerga is fighting a terrorist state,” said Mr. Ali, who is a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the other of the two main Peshmerga factions. “This is not Saddam Hussein’s army. This is different. They fight like this is not their country, they burn through the land.”

The Peshmerga weakness in the face of the insurgent advance has put the U.S., which trained and equipped the force against Saddam’s army in the 1990s, in a difficult spot. For years, the Kurdistan Regional Government has prodded its allies in the West for better arms, but Western officials instead told them to look to Baghdad as they resisted fueling Kurdish ambitions for statehood.

They now face the choice of launching a major armament program to Kurdish forces, and risk accelerating Iraq’s dismemberment, or offering smaller supplies but failing to turn the Peshmerga into the definitive proxy force against the Islamic State.

American officials say direct arms deliveries to the Kurdistan Regional Government, via the CIA, demonstrate their intent to equip the Peshmerga to tackle Islamic State. But they caution that the new arms pipeline is a trickle, and any expanded program will be done in coordination with Baghdad.

In June, Secretary of State John Kerry said he wouldn’t rule out cooperating militarily with Iran. The Pentagon and the White House later appeared to contradict his position. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said “any conversation with the Iranian regime will not include military coordination.”

Related Video In an unverified propaganda video released by an Islamic State media arm, members of the extremist group can be seen walking around what they say is Mosul Dam, a critical—and contested—site for supplying power to Northern Iraq.

The U.S. and Iran had sideline discussions about Iraq and the threat of the Islamic State at international talks over Iran’s nuclear program in June.

The U.S. and Iran found common purpose in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1970s, said Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at Columbia University who served on the National Security Council during the Ford, Carter and Reagan Administrations. The U.S., Iran and Israel covertly supported the Peshmerga as they confronted Saddam Hussein.

Iran and the U.S. again had similar interests in protecting the Kurds in the 1990s, when the U.S. helped create no fly zones to defend the Kurds from Saddam Hussein, he said.

On the front lines, some Kurdish commanders say their lines of defense may not hold out that long.

Captain Halish Kaim, manning a post on the outskirts of Makhmour, said he didn’t think twice before ordering his unit to retreat on Thursday. And by the time the Kurdish commander saw a column of Humvees from the Islamic State rolling over the hills that day, most of his panicked fighters had already fled.

Islamic State fighters had first taken over Gwair, 3 miles north and even closer to Erbil, and then charged back toward Makhmour, surrounding it and quickly occupying the southern end of the town.

“We just saw the Hummers,” said Mr. Kaim, “and we knew what was coming.”

Within hours, the Islamic State hung its black flag on the Makhmour silo, a landmark of this proudly agricultural town, and squeezed two remaining Peshmerga units into a northern corner of Makhmour. It was a confounding defeat, watched with great anxiety in Erbil, Baghdad, and Washington.

“It was a knock-on effect that influenced the whole battlefield. When they got to Makhmour, I swear to you, we feared strongly for Erbil,” said Mr. Ali, the spokesman. Fighters began to pull out of the villages across Makhmour district in “a moment of military confusion,” he said.

“What is happening with the Islamic State is more a psychological war of terror,” said Najat Ali Salih, head of Makhmour operations command.

On Monday, the day after Peshmerga retook the town, fighters lingered in the shade and took turns walking up to a remote concrete barrier and swapping the same pair of binoculars to look into the distance.

“So good, so calm,” Captain Kaim said, giving a thumbs up.

The Islamic State retreated Sunday after a three-hour mortar-and-gunfire battle, Peshmerga fighters said, moving to a position about 5 miles to the south. All fighters interviewed said they drove the insurgents out without the help of U.S. airstrikes, which came hours later that night, as Islamic State forces amassed again in an apparent counterattack on Makhmour.

American airstrikes that night outside Makhmour destroyed 17 insurgent vehicles, said Mr. Salih. In overall military operations against the Islamic State in Makhmour and Gwair that day, about 200 militants were killed, he said.

Evidence of the battle lay out on the road to Makhmour Monday. The bullet-ridden body of a teenage boy identified by Peshmerga as an Islamic State militant lay on the side of one road. On another, outside a once-popular restaurant sat a charred truck and an unexploded bomblet.

“We don’t know whether they will attack again or not,” said Captain Kaim, gesturing to the hills from where the militants had attacked, and have now withdrawn. “Are they reorganizing? Or will they open up a new front somewhere else? We don’t know.”

Write to Nour Malas at and Joe Parkinson at