It takes a special kind of ballsiness to stand tall in the face of chemical attacks, brutal executions and kidnap and sexual slavery. Luckily for northern Iraq’s Kurdish population, they are guarded by the Peshmerga. A Kurdish militia whose name translates as ‘those who face death’, they could not have a more apt name. From fighting Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Baathist regime to guarding their borders against ISIS, the Peshmerga are a hardy, uncompromising group who’ve guarded Kurdish lands in one way or another since the 1800s.
Roots of the Peshmerga
The Peshmerga have their roots in a group of loosely allied tribal guards that protected Kurdish borders in the late 1800s. But it wasn’t until post-WWI and the fall of the Ottoman Empire that they were organised into their own fighting force.
During WWI the Ottoman Empire made good use of the hardy mountain folk by having them fight in the suitably epic Caucasus Campaign, a conflict that saw action by no less than four empires – the Ottoman, British, Russian and Persian empires all got involved. Following the end of WWI and the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the entire Middle East was somewhat unstable, and the proto-Peshmerga became the Peshmerga proper.
Fight against the Evil Empire
Formed in 1919, the Peshmerga wasted no time in making their mark. Kurdistan was then under the control of the British Empire, but unable to govern effectively, they appointed one Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji as their puppet ruler. Unfortunately for them, the Sheikh wasn’t so much into being puppeted. He revolted against British rule and began to fight a guerrilla war against them. All that was needed was a Death Star, and you’d be into full-on Star Wars territory.
Alas, unlike Star Wars, the Barzanji revolts didn’t have a happy ending. The British wounded and captured the Sheikh, and exiled him to India.
A few years later, facing a Turkish threat to the north, the British decided it would be a good idea to bring Barzanji out of retirement and make him leader of the Kurds again. Releasing and empowering a known anti-British rebel went about as well as you’d have expected; Barzanji proclaimed himself king of Kurdistan, allied with the Turkish, and starting kicking British arse again.
Unfortunately, the British were better trained and equipped, and ultimately defeated the Sheikh for a second time. He was again exiled, this time to southern Iraq, where he lived the rest of his days out. Further rebellions would take place against, variously, Britain/Iraq and Iran in 1932 and 1946.
Sheikh Barzanji remains a hero to the Kurdish people; an icon of resistance and self-determination, ideals that remain integral to the Kurds’ self-identity.
The First Iraq-Kurdish War (1961-1970)
In 1961, it became clear to the Kurds that, like the British before them, the Iraqis had no intention whatsoever of allowing Kurdistan to become autonomous. Understandably tired of being manipulated and lied to, the Kurds rebelled again. Under the leadership of Ahmed Barzani, the Kurds rapidly expelled Iraqi government officials from their lands. After a Kurdish attack on an Iraqi Army column, Baghdad lost its temper and ordered indiscriminate airstrikes across Kurdistan. This ultimately led to the entire region, usually plagued by fractious infighting, to unite under Barzani.
The then-president distrusted the Iraqi Army profoundly, however, and had instituted an ammunition-rationing policy. The end result was that the Iraqi troops were ill-equipped to fight the Kurds, and the situation reached an impasse.
As is the case in a lot of rebellions in unstable regions, there were vested interests on both sides. Iran and Israel both wanted egg on Iraq’s face, so they threw financial and logistical support behind the Kurds. On Iraq’s side were the US and UK. Both countries supplied napalm, which was used to horrifying effect on Kurdish civilians.
Great as they might have been at burning defenceless women and children, the Iraqis were unable to decisively defeat the Peshmerga. Over the next nine years, amid growing turmoil in Baghdad, the government forces would suffer defeat after defeat at the hands of Barzani and his guerrillas. The Soviets even got involved and pressured the government to declare a ceasefire. The newly installed Ba’athist government did just this in 1970.
The Second Iraq-Kurdish War (1974-1975)
The second war between the Kurds and Iraq came about as a result of the Iraqi government basically jerking the Kurds around again on the question of Kurdish autonomy. Despite promises laid down in the 1970 peace agreement, the Iraqis continued in their Arabization of the region and made no progress in delivering autonomy to Kurdistan. This culminated in an Iraqi offensive against the Kurds in 1974.
The second war lasted only a year, in large part because the Iraqi government persuaded Iran to end their support of Kurdistan. This also meant the Israelis could no longer support the Kurds, since their supply was by way of Tehran. Isolated and outmatched, the Kurds were put down. Barzani escaped to Iran, and the rest of the Kurds surrendered.
The Kurdish Rebellion of 1983 and the Al-Anfal Campaign
In what is easily the most tragic chapter in the Kurdish fight for autonomy, the Kurds again rebelled against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government during the Iran-Iraq War. Due to renewed Iranian support, the rebels were initially successful in seizing control, but the conflict petered out into a stalemate by 1985.
In 1987-88, in one of the most brutal campaigns in Iraqi-Kurdish history, the Iraqi government began a campaign of systematic genocide called the ‘Al-Anfal Campaign’. Men aged 15-50 were executed en masse, some 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, and women and children were herded into concentration camps. More than a million Kurds fled the country to escape the genocide. The nadir of the campaign came in 1988, when the Iraqi Army deployed chemical weapons against the town of Halabja. Between 3,000-5,000 civilians died, with another 7,000-10,000 being injured. This was the first documented instance of a government using chemical weapons against its own people. The Al-Anfal Campaign is now internationally recognised as genocide.
The Iraq War (2003)
Kurdistan was actually awarded de facto autonomy in 1991 – meaning it had its own flag and government, but was still a part of Iraq – but the two main political factions in the region swiftly turned on each other. For the next ten or so years the region was engulfed by internecine warfare. It wasn’t until the US invaded Iraq that they turned their sights back on the main enemy – Hussein’s Ba’athist government.
We can speculate on the motivations and morality of the Bush administration’s decision to invade, but for Iraqi Kurdistan it was undoubtedly a win. With the backing of the CIA and US Special Forces, the Kurds attacked the Iraqi army in the north and pinned them in place, preventing them from reinforcing their beleaguered forces in the south.
Once Saddam Hussein was deposed and a new government installed, Iraqi Kurdistan got what it had always wanted – full autonomy. The new federal government recognised the Kurdish regional government, and Iraqi forces have since then never set foot in Kurdistan.
ISIS attack and pushback (2014)
Despite finally making peace with the Iraqi government, the woes of the Kurdish people were not over. In 2014 ISIS/ISIL attacked from the north, managing to push the Peshmerga back as far as their regional capital, Erbil. Shortly afterwards the US got involved and, under cover of their airstrikes, the Pershmerga drove ISIS back.
As was well documented at the time, it wasn’t the Kurds that bore the brunt of ISIS brutality, but the minority Yazidi people of Kurdistan. ISIS murdered some 5,000 Yazidi men and enslaved the women and children.
Enraged by ISIS brutality, many Yazidi have since joined the Peshmerga. There’s even an all-female brigade, of which ISIS are terrified (ISIS soldiers believe that death at the hands of a woman denies you entry to Heaven).
Iraqi Kurdistan has finally achieved autonomy, and is now fully under the protection of the Peshmerga. What does this mean? When most of us think of ‘Iraq’, we imagine insurgents, kidnappings, and roadside IEDs. But this image couldn’t be further from the truth in Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite the ISIS attack, since 2003 not a single foreigner or Coalition soldier has been killed, kidnapped, or even wounded in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Which is why you should totally take a tour there.