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          Sep. 06, 2014



Iraq’s peshmerga await promised arms to fight Islamic State

Kurdish fighters are watching, waiting for promised international arms to boost their forces against IS jihadists.


Watching and waiting

Middle East Online AIN ZALA: Kurdish fighters on a hilltop in northern Iraq use binoculars to monitor the jihadist-held town of Zumar in the distance, waiting to receive promised international arms to bolster their forces.

Once home to some 15,000 residents, Zumar is now held by militants from the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, whom the Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, are battling to dislodge from northern and eastern areas.

The peshmerga do not attempt to approach the town due to the danger of both bombs that will require explosives experts to clear, and militant snipers.

Their main task in Ain Zala is keeping watch, especially to make sure that IS militants do not attempt to steal oil from storage tanks and sell it illicitly.

The peshmerga have faced problems due to shortages of arms and ammunition, lacking combat experience, and having a vastly larger front to defend after they moved into areas abandoned by federal troops swept aside by an IS-led offensive in June.

But when they were driven back toward their regional capital Arbil in a renewed push by IS last month, the United States began carrying out air strikes in their support, and pledges to provide arms and ammunition to the Kurds poured in.

Major General Mussa Gardi, who commands peshmerga forces in Ain Zala, said his troops had yet to receive the promised weapons, and criticised the decision not to provide arms to the Kurds earlier.

"If the American and French governments had helped us with weapons as they helped the Iraqi government, this situation would not have happened and (the IS) would never have reached this area," Gardi said.

- 'Property of the Islamic State' -

The Iraqi federal government has received tens of billions of dollars in arms and training from the United States, but the same has not happened for Kurdish forces.

"The United States (believed) that peshmerga units that were not incorporated into the federal military should only be equipped as gendarmerie, which means only light armoured vehicles, light artillery and no air defences," said Michael Knights, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

On the road to Ain Zala, which runs past a lake and between hills, the atmosphere is surprisingly calm, but there are still signs of the conflict.

"Property of the Islamic State" has been painted on houses in abandoned villages that were previously held by the jihadists until the Kurds began to drive them back.

One checkpoint now guarded by four peshmerga fighters was painted with the black flag flown by the jihadists, but has since been written over with graffiti.

As wild geese quietly honked nearby, the peshmerga guards said they took control of the area in a battle in which scores of fighters were captured.

Gardi said that the IS militants originally entered the area, which includes both Kurdish and Arab villages, without facing resistance.

The Kurdish villagers fled the jihadists, but were able to come back after the peshmerga regained ground.

Gardi said that Arab residents of the area were also welcome to return, but that those who cooperated with IS would be judged.