We Went Inside a German Training Camp for Kurdish Troops

Mountain guerrillas learn how to become urban warriors

We Went Inside a German Training Camp for Kurdish Troops We Went Inside a German Training Camp for Kurdish Troops
A young, German army non-commissioned officer stands inside the room. He’s by the window, and he’s waiting for his students. There’s no door —... We Went Inside a German Training Camp for Kurdish Troops

A young, German army non-commissioned officer stands inside the room. He’s by the window, and he’s waiting for his students. There’s no door — just a cardboard box in its place marked “fragile.”

The students — all of them Kurdish Peshmerga fighters — enter, kicking up dust and wildly pointing their weapons in different directions. Their lack of confidence doing this for the first time shows.

The German soldier stops them, pointing out what they did wrong. He stands in a corner demonstrating that if he had been an enemy, he could have killed the first man entering the room. The pupils nod their heads as a translator delivers the lesson.

The trainees enter the room and try again … and again. The Kurds make mistakes — sometimes small, sometimes big. But the foreign instructors carry on, patiently pushing them to do better.

Top and above — Kurdish troops conduct room clearing exercises. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

It’s all part of a platoon-level tactics course run by Western advisers — German troops, in this case — inside Iraqi Kurdistan.

Different platoons have been cycling through the program. Each platoon has around 35 men — three squads and one leader. There are roughly 200 people in the course, with five platoons training here in Erbil and three others in Atrush.

The German advisers are focusing on small unit tactics — to get the Kurds ready for urban combat with Islamic State militants in Iraq’s northern cities.

The Kurdish fighters have to be ready. If not, they could die.

“The courses started on the Feb. 8,” a spokesman says. “The courses are four weeks long, and we have eight platoons here doing basic infantry skills. This is the last week.”

A German soldier, at left, speaks to a group of Peshmerga trainees through an interpreter, at right. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Coalition effort

The German troops are managing the course inside an unfinished housing development. Some of the houses are made of just cinder block and lack windows and doors.

Sand is all over the place, and it covers the inside of every house. The development has no paved roads — just rough tracks dividing the buildings. There’s construction supplies littered everywhere.

“We are just doing urban fighting training here,” a German colonel by the name of Jurgen says. “It’s great for training, and there are plenty of houses without glass, so fewer things can get broken.”

Peshmerga fighters train at an abandoned construction site. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

In addition to the Germans, there are American, British, Canadian, Dutch and Italian advisers in Iraqi Kurdistan. They teach everything from platoon movements to heavy weapons.

The Italians are training the Kurds how to use the Folgore anti-tank rocket launcher.

“The weapon is not necessarily new, but it is effective,” Jurgen says. “The age of a weapon is not important, only if it works.”

The Peshmerga have been one of the most active — and effective — forces in the fight against Islamic State.

Last year, Germany sent a huge arms package to the Kurdish Regional Government. It’s the first time since World War II Berlin has sold arms to a group actively engaged in a war.

In January, the advisers began teaching the Peshmerga how to use the German weapons. Some of the guns have made it to the front lines, and fighters scattered in different Peshmerga units now wield G36 battle rifles.

In addition to the German training mission in Iraq, the instructors say that there are currently 30 Peshmerga students training in Germany. At the moment, Germany is the only country where Kurdish troops are training outside of Iraq.

Training the Kurds in Germany helps the soldiers comply with their mandate, which limits Berlin’s force in Iraq to 100 advisers. It also lets the Germans train the Peshmerga how to use advanced weapons like Milan anti-tank missiles in a more permissive setting.

“The missiles are very expensive,” Jurgen explains. “If you shoot it in Kurdistan, questions would be asked. They need them at the front lines.”

But Western support for the Kurds is controversial. The modern Peshmerga has roots in a guerrilla movement that fought against Iraqi rulers in hopes of greater autonomy — and perhaps, eventually, independence.

Lately, the Kurds have been working with the Iraqi government to fight Islamic State … their mutual enemy. At the same time, Kurdish attempts to assert authority over disputed territories such as Kirkuk have angered Baghdad. It’s a shaky alliance.

But the Germans tell us they aren’t here to take sides in Iraqi politics. They’re here to help Iraqis fight Islamic State.

“[The] coalition is also training [Iraqi Security Forces] elsewhere in Iraq,” Jurgen adds. “We are not training Peshmerga to free Kurdistan, that’s not our task. We are here to strengthen the ISF — and in Kurdistan, this is the Peshmerga.”

In January, the Kurds launched an offensive that drove Islamic State back to to the edge of its stronghold in Mosul. The operation — backed by coalition air strikes — was a major success and a boost to morale.

But the Peshmerga are far from unstoppable. The offensive retook ground the Kurds lost to Islamic State in August. During the jihadi assault, the Peshmerga’s defensive lines crumbled, leaving civilians vulnerable to the Sunni extremist group’s advance.

The Peshmerga struggled with modern tactics and logistics. To maintain their vehicles early in the war, Kurdish troops had to smuggle in much of their spare parts and equipment from corrupt Iraqi army officers.

“These guys are a kind of militia, not a conventional army,” a German officer known as Lt. Mark says.

He adds that the Kurdish troops are experienced fighters who act quickly, and some of them are good shots, too. “But they know nothing about tactics at a complex level.”

Peshmerga troops move in a four-man fire team during a German-led training exercise. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Battle hardened

The Kurdish fighters training at the construction site aren’t strangers to combat. Almost all of them have spent time fighting on the front line — some longer than others.

“I have been a soldier for 18 years and fought Saddam’s army in Kirkuk, Erbil and Chamchamal,” Capt. Jalal Abdullah Fatah, the Kurdish platoon leader, says.

But Fatah says this war is unlike anything he’s ever experienced. He developed most of his skills while fighting against Iraqi Ba’athist troops — the Peshmerga’s nemesis for decades. Over time, the Kurds learned the Iraqis’ tactics, just as the Iraqi army learned the Peshmerga’s tricks.

In a way, they understood each other. But Islamic State is a completely different adversary.

“They don’t know us, and we don’t know them,” the officer says. “ISIS comes from 83 different countries, and they all have different educations, ideas, plans — we can’t predict them.”

Some of the militants’ tactics are outright bizarre, according to Fatah. For example, he claims some Islamic State fighters have used … cats.

“Three months ago, ISIS put torches [flashlights] on cats and sent them to our lines, we shot at the cats,” Fatah recounts. “It was a way to make us use up ammunition … they are developing new tactics and we have to react to that.”

The captain’s last major battle was in Kirkuk on Jan. 29, when Islamic State launched a surprise attack on the city. The Kurds fought from midnight until mid-afternoon the next day.

Two Peshmerga generals died during the battle, including Fatah’s commander — Gen. Sherko Shwani. “Seven hundred ISIS fighters attacked us,” the captain recalls. “In our battalion, 30 people died and more than 30 were injured.”

Twenty-five year old Meriwan Sadar — a nine-year Peshmerga veteran who’s been wounded twice — recently joined Fatah’s platoon. He previously served under Shwani. “Before he died, the U.S. [troops] came here and gave hats to the officers — I have Sherko’s hat,” Sadar says.

He remembers the battle well. The militants used the poor winter visibility to take the Kurds by surprise. “We couldn’t see anything because of the fog,” he recalls. “We fought with only a meter between us on the day that Sherko died.”

Sadar says he looks forward to deploying what he’s learned against Islamic State. “[It’s] very good training. Thanks to the Germans, we will be better at fighting and techniques.”

Meriwan Sadar, wearing an American hat U.S. troops gave to the late Gen. Sherko Shwani. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Mountain fighters

The Germans tell us the Kurds are excellent students. They have good fighting spirits and adapt well to new challenges, but they still have a lot to learn about fighting in cities and on flat land.

“The Peshmerga are very experienced in fighting in the mountains,” Jurgen explains. “Give them a mountain, and they can defend it.”

“But that’s not that helpful near a river with a view of 20 kilometers. If you want to go to a village, you need different tactics.”

Perhaps as a result, the Peshmerga has faced off against Islamic State in long, bloody standoffs. Kurdish troops have built trenches. At times, the battlefield has resembled 1914 more than 2014.

“They build berms at the front lines and sit behind them,” Jurgen says. “All it takes is an artillery shell behind that, because there is no cover. We are teaching them to dig trenches in zig-zag patterns so that one shell doesn’t injure more fighters in other parts of the trench.”

The advisers say the biggest killer isn’t Islamic State’s captured heavy weapons, but simple improvised explosive devices — a favorite of insurgents worldwide. The bombs are responsible for 50 to 70 percent of the Peshmerga’s fatalities, the German troops say. The advisers have trained several Kurdish specialists to spot and diffuse IEDs.

But the biggest cause of avoidable deaths is inadequate medical care. The Peshmerga are short on medical expertise, doctors and first aid supplies.

“The fighters had no idea how to stop bleeding,” Jurgen explains. “If they’re injured they just throw the person in the back of a car and hope for the best.”

The Peshmerga do have hospitals for those lucky enough to survive a wound and the trip to the doctor. But the Germans have been teaching them first aid techniques that could save their lives.

Though the Kurds are quick to learn, Mark says the advisers often face a steep language barrier. None of the Germans speak any Kurdish, and they have to rely on interpreters to relay their instructions. Sometimes, the ideas they’re trying to get through are complex.

Part of the training is teaching them the best ways to shoot and kill people. But another part of it is learning when not to.

“We are also teaching the law of armed conflict,” Jurgen notes. “What if an IS guy who is shot and not fighting is waving a white flag?”

In a war like this one, the answers aren’t always simple. Militants lying wounded on the ground, or trying to surrender, can often be suicide bombers in disguise. And as Kurdish troops enter Iraq’s ethnically-diverse communities, it’s sometimes hard to tell friend from foe.

“It is ethics and common sense,” the adviser adds. “Telling them what to do in the right way. These lessons are run in the classrooms — no easy yes or no.”

Despite the language barrier and cultural differences, Fatah says he’s pleased with the training, and has learned a lot from his German teachers.

“For example we learned how to treat the injured, how to save ammunition and shoot in the proper way — to save ammunition, not just shoot bullets in the air,” he says.

Peshmerga fighters during a simulated raid on a building. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Keep practicing

At the training site, Peshmerga fighters stack up outside the “garden” of a house. Since none of the unfinished houses actually have gardens, they mark its simulated boundaries with tape.

One fighter taps another on the shoulder, and he moves swiftly into the garden with his weapon up. The whole team follows, pointing their weapons at the house.

The German instructors aren’t happy with the way the Kurds carried out the drill, and ask two of the fighters to stand aside. They re-form with two fighters and, talking as they go, carry out the drill again. An interpreter stands in the doorway, explaining what the instructors are saying.

Next, it’s time to practice breaching and entering the house. Keeping low, a Peshmerga team comes up to the front door — each covering a different direction with their weapons.

Battering ram practice. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

One fighter carries a battering ram — a piece of pipe filled with sand. The soldiers look at each other, and the fighter hurls it at the door. The door cracks half open and the soldiers bundle into the house.

The instructor stops them, shaking his head. The Kurds aren’t using the battering ram correctly. He tells them it’s OK to throw it, but on the floor after they’ve opened the door all the way. The team starts again.

They keep practicing — their bearded German instructor stopping them when he sees something go wrong.

Without the Kurds noticing, another German NCO enters the house and places a large piece of cinder block behind the door.

When the Peshmerga swing the battering ram, they’re caught off guard by the door’s resistance. They stop, go back to the start line and listen to the Germans explain how to do it again.

Slowly, they come together as a team — the instructor says they learn quickly.

Kevin Knodell contributed to this article.

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Matt Cetti-Roberts

Photojournalist, documentary photographer and correspondent in Iraqi-Kurdistan