The Iraq War’s New Heroes
Aging warriors, daring pilots & everyday Iraqis who risked their lives to save others
But as awful as the conflict can be, our team on the ground in Iraq in 2014—Kurdish reporter Vager Saadullah, British photojournalist Matt Cetti-Roberts and American videographer Zack Baddorf—crossed paths with some pretty amazing people.
Aging Peshmerga veterans
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters—“those who face death”—are legendary. For generations, they fought Iraq’s rulers. More recently, the war against Islamic State brought many aging Peshmerga out of retirement to join the fight alongside Baghdad’s forces.
Dusting off their old rifles, these senior citizens have returned to the battlefield in droves to fight for their homeland. In Tuz Kharmato, Cetti-Roberts met several returnees serving under Abdulla Musla Boor, an old general known as The Dark Lion.
For many of the veterans, this war was their last.
This summer, Saadullah attended the funeral of Sebri Bamerni, who returned to Kurdistan from Germany to fight the Islamists. A Russian jihadist shot him in the back near Mosul Dam.
Saadullah also profiled Fakhir Barwary—a Peshmerga who had fought for Iraq’s national army during the U.S. occupation. The Americans had nicknamed him “Crazy Fakhir” for his habit of disarming improvised bombs by hand.
Barwary lost a leg in Mosul. But when Islamic State invaded, he volunteered to clear booby traps—while walking on a prosthetic limb. He and two of his nephews died trying to disarm a bomb the militants left behind in a civilian’s house.
The defenders of Mount Sinjar
In August, Islamic State broke Peshmerga defensive lines and captured the Yezidi town of Sinjar. The militants’ campaign of murder, rape and pillage forced tends of thousands of people from the ancient religious sect to flee to nearby Sinjar Mountain.
While the media focused on the refugees, many Yezidi were taking up arms and moving in the direction of the gunfire. Qasim Shasho, another elderly Peshmerga fighter, raised a volunteer army to protect Yezidi shrines. His fighters held off the militants with nothing but small arms. Many lacked any formal training.
Though celebrated in Kurdistan, Shasho and his fighters received little media coverage in the West. Saadullah talked to him when he visited Dohuk to meet with Kurdish president Massoud Barzani—the only time he ever left the besieged mountain.
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters also fought on the mountain. Together the three factions formed a loose alliance known as the Sinjar Protection Force.
The outgunned fighters held out for months.
They protected the Yezidi refugees until a massive ground offensive by Kurdish forces, backed by coalition air strikes, liberated the mountain in mid-December.
The Iraqi air force
Iraq’s military had an incredibly embarrassing year. It all started when the Islamic State fighters swiftly took Fallujah … and the government of then-prime minister Nouri Al Maliki pretty much ignored it. Then the militants seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
The Iraqi army in Mosul crumbled and fled, leaving behind a lot of heavy weaponry. To make matters worse, the new government launched an investigation that revealed 50,000 “ghost” soldiers, men who didn’t even exist but were on the army payroll so that somebody—it’s hard to say who—could collect their paychecks.
But even as Iraq’s army leadership failed miserably, the county’s tiny air force demonstrated surprising courage on the battlefield.
While the Iraqi army abandoned state-of-the-art equipment, the air force flew into Islamic State territory in rickety old Soviet helicopters. Militants damaged or destroyed dozens of aircraft during these dangerous missions.
Gen. Majid Ashour—the Iraqi air force officer in charge of the airlift—insisted on personally flying missions to the mountain. That stands in stark contrast to Iraqi army officers who abandoned their own troops in Mosul.
Ashour’s helicopter crashed on Aug. 12, killing him. The crash made headlines because two Western journalists—The New York Times’ Alissa Rubin and freelance photographer Adam Ferguson—were on the copter and suffered minor injuries. Ashour himself received relatively little outside attention.
But the airlift continued. In the fall, it became more important than ever. Militants closed the ground route linking Sinjar to Rojava in Kurdish Syria. With that critical supply route closed, Islamic State completely surrounded mountain.
The Iraqi air force’s helicopters were the only way on or off the mountain.
The Iraqis continued flying dangerous missions over Islamic State territory until the Kurds managed to organize their December offensive to take back the mountain. The Kurdish liberators have been widely celebrated—and rightly so.
But Sinjar’s defenders might not have made it to December if not for the Iraqi air force.
These Kurdish snipers
This fall when Cetti-Roberts first tried to get up to Mount Sinjar by traveling through Syria, Islamic State militants took control of ground route up to the mountain. With the mountain cut off, he instead went the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Rabia.
While there, he shot photos of a team of female snipers in action. One of the fighters in the photos—a Kurdish combat photographer named Mazloum—died shortly afterwards. An Islamic State sniper shot him on the roof of the building where Matt slept. The story was one of our best of 2014.
But we didn’t expect what happened next. The above photo of a sniper duel on the Iraqi-Syrian border went viral when someone claimed that the female spotter was Nalin Afrin—the commander of YPG forces in Kobane … all the way on the Syrian-Turkish border.
We wrote that that was highly unlikely.
The confusion came full circle when Kurdish media outlet Rudaw interviewed Matt and I about the whole thing. At the end of the day, the women in the photo are still ice-cold lady snipers, even if they aren’t Afrin. There’s nothing wrong with the true story.
Adnan Muhammad Ali
When Islamic State took Mosul, many thousands of residents fled. The refugees included Shias and Yezidis escaping slaughter, Christians who faced a religious tax and Sunnis who wanted no part of Islamic State’s oppressive rule.
Many of the refugees escaped to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Adnan Muhammed Ali is a leader in Bahari Taza, a small Kurdish village near the Iranian border. Ali has made his personal mission to care for the refugees. He has spent his own money and also urged his people to volunteer their time.
They’ve taken in Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Sunnis, Shias and Christians. Members of all groups crowd into unfinished houses and makeshift shelters. When we asked Ali why he and his people taken in non-Kurds, he seemed surprised by the question. He said he didn’t see how he could do anything else.
Many other Kurds feel the same, but as the war drags on, anti-Arab sentiment is on the rise in Kurdish lands. That’s made life complicated for Arab refugees.
Ali talked to the media, but shunned the spotlight. He said he didn’t want the story to be about him, but about the refugees and their needs.
The men who saved this Yezidi woman
In taking Sinjar, the militants kidnapped thousands of women and girls. The fighters took many of them to Mosul to sell as slaves.
Amsha Ali, just 19 years old, was one of them. Her story is a tragic one. She lost her husband and many of her loved ones in the invasion. A cruel fighter purchased her in Mosul but she managed to escape with her son.
As she and her boy wandered the dark streets of Mosul at night, a Sunni Arab man stopped them and asked who they were.
Running out of options, Ali told the truth. But the man wasn’t an Islamic State supporter—he took the young Yezidis to to his house and hid them for several days.
The Arab secretly hired a Kurdish driver to smuggle Ali and her son out of the city. The driver gave Ali his own wife’s ID card to help the Yezidi pass as a Sunni and took her to the Peshmerga, who called her brother in Dohuk.
It’s easy to blame Iraq’s woes on the inability of Iraqis of different ethnicity and sect to work together. Iraqi politicians have indeed acted petty, obstinate and selfish. And the Iraqi army generals who abandoned their troops in Mosul truly are cowards.
But somehow, a Sunni Arab and a Kurd were able to see past their differences—and risk their lives—to help a scared young Yezidi mother and her child. Their actions prove that not everyone in Iraq is like the politicians and generals. Many Iraqis are brave, compassionate and honorable.