We Witnessed Kurdish Troops Take the Offensive
Islamic State leaves behind so many IEDs the peshmerga bulldoze villages
As the sun rose in the early morning hours of Friday, Sept. 11, hundreds of Kurdish fighting vehicles started their engines. Humvees, tanks and even cherry pickers formed a long line and began moving out. Their destination — Islamic State-held territory.
Islamic State, the Sunni extremist group that controls nearly half of Iraq, swept into this region near the village of Zaghar, South Kirkuk, in August 2014. The peshmerga — the name here for Kurdish soldiers — wanted it back.
Th Kurdish military carefully planned the operation at least a week ahead of time, dividing thousands of men across three different fronts and surrounding a region more than 150 square kilometers in size. The peshmerga opted for a large deployment of forces, not knowing what they would find during the advance.
They were successful in securing Dusera heights and a stretch of the Kirkuk-Baghdad highway. But the favorable outcome came with a high price. At least seven peshmerga soldiers were killed and 45 injured. Among the wounded was Muhammad Haji Mahmoud, a well-known peshmerga commander and leader of the Kurdish Socialist Party.
The Daesh — the Arabic acronym for Islamic State — seemed to have put in place what military strategists call a defense-in-depth strategy. The idea is to yield space for time, delay the peshmerga’s advance, avoid being outflanked and cause as many casualties as possible.
One key part of the strategy — litter the terrain with improvised explosive devices.
Sgt. Abdullah Pshitiwan, a member of an explosive ordnance demolition unit in the peshmerga’s Third Battalion, sat on a Humvee while smoking a cigarette. “If they were men, they would stay here and fight,” he said, referring to Islamic State.
An IED had just gone off a few yards in front of him. The blast hit six Kurdish soldiers. Four of them were taken away on stretchers.
By 7:30 a.m., two hours after leaving Zaghar, the column had moved no more than a mile. The EOD team had to carefully search every inch of the paved road, while other vehicles formed another column and moved parallel in the field trying to speed up the advance.
An Islamic State flag waved near to where Pshitiwan sat smoking, but nobody dared go and retrieve it. The flag was booby-trapped with tripwires that would detonate more IEDs the moment someone stepped close enough.
In addition to trip wire and pressure plate-detonated IEDs, some bombs went off after being triggered remotely, most likely cellular phones. A few minutes later, a small crowd gathered around a soldier with his face covered with a green balaclava. Someone started punching him — others kicked him.
“He is a spy,” they said, accusing him of giving away the peshmerga’s positions to Islamic State. The Asayish, the Kurdish intelligence service, took him away.
As the convoy advanced and more IEDs went off, the temperature rose to at least 113 degrees Fahrenheit. A warm wind blew sand and dust. Every soldier tried to find some rest in the shade of the vehicles.
The column stopped again when roughly 30 people waving a large white flag and a flock of sheep arrived at an intersection. Behind them were 14 trucks loaded with their belongings. They already knew their village was a target and was going to be destroyed as soon as the peshmerga seized it.
The soldiers searched the villagers one by one for explosives — just in case any were suicide bombers.
The women wore head scarves and some had colorful clothes, though each had a black piece of cloth. No suicide bombers. But after at least an hour, Asayish had interrogated them and established they were Daesh supporters — then took them away.
Soon after the encounter at the crossroads, the peshmerga arrived to the final village to be secured that day, a handful of clay houses. Soldiers carefully entered some of the buildings and looted what was left behind, mainly gas tanks and small objects such as a wood case with a Quran in it.
A few minutes later, bulldozers began tearing down everything.
“It’s too dangerous, the place is full of explosives and if we wouldn’t destroy this village Daesh might come back at some point,” a major overlooking the operation said.
The operation was finished by 1:30 in the afternoon. On the way back to Zaghar a huge crowd gathered around a ditch. A body of a jihadi was lying there as people in the crowd snapped pictures. Some even started kicking it. Everybody cursed at it.
“We will never give in,” a Kurdish soldier said.
Regaining Kirkuk has been a dream for decades. Decades ago, Saddam Hussein attempted to forcibly change the population demographics of the area from Kurds to Arabs. Now that the peshmerga control it, they have a strong bargaining position over Baghdad if the Iraqi government ever wants it back.