MAKHMUR, IRAQ // With US Humvees, heavy artillery and caches of small weapons, Maj Gen Zrian Wassan’s peshmerga fighters appear well equipped in the fight against ISIL.
But the arms were not supplied by Washington or another foreign power as Iraq’s Kurds have been demanding. The vehicles, machine guns and howitzers were captured from ISIL in recent battles in western Kurdistan.
The extremist group took the weapons from Iraq’s military, which was supplied and trained by the US, but abandoned the arsenal during ISIL’s lightning assault in June.
Now, with ISIL retreating, some of those spoils have fallen into the hands of their third owners – 5,000 peshmerga fighters under Gen Wassan’s command. He now goes to war in a US-built Badger light-armoured vehicle originally supplied to the Iraqi army from the Americans and heralded for its ability to protect 10 occupants from mine blasts. A new one would cost nearly half a million dollars.
Gen Wassan’s was free courtesy of an attack by his forces on ISIL positions.
“It has a machine gun fixed to the top,” he said with a smile from his base in the village of Makhmur.
His forces are now using 10 Humvees, 20 other vehicles and a 155mm howitzer – all American equipment either abandoned or captured from ISIL, he said.
The Kurds also captured a fleet of four-wheel-drive vehicles and more than 100 Kalashnikov rifles and PKC-47 machine guns.
“These Humvees have helped us stage attacks because they’re armoured,” said Gen Wassan before jokingly thanking the United States for the vehicles.
“America gave them to the Iraqi military and then Daash [ISIL] took them and now we have them.”
The circuitous route of the weapons highlights how the Iraqi battlefield has become awash in foreign-supplied arms that ISIL and peshmerga forces are using on each other after the Islamist militants attacked the autonomous Kurdish region last month.
The Kurds have asked for new and more advanced weapons from the international coalition of Western and Arab powers assembled by Washington to attack ISIL strongholds in Iraq and Syria. That coalition, which includes the UAE, is coordinating airstrikes in Iraq and in the future, possibly Syria, while training fighters from both countries.
The peshmerga are among those who will receive training, but they said their weapons stocks are ageing and insufficient, forcing them to work with Soviet-era artillery, machine guns and ammunition mostly captured in battles with Iraqi soldiers during Saddam Hussein’s rule.
“Compared to French ones, this thing is a toy,” said Col Salim Surshe, referring to a 120mm weapon used by his squad of 400 men in Makhmur.
He wants modern western guns for his artillery unit which currently fights with weapons made during the Cold War by Eastern Bloc countries.
Officials from the US and other countries are wary of arming the peshmerga with advanced weapons for fear of angering the Iraqi government.
Kurdistan is seeking to become an independent state and government in Baghdad does not want the region, which has large oil reserves, to be better armed than its own forces.
“Iraq’s army abandoned to Daash all these American weapons, and yet the Americans don’t want to give them to the Kurds?” said Bekas Hamadin, 30, a peshmerga soldier from Erbil, the Kurd’s regional capital.
He was holding a US-made M-16 rifle that he bought from a weapons bazaar in Erbil – one of scores of American machine guns, flak jackets and uniforms available in markets after Iraq’s military jettisoned them in June.
“I bought it for US$3,000 [Dh11,000],” he said of the weapon, slung over his shoulder.
A host of countries were compelled to pledge arms to the Kurds following ISIL’s lightning advance that reached Makhmur last month.
That attack brought the group within striking distance of Erbil. It was an embarrassing defeat for their peshmerga forces, usually regarded as a formidable fighting force.
Last week, Britain announced it would provide them with heavy machine guns and half-a-million rounds of ammunition. Germany said it would send hundreds of anti-tank weapons to help the peshmerga fend off ISIL’s captured tanks.
Kurdish officials say such arms have been slow to arrive, with no evidence that they had reached the front line in Makhmur.
Kurdistan’s peshmerga minister, Mustafa Sayid Qadir, said his fighters had received “medium-sized weapons”, but “what we have received isn’t enough”, the Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported this week.
A commander of one of the divisions fighting in Makhmur, Maj Gen Mariwan Abdel-Kader, said none of his troops had received any of the promised munitions. Nor have they received flak jackets and other gear, such as night-vision goggles, which also have been promised by foreign powers.
His forces have battled hard over the past month, taking back Makhmur from ISIL and gradually ridding Kurdish and Arab villages in the area from the group’s grip.
He said the operation would have been faster, and possibly less deadly for his troops, had they been better equipped. Commanders say about a dozen peshmerga stationed here have been killed.
“Daash is using advanced American weapons on us. They have tanks. They have armoured-personnel carriers. We need the weapons to quickly destroy those things.”
The recent capture of military hardware from ISIL means at least some his forces now have their hands on more advanced equipment.
Humvees rumbled along on Makhmur’s boulevards, along with gleaming Toyota Land Cruisers and pick-up trucks that once shuttled ISIL fighters to battle. Now they are shuttling peshmerga, said Maj Gen Wassan.
“We are using these to the best of our ability, but it would be better if we could get them directly from America and France.”
This article was edited to clarify that Gen Wassan forces captured 20 vehicles from ISIL, not just Badger vehicles.