Vice News reports: In the initial stages of its Iraq offensive, the Islamic State had tried to make good on its threat of marching south to the capital of Baghdad, leaving Kurdish territory unthreatened. When progress stalled, leaders decided to push north, catching a complacent peshmerga off-guard. “ISIS in the beginning wanted to attack Baghdad, but changed their mind to Kurdistan,” Hikmat told VICE News. “That caught us by surprise.”
Islamic State tactics were another unpleasant shock. While the peshmerga had fought in counter-insurgency operations alongside US troops after the 2003 invasion, they had, for the most part, been trained to deal with a large organized army like Hussein’s. The fanatical and well-equipped Islamic State is very different, and while not numerically superior to the Kurds, has a fleeting, but important advantage against them: The militants can concentrate wherever they want — usually a weak spot — and quickly launch an attack. The peshmerga, meanwhile — which are showing no inclination to expand beyond their already overstretched borders — cannot. Basic logistics means that by using such tactics, the Islamic State is able to achieve at least a period of concentrated battlefield superiority before reinforcements arrive.
The strategy has made the militants difficult to handle, says Ali Faté, a peshmerga veteran who now commands the front at the town of Makhmour, which was seized by IS last week, then retaken by Kurdish forces. “The Islamic State war is something new and very different, it’s neither a gang war nor highly organized… Until we get an idea of weapons and tactics, we expect some losses… and even the weapons used are very different from those used by [Saddam Hussein’s] Iraqi army.”
The weapons are also vastly superior. Islamic State fighters are well armed with heavy modern weaponry and armored vehicles, partly as a result of the ease with which they routed the US-trained and supplied Iraqi army and plundered their gear, along with significant sums of money. That equipment, much of it American-made, includes tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and huge supplies of ammunition. The group had already appropriated Syrian army munitions via the same process.
“I want to stress this point, the Iraqi government left weapons and money for ISIS to get strong,” Hikmat says. “The same happened in Syria — so many weapons were left there for them by the Syrian army.”
Peshmerga forces, meanwhile, are mainly equipped with Soviet-era weapons looted from the Iraqi army during the 2003 US-led invasion. And ammunition is short. “We have had many promises and pledges of help, but we are short of bullets. We are not generous with them to our fighters or when firing at our enemies,” a source close to senior peshmerga commanders who spoke on the condition of anonymity told VICE News.
The Islamic State gained more than weapons from its fighting in Syria though. Its men are battle-hardened and experienced. The peshmerga, meanwhile had not faced a major test since Hussein was removed from power. Iraqi Kurdistan even remained peaceful while sectarian violence gripped the rest of Iraq in 2006 and 2007.
As a result, most of the veterans are gone. Newer recruits have, for the most part, little or no experience in battle. [Continue reading…]