MOSUL, Iraq – Under a gloomy late November sky that dumped cold rain on their frontline fighting position overlooking Mosul Dam, some 16 Peshmerga fighters mustered around a small hut – the only visible means of protection from enemy fire – while others hovered around a small campfire for warmth.
Just hours earlier, the road leading into the Kurdish army's base was hit by artillery from Islamic State – or “Daesh” as it is known in the Middle East, forcing some closures. But the fighters were calm and collected – sharing jokes and cigarettes ahead of another long and cold night protecting their cherished land in the northern part of this embattled land.
“Now we know their key points and from where they try to attack us. It’s weather like now – the fog – over them that allows them not to be seen by the planes,” one high-ranking Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) official, who left an office job to fight on the frontlines with the Peshmerga, told FoxNews.com in reference to the war against the jihadist army. “When it is raining, it is a good time for them to start attacking. At the beginning, the villages in Iraq were communicating and helping them attack, they shot at us front and back. But the villagers soon realized that these people were not good. They were not human.”
The Peshmerga fighters don a mishmash of camouflage clothes, and wield whatever guns they can get their hands on. Their formal training is limited, and their best attributes are instinct and will.
“We have principles. We were brought up on those principles and an innate drive to serve. We treat Kurdistan like our second mother,” explains the official, who is a high-value target and thus asked to remain unnamed. “If you do something day after day you learn and we learn how to fight very fast.”
“If ISIS is an existential threat as the Iraqis claim; and if it really threatens U.S. interests abroad and its security at home then more must be done to arm the Peshmerga.”
- Kurdish military official
The Peshmerga – whose name literally translates to “those who face death” – began as something of a mountain militia in the 1920s when the push for Kurdish independence began. In recent decades, they faced unrelenting persecution from the Ba'ath loyalists of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. One Peshmerga fighter told FoxNews.com they don’t suffer from “psychological issues” pertaining to combat because they have grown up around fighting and have developed an early understanding that it is “just what we have to do.” While the issue of possible PTSD garners little – if any – mainstream attention, one daughter of a retired Peshmerger fighter said at least in her experience growing up, she witnessed the mental anguishes of battle.
The Peshmerga soldiers range from around 18 to over 70 years old, with many coming out of retirement in the quest to defeat the ISIS threat. During days of intense conflict, the Peshmerga are lucky to return to their base for two or three hours of sleep and a quick bite to eat, before returning to their fighting locus. As it stands, a majority of fighters are not soldiers but what they call “security advisors.” They don’t take a salary and have volunteered simply out of devotion.
“There is a Special Forces that has been arranged for these people that have come in, they don’t register their names and don’t sign contracts. They just want to serve Kurdistan,” the official said.
Due to a limited supply of weapons, volunteers often have to bring their own firearms – usually a basic AK-47 – with the M4 and M16 rifles, BKC—an Iraqi clone of the Soviet PKM machine gun – and the DshK heavy machine gun, called the “doshka” in Iraq, being the staple weapons used in the battle against much better equipped opponents.
Despite their lack of advanced technology, the Peshmerga remain acutely aware of precisely how many Islamic State fighters they take out each night at battle, and exactly where in the close vicinity those dead bodies lay even days after the fact – subject to the elements and hungry wild dogs. Although they are outgunned, the Kurdish fighters keep their wits about them, a tactical advantage over the enemy. One Peshmerga soldier explained how Islamic State commanders often drug young fighters with “special tablets” that leave them disoriented and shooting wildly, sometimes taking several rounds before they go down.
“For those who survive, when they realize what they have done they sometime regret,” acknowledged the official.
The Peshmerga also rely on a growing intelligence-gathering network that supplies logistical support to those who battle in the field.
“We have secret service inside ISIS-controlled villages in Mosul and other places passing information, some are even living with ISIS and they don’t know,” the official said.
U.S. airstrikes are said to have helped Kurdish and Iraqi government forces seize control of the critical Mosul Dam in late August after Islamic State seized the area weeks earlier. Before Islamic State, the Tigris River dam was operated and controlled by around 1,200 Iraqi families. Just more than half have since returned, amid fears the almost two-mile long dam could be deliberately blown up to flood Mosul, some 30 miles downstream, and even Baghdad.
Built exclusively for Hussein in the early 1980s, the dam, according to a 2006 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report is particularly dangerous and “constructed on a very poor foundation,” and U.S. authorities subsequently spent tens of millions on interim fixes.
Much of the Kurdish population now view the United States of America as their only dependable ally in the ongoing war against the terrorist organization – and their desperation to be supplied with American equipment and weapons remains the eclipsing message.
“The airstrikes are good, but we need weapons,” stressed the official, dismissing the notion that U.S. ground troops are the ultimate answer. “We already have military on the ground, but we’re fighting an enemy that has acquired all the sophisticated U.S. weapons that went to the Iraqis and now ISIS has them. This isn’t a balanced fight.”
Due to internal conflict over oil exports between the semi-autonomous KRG and the Iraqi Central Government, the Kurds have not received the billions of dollars in military supplies since the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Kurdish region is legally entitled to 17.5 percent of the Baghdad budget, but for almost a year, it has not received its portion. Kurds do not control their air space and not allowed to purchase their own weapons and supplies without approval from the Central Government.
“We tried to buy weapons from the outside, from places like Russia and America but the Foreign Ministry wouldn’t allow it,” the official explained. “The Iraqi government hasn’t even given us one single bullet.”
Earlier this fall, an agreement between the two Iraq-based governments was announced, stating that the KRG should send 250,000 barrels of oil per day to the central government and in turn receive its budgetary share as part of the Iraqi defense system, but according to one official very close to KRG President Masoud Barzani, funds have not been disbursed.
Western powers view the Kurds as a crucial safeguard against further Islamic State advances, but in order to take the offensive, the Peshmerga say they need more help.
“The United States really needs to think about the message it is sending,” added the KRG official. “If ISIS is an existential threat as the Iraqis claim; and if it really threatens U.S. interests abroad and its security at home then more must be done to arm the Peshmerga.”
Mylee Cardenas contributed to this report
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay