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The bloody carnage wrought by Al Qaeda-aligned militants in their quest to establish a caliphate that spans portions of Iraq and Syria has left Kurds disgusted and ready to defend to the death their northern lands — even with outdated, often unreliable weapons.
Although the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — a marauding army of Sunni Muslim jihadists — has turned south toward Baghdad, Kurds in the semi-autonomous oil-rich northeast expect that they may have to face their fellow Sunnis, who left a trail of death and destruction in overrunning the Iraqi army in taking the cities of Tikrit and Mosul.
“It is a campaign of barbarism,” one Kurdish fighter said of the ISIS pillaging. “They want to destroy everything — and kill the unbelievers. As Kurds, as human beings, we are absolutely shocked by the way they are treating others — even prisoners of war."
Peshmerga troops recoil as they discuss the atrocities being committed by ISIS, and fully realize that the stories of the decapitated bodies of soldiers lining roads and Shia Muslims being executed in front of their families are designed to sow fear into the hearts of enemies.
Phrases such as "Death upon thousands," "Slaughtering like animals" and "No mercy" combine on social media with graphic videos to cement ISIS's reputation for ferocity. Whether exaggerated or not, the brutality only makes ISIS all the more formidable. Iraqi forces estimated at more than 30,000 fled without firing even a bullet in the face of an onslaught by an ISIS army believed to number about 800.
Thousands of the routed soldiers fled to Kurdistan's largest city, Erbil, where they live in camps and tell of the havoc wreaked by the ISIS fighters.
"This is part of their tactics to scare the Shia majority so they are fearful to fight,” said one Kurdish government official. “They want to create panic — this is what they thrive on, these guys thrive on outdoing each other on who can be the most brutal — who can kill the most people.”
The terrorist army, which seeks to establish a caliphate, or nation under strict Muslim law, in northern Iraq and Syria, is flush with stolen cash and seized U.S. weaponry after its recent conquests. Peshmerga soldiers said their weapons include a handful of tanks and many AK-47s, although they are older models and in many cases unworkable. Given the tenuous relationship Kurds have with the central government in Baghdad — as well as that city's own needs — no weapons are forthcoming from the Iraqi government. And foreign nations are hesitant to provide weapons to the army of a semi-autonomous government in an unstable region.
While the Kurds have no answer for the ISIS's 120mm artillery, mortars, Humvees and helicopters, they fear the group's fanaticism itself the most. The willingness of ISIS members to mount suicide attacks gives it a huge tactical advantage.
“This is their greatest weapon — we can’t compete with that,” one Peshmerga soldier said. "It is the force of our patriotism, against the force of their religion.”
Benjamin Hall is a freelance journalist currently embedded with Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. Follow him on Twitter: @BorderlineN