Peshmerga forces celebrate victories on the first day of the Mosul offensive, October 17, on the Khazir front. Photo: Farzin Hassan/Rudaw
Former Iraqi prime minister, and current vice president, Nouri al-Maliki is known for making bellicose and dismissive remarks about the Kurdistan Region and its President Masoud Barzani. However, his latest criticism of the region's Kurdish Peshmerga forces is a new low.
“He [Barzani] knows Peshmerga did not play any role in the fight against the Islamic State, that Erbil would have been given up to ISIS if it were not for the help of Iraqi, Iranian and US aviation. They have no real force,” Maliki told Sputnik News on his recent visit to Russia.
Iran did provide Kurdistan with small arms in August 2014 when ISIS briefly threatened the region's capital Erbil. That move was in Tehran's own self-interest since Kurdistan serves as a de-facto bulwark standing between its own frontiers and ISIS.
The Iranian “aviation” which Maliki speaks of was likely a reference to the speedy Iranian delivery of a handful of Russian-made Su-25 attack planes to Baghdad from their own arsenal during that fateful summer – planes which Iran initially acquired when Saddam Hussein surprisingly evacuated his air force to Iran in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
However, these planes were used primarily for the defense of Baghdad and did not come to Erbil's aid, nor did any Iraqi aircraft. US warplanes did fire the opening salvos of America's war against ISIS in defense of the Kurdish capital when it was threatened by US-made artillery guns, which the militants captured from the Iraqi Army’s arsenal.
The security and stability of Kurdistan throughout the war provided American and Iraqi helicopters a safe and strategic launchpad from which to support ground operations against the militants.
Maliki's dismissal of the Kurdish forces as only capable when operating under a US aerial umbrella is also hypocritical. When Ramadi was recaptured by Iraqi forces in January 2016 he downplayed the US contribution, not evening mentioning Washington's crucial air support to that operation, while highlighting the secondary role the Iraqi Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries played.
Regarding Mosul he argues that the main credit belongs to the Iraqi Army, but at least this time acknowledged that the Americans “supported us with their aviation.”
Were it not for the Peshmerga, which Maliki left lightly armed and wanted to place under Baghdad's command and control when he was in power, ISIS may well have captured Kirkuk in June 2014 – which the Iraqi Army under Maliki's command were unable to defend at a critical point in time.
Peshmerga sacrifices also prevented ISIS from capturing the strategic Makhmour Front. If it weren't for these sacrifices much more Iraqi blood would have had to be spilled in order to secure that front as a launchpad for the Mosul operation.
In striking contrast, the former Iraqi premier often speaks glowingly of the Hashd al-Shaabi and Iranian contributions to the ISIS war effort. The Hashd did indeed initially hold the line against ISIS in places like Samarra when most regular units of the Iraqi Army, paralyzed by widespread corruption under Maliki's watch, were incapable of fighting. The Hashd therefore deserve credit and recognition at least for this.
Nevertheless, the paramilitaries demonstrated their shortcomings as a fighting force when they attempted to fight ISIS without the regular army and US air support. They failed to capture Tikrit on their own in early 2015 and the village of Bashir in Kirkuk in 2016. The sectarian nature of groups within the Hashd also meant they were a force that would do more harm than good when it came to removing ISIS from Sunni-majority cities, which is the primary reason the US successfully pushed for their exclusion from the Mosul operation.
Maliki's divisive nature may well have made the historic cooperation reached between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga on the eve of the Mosul operation impossible had he still been prime minister, which would have further complicated that fight and possibly even further delayed that operation.
As of mid-July, the Peshmerga lost 1,745 troops – with another 10,000 injured – defending their region against ISIS, repelling the threat to their homeland and paving the way for Iraq's recapture of Mosul in the process. This deserves acknowledgement and credit from the former Iraqi prime minister rather than derision and crass revisionism of recent history.