Until last week, when he was relieved of his post due to health reasons, Mahmoud Sangawi was the commander of Peshmerga forces in the “disputed territories,” the Kurdish-populated areas outside the Kurdistan Region’s official borders. Sangawi, a senior official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), spoke to Rudaw TV about the reasons for the rapid fall of Mosul about two weeks ago to insurgents who include the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s ousted regime. He spoke about the mistrust between the Peshmerga forces and Iraq’s Shiite-led government, warning that after dealing with the ISIS Baghdad will turn its guns on the Kurds, and that the militants also plan to attack the Kurdistan Region. Here is an edited transcript of his interview:
Rudaw: As a commander and a veteran Peshmerga, how was it possible for the ISIS forces to control Mosul in such a short time?
Mahmoud Sangawi: Iraq is a country which is held together by force. It consists of Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds. Each possesses a different ideology. The British established this country by force. Throughout history, the successive Iraqi regimes used force against Kurds and Shiites, and when the Shiites took over power they tried to take revenge on Sunnis.
Rudaw: Do you think the Sunnis have got their revenge as well?
Mahmoud Sangawi: Yes, they have. They might even have regional support, because a tribal force cannot destroy an army of a state within a few days. However, the Iraqi army was very weak. The commanders were all thieves and gangsters. Some commanders had 500 men, but only 100 were on duty and the payments of the rest would go to the commander. The Iraqi army was not established on professional grounds, which is why they cannot fight. Now, Sunnis think they have a right cause and consider Shiites as conquerors. The situation of the Iraqi army in Khanaqin and Kirkuk is worse than what happened in Mosul.
Rudaw: By whose order were you put in charge of Peshmerga forces in Khanaqin and Jalawla?
Mahmoud Sangawi: I was the head of the PUK branch for several years. During that time I was also in charge of the armed forces in the area. Therefore, the ministry of Peshmerga tasked me to supervise forces.
Rudaw: Do you supervise forces of all parties?
Mahmoud Sangawi: Yes, I supervise all armed forces in the area.
Rudaw: How far has ISIS advanced, and how is the security situation in the area?
Mahmoud Sangawi: The security situation is very bad. The Iraqi government has completely collapsed in Jalawla, Qaratapa, Sadiyah, Mandali and other areas.
Rudaw: Has the Iraqi army withdrawn from those areas?
Mahmoud Sangawi: Yes, it has.
Rudaw: Have Peshmerga forces replaced the Iraqi army in the area?
Mahmoud Sangawi: Yes. In Qaratapa and Jalawla Peshmerga forces have replaced the Iraqi army, but Sadiyah is under the control of ISIS.
Rudaw: Why did the Iraqi army bombard Peshmerga forces a few days ago?
Mahmoud Sangawi: An (Iraqi) force was mobilized to rescue the Iraqi army in the area. Peshmerga forces were already supporting the rescue process. When the new force arrived it started shelling Peshmerga forces, and their helicopter continued to fire at us.
Rudaw: Did the Iraqi government apologize for that?
Mahmoud Sangawi: They did not say anything. Hadi Ameri (Iraqi minister and militia leader) called (Kurdish commander) Hussein Mansour, saying they made a mistake. Mansour was not convinced that it was a mistake, and told Ameri that 21 bombs were fired at Peshmerga forces, and that their helicopter fired at Kurdish forces.
Rudaw: In the areas under your supervision, how much of the Kurdish land is under your control and how much is controlled by the Iraqi government?
Mahmoud Sangawi: I can’t tell you exactly, but we are 90 kilometers away from Mandali. Mandali is under control of the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army is broken and we don’t want to create further problems for them. We hope they stay there, because if they leave the area ISIS might take advantage of it.
Rudaw: Do you think Peshmerga forces can retake Sadiyah?
Mahmoud Sangawi: We have not mobilized our forces yet. We can bombard the town, but we have not done that. Our border is the Hamreen Mountain, which is beyond Sadiyah. Sadiyah is a Kurdish city.
Rudaw: Recently, most of the Kurdish residents of Sadiyah sought shelter in Khanaqin. Do you think they will go back later?
Mahmoud Sangawi: It is the land of their fathers and grandfathers. As soon as it is free, people will return to their hometown. The names of all Sadiyah neighborhoods and mosques are Kurdish. The grave of Mahmud Pasha lays in Sadiyah and his palace still stands there.
Rudaw: That area shares borders with Iran and is dominantly a Shiite area. What has Iran done to help the Shiites?
Mahmoud Sangawi: It is unfortunate for them to be Kurds and Shiites, because neither Maliki nor Iran supports them. They are all killed and they have left their lands.
Rudaw: There was some news that (Iranian commander) Qassem Soleimani visited the area and met with you. Is this true?
Mahmoud Sangawi: Not at all. No one visited us. He is said to have visited Baghdad and it is Iran’s right to defend them, because they are Shiites.
Rudaw: Are you saying just because they are Shiites they can interfere in the affairs of another country?
Mahmoud Sangawi: Yes. Otherwise, why would Iran interfere in the south of Lebanon? Iran supports Shiites in Iraq.
Rudaw: Do you consider the Iraqi Army an invader?
Mahmoud Sangawi: I can never mention the term “disputed territories” to describe the areas that are not under the control of Kurdistan Region, I call them the invaded areas of Kurdistan.
Rudaw: If they are an invader army, why would the Peshmerga forces in this area coordinate with them?
Mahmoud Sangawi: We have a common enemy; otherwise there is no difference between ISIS and Maliki.
Rudaw: It is said that, because of PUK’s relations with Iran, it is reluctant to make a decision whether to fight ISIS or not. Is that true?
Mahmoud Sangawi: Don’t you see that we are in fighting with ISIS, which is a terrorist group. Regardless of our relations with Maliki, we have been in fighting with ISIS. ISIS is a collection of Islamic forces that we used to fight in the Sharazur area.
Rudaw: How are PUK’s relations with Maliki now?
Mahmoud Sangawi: We don’t have good relations now. During the commemoration of the assassination of Baqir Hakim, Barham Salih went to Baghdad and met Maliki. Whether we see them or not, they keep lying.
Rudaw: Do you think Maliki lies?
Mahmoud Sangawi: Yes he lies, after ISIS he will fight us.
Rudaw: Recently, the world media have been talking about the division of Iraq after this war into three countries. Do you think this will happen?
Mahmoud Sangawi: I don’t know if it is going to happen now, but eventually it must happen. The future of Iraq is three federal regions for Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. A central government and another Saddam are never acceptable.
Rudaw: The Kurdistan Region presidency has announced that Peshmerga forces will not attack unless they are attacked. As a military commander in this area, do you think ISIS will attack Kurdistan?
Mahmoud Sangawi: Yes. ISIS has plans to attack Kurdistan, as it is currently attacking Jalawla.
Rudaw: How long will Peshmerga forces remain in those areas?
Mahmoud Sangawi: We are not leaving, it is our land, and we have not invaded anyone’s land.
Rudaw: It is said that Peshmerga forces are 50 kilometers away from Hamreen, and that if they are allowed by politicians they can advance to Hamreen. What do you think?
Mahmoud Sangawi: I don’t think Peshmerga forces should advance at this time. We have to consolidate our presence in the areas we have liberated. Maybe another stage is needed to take control of all Kurdish land.
Rudaw: In the eighth cabinet, the Peshmerga minister is a senior member of the Change Movement (Gorran), as a commander. Are you ready to obey his command?
Mahmoud Sangawi: If a minister thinks and acts as a Kurd and as a commander of Peshmerga forces, it is very normal for me to obey his command, because he represents the Kurdistan Region, not the Change Movement. I think Sheikh Jaafar, the previous minister of Peshmerga, treated all Peshmerga forces equally.