US Lt. General Stephen Townsend speaks from Baghdad via teleconference to Pentagon reporters on August 31. Photo: US DoD
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — The commander of the global coalition’s forces in Iraq and Syria expressed that Kurdish Peshmerga have done “incredible work” in the fight against ISIS so far, and he is expecting “more contributions” in the offensive to retake Hawija.
“So people probably don't have a good appreciation for this, but I certainly do,” US Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said during a Pentagon press conference on Thursday. “The Peshmerga were instrumental in stopping the onslaught of ISIS in 2014 and 2015. Across much of northern Iraq, it was the Kurdish Peshmerga who held the line.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi praised forces involved in the liberation of Tal Afar and all of Nineveh on Thursday, mentioning various Iraqi security units by name including the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries, but not the Kurdish Peshmerga.
The three-star US general who will pass his command on to Army Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II next week, noted the defensive lines which Peshmerga held.
“And now, most recently, in the Battle of Tal Afar, I had mentioned earlier that they've killed somewhere between 130, 170, and with some loss to Peshmerga,” said Townsend.
“They've held a stalwart defense then north of Tal Afar and have shaped the battlefield there and attrited the escaping enemy to a significant degree.”
The commander said he saw Peshmerga do “incredible work” for the liberation of Mosul, adding they coordinated “very effectively and constructively with the Iraqi security forces. They allowed the Iraqi security forces to stage for the attack in Kurdish-held areas.”
Townsend acknowledged the nearly daily reports of Kurdish security and Peshmerga forces protecting the Kurdistan Region from extremists.
“And so they've been holding that line ever since, for three years. And I think people kind of lose sight of that. It seems like the Kurds aren't doing anything — they're defending still, across hundreds of kilometers of Iraq, in contact with ISIS every day.”
Looking forward in northern Iraq, ISIS still holds the Sunni city of Hawija, southwest of Kirkuk. The offensive has been long delayed and the coalition has said they are ready to provide support wherever, as soon as Abadi, who is also commander in chief of Iraq’s armed forces, gives the order.
“So, I am pretty happy with the contributions of the Peshmerga and there will be more contributions as we look towards Hawija, which is contained to the east entirely by the Kurdish Peshmerga.”
Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim said on Sunday that the operation to retake Hawija from ISIS may not be next.
Karim called a decision by the Iraqi PM to postpone the Hawija operation a “crime” committed against the people of Hawija and Kirkuk.
He said the Kurdish Peshmerga have always stated they are prepared to join in the military operation and without the participation of the Peshmerga, it is not possible for Iraqi forces to liberate the entire district from ISIS.
Zaki Kamal, a Hashd al-Shaabi commander, told Rudaw in late-July that they were re-enforcing their units in the Bashir area near Hawija, so they are ready for “whenever a zero hour is set.”
A high-ranking Peshmerga official expressed he has found it hard to deal with or coordinate with Hashd al-Shaabi forces, as they aren't unified.
"The Hashd al-Shaabi forces are more so groupings and of course each of these groups belong to a certain party," said the official. "Dealing with them is a little bit hard."
Thus far, Kurdish Peshmerga and the Hashd have avoided all-out fighting, but maintain bordering frontlines in places like Hawija, Shingal, and Tuz Khurmatu.
Since the fight with ISIS militants began more than three years ago, the Peshmerga have lost 1,779 lives and sustained 10,158 injuries, Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani revealed on Tuesday.
Iraq does not publicly disclose casualty figures for its security forces.