Canine "Bob" (cover) is trained in explosive detection for the Kurdistan Region's Peshmerga. He was donated through the Marshall Legacy Institute and trained by the K9 Global Training Academy, both based in the United States. Photo: Rudaw TV
BAHARKA, Kurdistan Region — "We, at the Directorate of Reform, are in need of experienced cadre both within and outside the Ministry in order to execute the projects perfectly and advance the defense power and administration of the Peshmerga Forces."
Those were the remarks made by Maj. Gen. Dlair Miran, the ministry's director of General Reform, at the first Conference for Peshmerga Reform attended by acting Peshmerga Minister Karim Sinjari, and US, British, and German military advisors and experts on Monday.
Foreign militaries are necessitating the high-level reforms to unify and professionalize the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) defense forces, the Peshmerga. A 10-year program will improve the efficiency and streamline logistical support within the ministry.
The biggest obstacle to reform is true unification — predominately by units which put political allegiance above national unity, as has been demonstrated repeatedly through the Iran-Iraq war, the Kurdish civil war, and most recently in the Kirkuk events of 2017 and in security stabilization in Shingal.
A canine and his Peshmerga handler demonstrate how they work together to detect possible mines and IEDs.
However, that disunity was not evident at a recent demonstration by a mixed force of Peshmerga who have been assigned to its K9 unit based in Erbil focusing on explosive detection.
Shamel Saleh joined the Peshmerga three years ago because of the ISIS threat. "Nationalistic sentiment" kept his morale high through times with little food and water, and the extreme heat and cold.
"I felt that Kurds needed Peshmerga, someone that could defend it. That is why I became a Peshmerga," he said.
His father and four brothers have also served with the Kurdish force, literally meaning "one who faces death."
During a demonstration, a Peshmerga K9 Unit team practice apprehending and disarming a gunman.
“I am from the engineering team of Sulaimani’s Second Support Forces. They said they needed four individuals. They registered my name from the engineering to become a dog handler. I am both a dog handler and member of the engineering unit," the native of Soran said.
Partisanship was not apparent on Tuesday.
“The spirit of fraternity precedes everything here. The spirit of nationalism and patriotism precedes everything here. I am appointed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, while some others by the Kurdistan Democratic Party," explained Saleh.
"However, here, there is no difference. We don’t think about the differences," he added. "We are together brothers and strive for the shared purpose we have."
The engineering unit is unique in the Kurdistan Region. While salaries are paid through the KRG, their training has been funded by the US-based Marshall Legacy Institute (MLI) through private donors.
Mariwan Jamel joined the Peshmerga in 1997. He is from Erbil, a province where the KDP is most influential.
Jamel joined the Peshmerga to protect his soil and homeland. He was asked if his children will be encouraged to follow in his footsteps.
“It is their freedom, whether they will become a Peshmerga or not. However, if they follow my beliefs, when the country needs them, they might become Peshmerga,” said Jamel of his sons. “Maybe they will be studying then. Then they are free [to make their choice].
Through the ISIS conflict, the Peshmerga had just one dog trained in explosive detection. Other security institutions in the Kurdistan Region, coalition forces, and contractors had advanced tools to detect explosives.
The K9 Peshmerga Team are inspected by their own commanders, trainers, donors, and US Consul General to Erbil Steven Fagin.
“We in the engineering unit, before an attack started on somewhere, we would be notified, while having a backpack and a pliers with us, and we would spearhead the other Peshmerga and protect them from whatever IED or explosive we found," he said.
Jamel and his comrades use lessons learned from across the Peshmerga’s fronts to safely train and eventually return to disputed or Kurdistani areas claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad to remove remaining booby traps, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mines, and unexploded ordinance (UXO).
“Yes we are ready," said Jamel. “We have had heroic people among us and have worked. I can say they will 100 percent return to protect the soil of Kurdistan and clean it.”
ISIS extremists continue to be a threat — particularly areas between the frontlines of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Swathes of Nineveh, Anbar, Kirkuk, Saladin, and Diyala province are not fit for return due in part to UXO.
So far the Peshmerga K9 Unit has searched nearly 20,000 cars, 80 houses, and acres of hazardous areas. Administrative disagreements between the KRG and federal government in Baghdad prevent the Peshmerga from returning to areas they kept safe through the conflict.
"The Peshmerga have been paramount in the fight against ISIS. And the fight against ISIS needs to go on. There's so many mines left behind that farmers have a hard time farming their field and children playing,” said MLI donor Chandi Heffner.
Some of the donors prefer to remain anonymous; Heffner was a part of a MLI delegation headed by its Executive Director Ret. US Army Col. Perry Baltimore and Vice President of Operations Elise Becker.
She currently takes care of three Belgian Malinois dogs which have retired from various conflict zones supplied by MLI, including from Iraq and Afghanistan.
So far MLI donors have trained, supplied, and delivered 18 dogs to the Peshmerga. Heffner stressed it’s important that policy makers in her home country, the United States, not leave the ISIS fight unfinished.
"It's extremely important. Even the Mandaean group was almost completely wiped out. The Peshmerga have been incredibly brave and incredibly courageous in this fight, very successful,” she said.
While not their primary task, the dogs also demonstrated their ability to apprehend and take down suspected assailants, allowing the Peshmerga to stay at a safe distance. Through the ISIS conflict, the extremists used suicide bombers in buildings and small passages.
US Consul General to Erbil Steven Fagin also toured the facility and watched the handlers utilize dogs to detect explosives and firearms. There he saw air conditioned and heated kennels, vaccine records, and diets tailored for each canine.
Karzan Grawy, Peshmerga K9 trainer and manager (far left), and Gen. Ahmed Zebari (second left) pose for a photo with commanding officers, donors, trainers, and the US Consul General to Erbil Steven Fagin (third left).
Dan Hayter is the owner of the K9 Global Training Academy based in Somerset, Texas. They began training dogs and handlers in 1984. He was also a part of the delegation.
Jamel's unit is commanded by Gen. Ahmed Zebari. This was the fourth round of training for the handlers in his unit which was been receiving trained dogs as MLI is able to financially support capacity growth.
He described receiving K9 dogs as an "advanced" tool to detect any kind of explosives.
"Our team also maintains cooperation with the coalition forces, the US, UK, and German teams. Whenever there it is suspected that there are bombs detected somewhere, our teams will go to check it."
Maj. Gen. Sarbast Zebari appealed for the unit to be allowed in more places to conduct their work.
“We are all on the same page when comes to fighting terrorism,” he said welcoming the delegation of foreign donors, diplomats, and trainers. In particular he appreciated the presence of Maj. Gen. Qaraman Kamal, deputy head of the Operations Committee at the Peshmerga ministry.
When other Peshmerga forces were to enter an ISIS-controlled area, the engineers were called to locate, remove, and safelydispose unexploded ordinance.
Karzan Grawy is the Peshmerga K9 unit’s trainer and manager. He revealed evaluations by Hayter and Baltimore were “100 percent positive.”
The Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency (IKMAA) stated on Monday that more than 7.4 million square meters of areas liberated from ISIS have been cleared through various organizations which report to the Kurdistan Regional Government.
More than 1,800 Peshmerga sacrificed their lives in the ISIS conflict and more than 10,000 others were wounded. In Operation Inherent Resolve that includes Iraq and Syria, 69 Americans have died, while 74 have been wounded. They have disposed