By Simon Ross Valentine
Major General Sirwan Barzani, nephew of the Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, is the commander of the Black Tiger Peshmerga battalion fighting ISIS (Da’esh). On December 18, 2016, he spoke with Simon Ross Valentine at the Black Tiger base at Malla Qara, near the front line. They discussed the history of the “brotherhood” of Peshmerga and the current fight where “Peshmerga aged 18 to 83” are battling ISIS.
Simon Ross Valentine: Your family has suffered greatly, especially under Saddam Hussein. Can you briefly tell me something about this?
Sirwan Barzani: Since the time of my grandfather Mustafa Barzani and before, the Barzanis have been prominent in the Kurdish struggle for freedom and peace. During Saddam’s time they used chemicals against the Kurds, not only at Halabja but at Badinan, Sergalou, Bergalou etc. In the Anfal [campaign against the Kurds] almost 200,000 Kurds were killed, including 38 members of my immediate family, and 8,000 from the Barzani tribe. In 1983 they took many Barzanis to camps in south Iraq, many died, including my father. After Saddam had been removed in 2003 many of the bodies were found in mass graves.
You served for twelve years as Peshmerga, earning the title ‘Black Tiger’. Can you tell me something about those years?
I joined Peshmerga in 1998. Peshmerga then were more like partisan, guerrilla fighters. I was given the title as a nickname, I don’t know why. But I liked life, fighting in the mountains. In one battle Saddam used every type of weapon to destroy us. In desperation he brought a massive force against us, 20,000 Iraqis against about 700 Peshmerga. For more than 41 days we were bombarded by artillery, mortars, katyusha rockets. But we defeated them.
In 1994 the Barzani brigade was formed. How did that come about?
After 1991 we Peshmerga came down from the mountains, we captured many Iraqi soldiers. Not one of them was killed by Peshmerga. This is the culture, the usual practice of Peshmerga. We do not seek revenge. There is not one single family that did not lose loved ones to Saddam, so some Peshmerga wanted to kill the captured Iraqis. But we said no, it is not acceptable. We told
When the enemy is ready to die, how do you stop them?
prisoners they were free to go. Some prisoners were Shia. They said we don’t want to return as Saddam will kill us, send us to Iran. So we sent them to the Iranian border.
After that, in 1994 they asked me to organise the Barzani forces, working with Dr. Saeed, one of the brave Peshmerga who went to Russia with my grandfather in 1947, after the fall of the Mahabad Republic. But he became ill, so the full responsibility fell on me to form the battalion into an organised, well trained army.
You retired as a soldier in 2000. Why did you re-join Peshmerga in 2014?
It was not really retirement. I went to my military colleagues and said I do not see any great risk in Kurdistan now. I want to help to reconstruct the country and start a business. If you need me I’m ready to come back. They say OK, but if you become rich you will not come back [we both laugh]. And so after Mosul, Ramadi, and Da’esh, they called me and I willingly came.
In 2014 your exploits as a commander virtually became part of Kurdish folklore. I refer to your heroic defence of Erbil. Please tell me about that?
What happened at Shingal [Sinjar] in August 2014 came as a big surprise to us. I said I was ready to go with 100 Peshmerga. There was still a corridor from Syria to Shingal. I received a phone call from the president. They said ‘Da’esh is controlling Makhmour, Gwer, they are now coming to Erbil. We need you’. So I was given 150 Peshmerga. We had no anti-tank, nothing. Da’esh was only 25 kilometres from Erbil. The road to Erbil was open. I sent three Peshmerga as surveillance, they saw some Da’esh. The Iraqi unit there was reluctant to fight. I told the commander, if you retreat one yard I will kill you. Why he asked. Because Peshmerga will be demoralized if they see the only armoured unit in the area retreat, I answered. So Peshmerga began to make a front line. I said I will push Da’esh back, I just need 48 hours. So after two days we did it.
Can you explain to us the difference for Peshmerga fighting Saddam and Peshmerga fighting Da’esh today?
As we said, we were fighting in the mountains, today we are a conventional army on the battlefield. Even the technology was different at that time. We did not have night vision, or drones, it was much easier for Peshmerga to hit-and-run. We decided when we would
70% of our weapons should be sent to the museum
attack the Iraqis. But with Da’esh it is different. They decide when they will attack. Also, when the enemy is ready to die, how do you stop them? In just the last two months there have been 650 suicide vehicles coming toward us. You can see what kind of crazy people we are fighting.
In the 1990s, and after the defeat of Saddam, Peshmerga was involved in a war against Ansar al-Islam. Would you say that conflict trained Peshmerga for the fight against Da’esh?
Ansar al-Islam was a much smaller militant group than Da’esh and the fighting was in the mountains, first in area north of Ruwandez, later in the Halabja area. Ansar al-Islam was a small partisan group, but Da’esh is a real state, they have a government, and the best weapons. They captured the weapons of four Iraqi divisions which dropped their weapons and fled. And two police federal divisions that also fled. So Da’esh has the weapons from six army divisions. 70% of our weapons should be sent to the museum [he laughs].
Please explain in detail the needs of Peshmerga.
As a Peshmerga, believe me, we need everything. We have some tanks, but without ammunition. They work one day but not the next. They are very old, dating from the Iran-Iraq war. And of course guns need ammunition, we have very little. We need anti-tank missiles such as Milan. Thankfully in my section we recently received four Milan but only one of them with night vision.
By the constitution of Iraq we are part of the defence of Iraq and we should get part of the budget and equipment, but very little comes from Baghdad. However, we capture many humvees and other equipment from Da’esh so Iraqi generals say, good, you are
equipped. But I say to them, it is not cheap to get these things, it costs the blood of many brave Peshmerga. We need weapons directly, and not through Baghdad.
We are grateful for the coalition airstrikes but just the airstrikes are not enough. We are facing the most dangerous people in the world. We have a front line of over 1,050 kilometres. I said recently to the European parliament, accept us as a western army, we are
We hope this is the final fight for independence
ready to give our blood to remove your enemy but help us with weapons and ammunition. We don’t need troops on the ground. We are ready to die, but help us, why not?
We have some doctors. But there is a lack of first aid and basic equipment. Injured soldiers are taken by ordinary vehicle the long journey to Erbil, and so we lose good men from slight wounds. In my section we have been attacked 7 or 8 times with chlorine gas. And mustard gas three times. We now have 2,000 gas masks after one and a half years of asking.
It has been argued that Peshmerga is “tribal”, divided between the two rival political parties. What would you say to that?
If you look at Gulf countries there is zero democracy. Even in America there are two parties. On the front line you will not find the flags of two parties. We Peshmerga are all united under the Kurdistan flag. In the future we can vote for one party, so what is the problem? If you look at the history of any country in the West there has been fighting as it developed its democracy, it is normal. The important point is there is no terrorist group in Kurdistan. Kurdistan can be an oasis of stability in the Middle East.
How is it going with Mosul now, when should it be liberated?
Originally the plan was to surround Mosul, and attacking from all sides. But they changed the plan. The Golden [SWAT] division is doing a very good job. They are well trained, well equipped. But progress is slow. Even last week in the SE it was not good with the
Even the top commanders, we are with our Peshmerga on the front line. It is a brotherhood
Iraqi 9th division. And also in the south of Mosul they are almost freezing the operation. Another problem for them is they don’t go to liberate various areas as they do not feel safe there. No one knows who is with Da’esh. So in these areas they put the Shia militia, or the police.
Do you trust the Iraqis? If Da’esh attacked the Iraqi army directly do you think they would stand and fight?
No. Although better trained they still do not have the resolve to fight. But they are getting better because they have the fatwa of al-Sistani against Islamic State, they have to fight Da’esh. Even the Hashd al-shaabi and the Shia in the army become better fighters now.
Few in the West are aware of the economic crisis you are facing in Kurdistan. Often Peshmerga don’t receive their pay. They have poor equipment. How do you as a general maintain high morale?
We believe in what we are doing. This is the difference, we have purpose. Secondly we as commanders are just like Peshmerga. Most of the time I do not wear my ranks. Even the top commanders, we are with our Peshmerga on the front line. It is a brotherhood. We are like friends. They are encouraged when they see me with them. We have Peshmerga aged 18 to 83. We say to the older men, no, don’t join up, but they say we must. Their experience and resolve inspires the younger men.
We used to say ‘only the mountains are our friends’, but now we have the coalition. Having the teams with us – British, French, American, if only as advisors - it is a big morale for Peshmerga. There are no mountains here, so we need friends [he chuckles heartily].
The fight against Da’esh, do you see it as part of the bigger fight for independence?
We hope this is the final fight for independence. Independence is better for Arabs as well as Kurds. We are different from Arabs, we have our leaders, our government, our Peshmerga, but they don’t. We have a different cultural mentality. I don’t know why they just don’t separate, they say we must stay, but why, for what? It’s a bad union, let’s divorce [we both laugh].
When will you gain independence?
I believe this is the right time, the best time. But we need the help of European, UK and America, and why not? Britain in particular
There are no disputed territories now, it has gone back to the original position
should help us because of Sykes-Picot 1916, and broken promises of help and statehood. After defeating Da’esh, this is now the time for independence.
Please tell me about the relationship that the KRG and Peshmerga have with Baghdad?
Peshmerga has very good relations with Baghdad. However it is unfair what is going on. They are saying we Kurds are not systematic, we are not a stable country. This has always been the case over the past 100 years. We are under sanction. We have no budget. But we are tolerant. We recognise the rights of minority groups. The Christians, Shabak, Yazidis, Sunnis, and Shia, why are they here if we are bad people?
What is going to be the situation with Hashd al-Shaabi, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and other Shia groups once Da’esh is defeated?
I see no difference between Shia militia and the Iraqi army. If Baghdad is against us in the future, these groups will also be part of that big problem.
The disputed territories, especially Kirkuk, are the Kurds keeping hold of these?
There are no disputed territories now, it has gone back to the original position. We liberated those areas from Da’esh, now the people are safe. There will be a referendum. If they want to stay with the terrorists or Baghdad it is up to them. Kirkuk is Kurdish. We do not force anyone to stay with us. Just one vote, yes or no.
What special message would you have for the American President?
We would ask for help in gaining independence, it is the dream of the Kurdish people. But we are still under Iraqi sanction. I am not allowed to buy even night vision for my troops. I request to Baghdad, they delay, then they say it is not allowed. Please give weapons directly to Peshmerga. I would remind him that ISIS is the enemy of the world, and not just Peshmerga.