BAHARKA, Kurdistan Region — A group of 10 select Kurdish Peshmerga are about halfway through a 10-week training program to detect explosive devices and mines.
Karzan Grawy, with 16 years of service to Kurdistan, instructs his fellow Peshmerga on how to detect a variety of explosive materials.
"I was scheduled to receive training in the United States last year, but because of the airport closure I was unable to go," Grawy told Rudaw English.
Six new Belgian Shepherds arrived in the Kurdistan Region on February 12 after a six-month delay because of a fallout in Erbil-Baghdad relations.
The dual-use dogs were trained in San Antonio, Texas, and gifted to the Peshmerga by a group of anonymous American donors.
Dogs take commands in English to stop, search, and point. The relationship between K9 and handler is vital.
Mariwan Jameel was selected for the team after fighting against ISIS on the frontlines where several of his friends were killed or wounded.
"That's why I joined the team, to continue to protect my family, friends, and Kurdistan," said Jameel. When the training started it was difficult for me, but when I started working, I came to appreciate the work. Mr. Grawy and my other brothers have provided good training."
The six new dogs and their handlers gathered at a Peshmerga base in Erbil to demonstrate basic leash discipline, and mine and vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) detection.
However, in order to prevent detonating the explosives, the canines must resist the urge to claw; instead each K9 trainer has a toy as a reward for a successful detection. At that point, the K9 team calls in the Peshmerga's Explosive Ordnance Detonation (EOD) team.
Grawy relies on the expertise of Master K9 Trainer Darko Lazarevie, a Bosnian, who Grawy refers to as his "teacher."
The Kurdistan Region has different security (Asayesh) agencies which already utilize some K9s, but Lavarezie said the Kurdistan Region could always use more.
The Peshmerga K9 team specifically aims to supplement the Kurdish forces in areas which were heavily mined or contain unexploded ordnance due to the three-year ISIS conflict.
Some of these areas in Shingal, Makhmour, and Kirkuk are now under the control of Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries, but Grawy says there are plenty of areas where Peshmerga can and will access when the six new dogs and handlers complete their course.
Both Grawy and Lazarevie said if there is a threat to Kurdistan, they would assist when ordered to do so.
The engineering brigade operates under Gen. Ahmed Zebari, who served 20 years in the Iraqi army prior to his ongoing 14-years of service to the Kurdish Peshmerga.
"We as the Peshmerga have been trying to draw attention to the people that these dogs are with the Peshmerga and they are here to protect the people," Grawy said.
Global Training Academy is a based out of Somerset, Texas, trained the Belgian shepherds from the time they were puppies. According to its website, it has trained more than 3,000 dogs used by US domestic and international law enforcement agencies across the globe since 1984.
The Marshall Legacy Institute in Arlington, Virginia, facilitated between the anonymous donors, trainers, transporters, and Peshmerga. It was founded in 1997 by US Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan. Its current focus "is eliminating the humanitarian dangers and the destabilizing effects of landmines."
“We express gratitude to the donors, the GTA and to the MLA. They have been very helpful — everytime and in every place,“ Grawy said.
According to the UN, Iraq is the fifth-most mined country in the world with 59 mines-per-square mile and an estimated 10 million mines in total.
Photos by author