By: Maria-Madalina Aldea
Peshmerga, meaning “those who face death” are the military forces of the autonomous region of Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Since the Iraqi Army is forbidden by Iraqi law to enter the Kurdistan Region, the Peshmerga, along with their security subsidiaries, are responsible for the security of Kurdistan Region. This has lead to general safety and stability in the Kurdistan Region even while the rest of Iraq was considered unsafe.
The Kurdistan designation refers to an area of Kurdish settlement that roughly includes the mountain systems of the Zagros and the eastern extension of the Taurus. Since ancient times the area has been the home of the Kurds, a people whose ethnic origins are uncertain.
For 600 years after the Arab conquest and their conversion to Islam, the Kurds played a recognizable and considerable part in the troubled history of western Asia.
The Kurds are members of an ethnic and linguistic group living in the Taurus Mountains of southeastern Anatolia, the Zagros Mountains of western Iran, portions of northern Iraq, northeastern Syria and western Armenia and other adjacent areas.
Most of the Kurds live in contiguous areas of Iran, Iraq and Turkey—a geographic region generally referred to as Kurdistan or sometimes 'Greater Kurdistan' (“Land of the Kurds”). By some, it is considered a region, by others an unrecognized country.
The name has different connotations in Iran and Iraq, which officially recognize internal entities by this name: Iran’s western province of Kordestān and Iraq’s Kurdish Autonomous Region, unders the controld of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
A sizeable noncontiguous Kurdish population also exists in the Khorāsān region, situated in Iran’s northeast.
Who are the Peshmerga?
The Peshmerga, whose name translates as "those who face death", are the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. Now thought to number around 190,000, the Peshmerga have their roots in groups of loosely organized tribal border guards in the late 1800s.
They were formally organised as the national fighting force of the Kurdish people after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War One.
As the Kurdish nationalist movement grew, so too did the identity of the Peshmerga as a key part of Kurdish culture - evolving from tribal defenders to nationalist fighters for an independent Kurdish state.
Historically, Peshmerga forces have been controlled by political factions rather than the government. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) each have their own Peshmerga: Division 70 and Division 80, respectively.
Accordingly, each of these political parties exert, or attempt to exert, a monopoly on the use of force within their zones. Other Peshmerga forces or Kurdish militias exist as well.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is comprised of Turkish Kurds who adhere to a more radical political philosophy with roots in Maoism.
The United States lists the PKK as a terrorist organization, and its harsh methods have put it at odds with the main Iraqi Kurdish parties. Although the PKK’s primary focus is Turkey, it operates in Iraq, most prominently in the regions along the Turkish border and in Sinjar.
In Sinjar, members of the Yezidi religious sect also formed their own forces, the Yezidikhan Protection Force (HPE), following the ISIS atrocities against their people.
Many other minority areas around Ninewa also now have local protection forces affiliated with religious or ethnic groups—Christian, Shabak, etc.—and many times they are funded by and loyal to either Erbil or Baghdad.
Islamist parties, especially around Halabja, also have formed armed groups and the mountainous areas along the border with Iran and Turkey have sometimes provided refuge for extremists.
The Peshmerga in the 1990s
Efforts to reform the Peshmerga into a professional defense force had been long underway by the time ISIS took over swathes of territory along the border with Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2014.
In the 1990s, after the Kurdish region of Iraq gained de facto autonomy from Baghdad, and following several years of internecine conflict, the two strongest Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), established rival military academies in their respective territorial strongholds of Qala Chwalan and Zakho.
Both parties enrolled Kurdish former Iraqi army officers, who broke away from the Iraqi army during Saddam Hussein’s rule. They helped organize Peshmerga fighters into battalions and the top staff leadership into military ranks.
Each force focused on defending their own territories from the Iraqi army incursions, which increased Kurdistan’s autonomy from Baghdad—and their independence from (and enmity toward) each other.
After Saddam was ousted in 2003, the Peshmerga began to take on the trappings of a real army. Qala Chwalan and Zakho turned into new Iraqi army military academies, providing an entire generation of Kurdish officers with a military education and even integrating some of them into the new Iraqi army.
Peshmerga leadership began to include both senior party militants as well as junior officers who, even if they entered the academies through party connections, were not necessarily party members.
The end result was a new generation of Kurdish officers who were loyal to the KRG as a whole rather than to either of the competing parties. Younger Kurds’ rising criticism of the parties’ grip on KRG institutions furthered the trend.
Peshmerga Female Fighters
While women have served in Peshmerga forces for decades, female Peshmerga have primarily found themselves maintaining border security, protecting women’s shelters and providing medical and communication services throughout history.
Female fighters rarely carried out combat-related duties and stayed far from the front lines where their male comrades were stationed.
However, with the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014, cultural taboos and restrictions previously surrounding women broke down. Female Peshmerga assumed more active combat roles and ultimately joined the front lines of the battle against IS.
These women fought bravely and demonstrated to both potential recruits and their superiors that female Peshmerga were a valuable asset to combat forces. Yet with the fall of IS, women are uncertain whether their contributions will be recognized or whether they will be forced to return to the restricted roles of the past.
Prior to being formally integrated into the forces in 1996, women fighters have been able to serve alongside the Peshmerga since the 1970s.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) formed the first all-female unit in 1996, and this unit alone has grown to include more than five hundred fighters. Members have since moved on to assume high-ranking military positions, up to the rank of colonel.
Yet decades of formal participation in Peshmerga did not provide women with the opportunities to branch out of the limited roles designated for them. Instead, it was the prolonged fight against IS that finally enabled women to assume active combat roles on the frontline.
In June 2014, the first female Peshmerga were deployed to the Basheer front. During August of the same year, female fighters also took part in the operation to recapture the Mosul Dam.
After the dam had been recaptured, ten female Peshmerga continued to guard it – a sign of Kurdish women’s changing role in combat in the war.
In 2016, with the plans to liberate Mosul underway, close to 1000 female members of the Peshmerga Zeravani unit received intensive two-month training from Italian coalition forces at a Kurdish base outside of Erbil.
That same year, female Peshmerga became part of the mission to secure the city of Kirkuk and nearby oil fields, eventually reclaiming the oil production facilities at Bai Hassan in Kirkuk from IS.
After years of international intervention, ISIS was routed from its Iraqi stronghold in Mosul and from its so-called capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa last year. However, the group remains dangerous both in the region and globally.
In the run-up to the vote for the independence referendum, Iraq’s then-prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, threatened that holding the referendum would have serious consequences.
But the KRG’s president at the time, Masoud Barzani, insisted the Kurds had a right to self-determination, even though the vote was non-binding. “We have our geography, land, and culture,” he said in 2017. “We have our own language. We refuse to be subordinates.”
After the vote, which saw a reported 72 percent turnout and 92 percent support for independence, Baghdad mobilised its troops, ordering a ban on flights in and out of KRG airports (since lifted), and took control of most of the “disputed territories”.
The KRG had controlled much of this territory – including the predominantly Yazidi area of Sinjar and multi-ethnic and oil-rich Kirkuk province – since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, expanding its reach as its military forces, the Peshmerga, joined the fight against IS in 2014.
Today, most of this disputed land remains in the hands of the central Iraqi government, even though Kurdish officials insist they will fight to get it back.
BBC News: “Who are the Peshmerga?” in BBC News, 12 August 2014. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28738975.
Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Kurdistan” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 7 November 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/place/Kurdistan.
Encyclopaedia Britannica: “The Kurd People” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 8 October 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Kurd#ref966597.
Fantappie, M.: “The Peshmerga Regression” in International Crisis Group, 14 June 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/peshmerga-regression
Helfont, S: “Getting Peshmerga Reform Right: Helping the Iraqi Kurds to Help Themselves in Post-ISIS Iraq” in Foreign Policy Research Institute (Philadelphia) and the Institute of Regional and International Studies at American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, March 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.fpri.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Helfont-Final-Online-Version.pdf
Middle East Institute: “Where is ISIS today?” Retrieved from: https://www.mei.edu/multimedia/video/where-isis-today.
Westcott, T.: “In Iraqi Kurdistan, reality bites as independence dream fades” in The New Humanitarian, 26 September 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/special-report/2019/09/26/Iraq-Kurdistan-independence-Peshmerga.