In May, ABC News’ Martha Radditz, renowned for her deep foreign policy knowledge after decades spent covering conflict and far flung lands, filed a prime-time news report from an embed with a fighting force in northern Iraq.

The focus of her lede: hair and makeup.

“The fighters that ISIS fears the most wear lipstick, according to these troops. Some even let their long, braided hair fall out behind their hats.”
Like many of her colleagues, Radditz is reintroducing America to the Peshmerga—perhaps forgotten yet again after their last turn in the American media spotlight at the outset of Bush Jr.’s Iraq War. Some reports focus on their cosmopolitan inclusion of women, some their secular leanings and others their supposed combat prowess as a foil to the feckless Iraqi army.

All such reports share a glaring disregard to the troubled, fractious history of what we call Peshmerga. Failed uprisings, a bloody civil war largely unresolved and an Army divided in two – the Peshmerga’s defining history and most pressing current challenges– rarely make it into coverage.

With western arms and training flowing to Erbil at breakneck speed, glossing over Peshmerga’s complicated past and uncertain present can threaten the post-ISIS stability of Iraq.

 

An Army of two

After the Islamic State shocked the West with their lighting advance across northern Iraq two years ago, a then obscure fighting force known as the Peshmerga emerged as a heroic bulwark.

But just what, or precisely who, the Peshmerga are has remained vague, with most international and US press only qualifying them as Iraqi Kurdish fighters. The deep divisions and historical animosity between groups within the Peshmerga and between them and the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad remain unexplored in the Western press.

 

“Unlike the Iraqi security forces, comprised overwhelmingly of Arab Iraqis and nominally loyal to the Baghdad government, the peshmerga have stood and fought the better-armed Isis,” read an August, 2014 report from The Guardian about the American government’s decision to begin arming what the reporter then called a “Kurdish militia.”

Over the following two years the US and much of the EU would provide these Kurdish fighters with small arms and ammunition at first, before escalating to more sophisticated weaponry like advanced guided missile launchers, Humvees and, most recently from the US, a battalion’s worth of armored personnel carriers.
But the discussion surrounding the Peshmerga has remained simplistic. It may surprise many casual readers to learn the Peshmerga is not one cohesive army, but rather a patchwork of battalions loyal first to specific politicians divided between two opposing political parties.

Very rarely is northern Iraq’s ruling Kurdish Democratic Party mentioned, and the same is true of the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. But the lion’s share of the hundreds of thousands of fighters we refer to as Peshmerga belong to one or the other.

A FOX News report from earlier this month comes from the front lines near Mosul, where Peshmerga fighters are participating in the push to liberate the city. The correspondent describes a suburb, Bashiqa, formerly run by “a couple hundred blood-thirsty ISIS militants.”

Before “crack waves of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters” arrive to drive them out. “Twenty suicide bombers and fighters tried to make a break Thursday. They either blew themselves up or were killed by Kurdish fighters.”

In video footage the fighters appear to be armed with new, German-supplied assault rifles and up armored Humvees provided most likely from the United States or France. A commander notes his men suffered no casualties but later complains the Obama administration has failed to provide enough weapons. The reporter, in banter with the anchor, them smugly expresses hope that president elect Trump can do better.

“The Kurds believe the Obama administration did not get their fighting men and women enough weaponry and equipment,” he wrote. “They are hoping the future Donald Trump administration will.”

What’s not mentioned in this report and many like it is why the Obama administration may have reservations about providing weapons to the Peshmerga. A look into history, not all that distant, gives easy answers.

What the Fox correspondent calls “tough Kurdish defenders” now attempted, a failed uprising against Baghdad in the early 90s before subsequently fighting a brutal civil war against one another after a US no-fly zone over northern Iraq lead to a free for all battle for power between Kurds no longer pacified by Saddam’s air force.

The divisions this war have yet to heal. The commanders since those days, split between the ruling Barzani clan [KDP] and the opposition Talibnani [PUK, Iraq’s former president under US occupation] clan remain unchanged.

A divided front, and a divided country

The 650 mile front with the Islamic State is split evenly into eight sectors evenly halved between PUK and KDP forces, referred collective as Peshmerga despite stark differences in their operational styles, support and organization. A veteran Peshmerga commander told Jamestown Foundation’s Erbil-based researcher Vladimir Van Wilgenburg about how divisions play out:

“If you know someone personally, you can know [if] he is KDP or PUK. They all listen to their specified commanders of their area of operation. But as far as unification is concerned, this is not a unified force.… Despite all of them fighting in a united front, when the political parties call them back, they will go back to the respective parties.”

 

These frontline divisions stem from political differences that in turn reflect geographic zones of loyalty. The KDP holds popular support in Erbil and to the north, which the PUK and new-comer Gorran hold sway in the south and east around Sulaymania.

“Kurdish politics is fragmenting in a mirror image of Iraq’s splintering polity,” according to researcher Kenneth Pollack, writing in a recent Iraq situation report for Brookings Institution. “The strong, working relationship forged by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the aftermath of their 1996 civil war seems in danger of breaking down again.”

Bloody protests against Barzani’s ruling government rocked the south and east of Iraqi Kurdistan last year as KDP buildings were torched in some cities. A recent union between the PUK and Gorran – the leaders of which were briefly expelled from Erbil by the KDP – has analysts on edge for a confrontation.

And the stakes are arguably higher, with both sides having both to gain. Kirkuk, a kind of Jerusalem to the Kurdish people, is at long last in Kurdish hands after Iraqi security forces abandoned it. And Mosul, with a large, though less substantial Kurdish population is on the verge of liberation. These populations follow the east west divide of the rest of Kurdistan, which KUP popular in Sulaymania and KDP winning support in Erbil and Duhok.

Calls for a referendum on Kurdish independence from Baghdad are louder and more believable than they have been in more than a decade. If a peaceful division on the spoils of a post ISIS northern Iraq eludes Kurdish leaders, the resulting bloodshed –supercharged by Western arms and training – may surprise the Peshmerga’s cheerleaders in the US and Europe. But a cursory look beyond the headlines shows it shouldn’t.

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