Peshmerga, Peshmerga or Peshmerge (Kurdish: pêşmerge) is the term used by Kurds to refer to armed Kurdish fighters. Literally meaning "those who face death" (Pesh front + marg death) the Peshmerga forces of Kurdistan have been around since the advent of the Kurdish independence movement in the early 1920s, following the collapse of the Ottoman and Qajar empires which had jointly ruled over the area. Peshmerga forces include women in their ranks, making the Kurdish armed forces one of only three in the Middle East that actively uses female soldiers (the others being those of Israel and Iran).
Following the First Gulf War, Iraqi Kurdistan fell into a state of civil war between the two major Kurish parties the KDP and the PUK, and their Peshmerga forces were used to fight each other.
During the 2006 Anfal campaign trial, the defense team of Saddam Hussein said Peshmerga, a group of separatist guerillas, sided with Iran in its war with Iraq.
Because of the anti-Christian and anti-Armenian propaganda, the Turkish army fielded enough Kurds to completely man numerous units. Among the all-Kurdish units were the Eleventh Army, headquartered in Elazig, and the Twelfth Army, headquartered in Mosul. Kurds also made up a majority of the Ninth and Tenth Armies and supplied enough troops for many frontier units and 135 squadrons of reserve cavalry. These forces, with their experience and knowledge of the terrain, were essential in fighting the Russian threat to the Eastern Ottoman Empire.
Tribal fighters from both Iran and Iraq quickly allied themselves with Shaykh Mahmud as he became more successful in opposing British rule. According to McDowall, the Shaykh’s forces “were largely Barzinja tenantry and tribesmen, the Hamavand under Karim Fattah Beg, and disaffected sections of the Jaf, Jabbari, Shaykh Bizayni and Shuan tribes”. The popularity and numbers of Shaykh Mahmud’s troops only increased after their ambush of a British military column.
Among Mahmud’s many supporters and troop leaders was 16-year-old Mustafa Barzani, the future leader of the Kurdish nationalist cause and commander of Peshmerga forces in Kurdish Iraq. Barzani and his men, following the orders of Barzani tribal shakyh Ahmad Barzani, traversed the Piyaw Valley on their way to join Shaykh Mahmud Barzanji. Despite being ambushed numerous times along the way, Barzani and his men reached Shaykh Mahmud’s location, albeit too late to aid in the revolt.
The Barzani fighters were only a part of the Shaykh’s 500-person force. As the British became aware of the shaykh’s growing political and military power, they were forced to respond militarily. Two British brigades were deployed to defeat Shaykh Mahmud’s fighters at Darbandi Bazyan near Sulaymaniya in June 1919. Shaykh Mahmud was eventually arrested and exiled to India in 1921.
At the root of the rebellion, Shaykh Mahmud’s leadership appealed to both Kurdish nationalist and religious feelings. Although he knew he could not directly defeat the British, Shaykh Mahmud hoped to seek recognition of Kurdish nationalism by advocating a ‘free united Kurdistan’. Using his authority as a religious leader, Shaykh Mahmud called for a jihad against the British in 1919 and thus acquired the support of many Kurds indifferent to the nationalist struggle. Although the intensity of their struggle was motivated by religion, Kurdish peasantry seized the idea of “national and political liberty for all” and strove for “an improvement in their social standing”.
Despite opposition by other regional tribes, possibly fearful of the shaykh’s growing power, Shaykh Mahmud’s fighters continued to oppose British rule after the shaykh’s arrest. Although no longer organized under one leader, this inter-tribal force was “actively anti-British”, engaging in hit-and-run attacks, killing British military officers, and participating in local rebellions. The fighters continued to be motivated by Shaykh Mahmud’s ability to “defy British interference”. The success of the Kurdish fighters’ anti-British revolts forced the British to recognize Kurdish autonomy in 1923. Returning to the region in 1922, Shaykh Mahmud continued to promote raids against British forces. Once these uprisings were subdued, the British government signed Iraq over to King Faysal and a new Arab-led government. After having to retreat into the mountains, the defeated Shaykh Mahmud signed a peace accord with the Iraqi government and settled in the new Iraq.
Forced underground, Kurdish nationalist leaders formed the political group Azadi (Freedom) in Dersim, Turkey in 1921. Unlike earlier Kurdish nationalist groups, the core of Azadi was experienced military men, not the urban Kurdish intelligentsia. According to Olson, Azadi’s fighting forces included numerous tribal fighters and several former Hamidiya regimental leaders, all equipped with rifles and other weapons previously owned by the Turks.
The strength and expansion of Azadi would lead to its downfall. During a Turkish military expedition in September 1924 several Azadi leaders mutinied, fleeing into the mountains with numerous weapons and hundreds of lower-ranking Kurdish soldiers. Over 500 officers and soldiers – three companies of one battalion and one company of another – left the Turkish ranks to join the Kurdish army.
In response to the rebellion, the Turkish government, realizing the strength of Azadi, quickly arrested many of the organization’s leaders, both munitineers and conspirators. With their leadership depleted, a power vacuum formed in the political-military structure of Azadi. Out of the remnants of Azadi emerged Shaykh Said of Palu, a Naqshbandi shaykh related by marriage to Khalid Beg, Turkish Army colonel and Azadi founder. The remaining Azadi infrastructure supported the Shaykh’s leadership, believing a shaykh could generate more support than an army officer.
Once convinced to join the rebellion, Shaykh Said immediately began mobilizing participants and establishing a chain of command. According to Van Bruinessen, Shaykh Said “knew what he wanted, had the capacity to convince others, and had a great reputation for piety, which was useful when his other arguments were insufficient”.
As a new leader, Shaykh Said, like Shaykh Mahmud years earlier, appealed to the Kurdish sense of Islamic unity. Besides the usual fighting retinue of a Kurdish shaykh, Shaykh Said was able to increase his ranks during his tour of Eastern Anatolia in January 1925. New recruits answered the call to arms as Said issued fatwas, gave speeches denouncing the secular Kemalist policies, and wrote letters inviting numerous tribes to join in a jihad against the government. Said also met personally with tribal leaders and their representatives, including Barzan tribal representative Mustafa Barzani. Although some tribes refused to follow Said, he was received positively in many towns. The Shaykh’s rise to power enabled him to proclaim himself ‘emir al-mujahidin’ (commander of the faithful and fighters of the holy war) in January 1925. Overall, 15 to 20,000 Kurds mobilized in support of Shaykh Said and Azadi. Many of these fighters were equipped with horses, rifles, or sabers acquired from the numerous munition depots across the countryside. Other Kurdish firepower was either personally owned prior to the rebellion or taken from the Armenians, despite Turkish attempts at Kurdish disarmament.
With sufficient firepower recruited from the tribes, a plan of attack was set in place. In creating a battle plan, Said and the other prominent remaining Azadi leadership established five major fronts to be commanded by regional shaykhs. These shaykh leaders were assisted by former Hamidiya Cavalry officers who provided military structure to the rebellion. After organization, unit responsibility was divided among nine areas. The overall headquarters of Said’s military force was located in Egri Dagh and protected by a force of 2,000 men. During the onset of the revolt, Said’s fighters, facing nearly 25,000 Turkish troops, gained control of a vilayet near Diyarbakir. Besides seizing Turkish land and acquiring additional munitions, early victories instilled confidence in the rebellion and garnered further Kurdish support.
Throughout the conflict, Said’s fighters used both conventional military tactics, including multi-front assaults and attempts at urban seizure, and unconventional warfare, including guerrilla tactics. An example of the conventional military organization was evident in the assault on Diyarbakir, where reports saw “three columns of 5,000 strong, under the personal command of Shaykh Said”. The establishment of conventional higher levels of Kurdish military command may also be assumed as documents written by foreigners were addressed to a ‘Kurdish War Office’. These documents, found by Turkish forces, may have been propaganda however, designed to create the illusion of international support for the Kurdish rebellion.
Despite the valiant efforts of Said’s fighters, the Kemalist government was able to quickly amass forces to suppress the rebellion by early April 1925 and capture Shaykh Said as he attempted to flee to Iran on 27 April 1925. After his capture, Shaykh Said was promptly tried for his actions against the Turkish government. Said, along with a number of his followers, was hung on 29 June 1925. Like the Iraqi Kurds under Shaykh Mahmud, Shaykh Said’s surviving followers did not stop their attacks after the removal of their leader. Throughout 1925 and 26 their assaults continued as they conducted guerrilla operations against Turkish military units. After their capture, these remaining fighters proclaimed themselves to be ‘the unvanquished clan of the nation’. Whether or not these ideas of nationalism were expressed by all the remaining followers cannot be determined, although, according to Van Bruinessen, “neither the guerrilla troops, nor the leaders of the Ararat revolt that followed, used religious phraseology”.
Because of growing Kurdish awareness, nationalism, despite its early urban, intellectual, and political-only roots, had become a military cause in and of itself, separate from religious motivations. Although recruitment remained based on tribal or shaykh allegiances, the Kurdish nationalist struggle became a legitimate call to arms. By fighting for “Kurdistan,” Kurdish fighters, the future Peshmerga, separated themselves from the mujihadeen, their regional religious warrior brethren.
In displaying the need for a proper military structure, Khoybun nominated Ihsan Nuri Pasha Commander-In-Chief of the Kurdish National Army. Nuri Pasha, besides being a former Kurdish member of the “Young Turk Movement”, showed his allegiance to the Kurdish cause when he led the mutiny within the Turkish military prior to the Shaykh Said Revolt.
By 1928, Nuri Pasha had assembled a small group of soldiers armed with modern weapons and trained in infantry tactics. This force initiated the Khoybun revolt, marching towards Mount Ararat. Nuri and his men not only achieved success in reaching Mount Ararat, but they were able to secure the towns of Bitlis, Van, and most of the countryside around Lake Van, establishing a notable area of Kurdish resistance.
Along with their weapons, organization, and ability, Kurdish strength was enhanced by the positioning of the rebellion. Although Turkish forces attempted to suppress the revolt as early as 1927, their success was tempered by a lack of Persian cooperation, as Mount Ararat lay in the Turkish-Persian border. By 1930, however, Turkish forces began to take the upper hand. Beginning in May, the Turkish army went on the offensive, surrounding Mount Ararat with over 10,000 troops by late June. Troop numbers on both sides continued to grow as Kurdish tribes were recruited to join the cause and approximately 60,000 more soldiers were called up by the Turkish government.
The biggest blow to Khoybun’s Ararat revolt, however, came from Persia. Although initially supportive of Kurdish resistance, the Persian government did not resist Turkish military advances into Persia to surround Mount Ararat. Persian frontier guardsmen also began to close the Persian-Turkish border to non-essential travelers, including Kurdish tribes attempting to reinforce the revolt. Persia would eventually completely submit to Turkish operational demands, trading the land surrounding Mount Ararat for Turkish land near Qutur and Barzirgan.
The organized revolt on Mount Ararat was defeated by the fall of 1930, although the Turks waited until the following spring to attack any remaining tribal dissenters. Similar to the outcome of previous Kurdish uprisings, the Turkish government was merciless to the rebels and anyone suspected of aiding them, destroying villages and killing thousands of Kurds.
Despite the defeat, Khoybun and the Ararat revolt are important to the history of the Peshmerga for three reasons. First, never before had a military force been constructed specifically for the Kurdish nationalist ideal. The influence of the tribal shaykh as military commander was increasingly reduced as nationalism became a more important reason for Kurdish military actions. Second, the Khoybun revolt showed a growing relationship between the Barzani tribe and Kurdish nationalism. Although Mulla Mustafa Barzani had been involved in Shaykh Mahmud’s revolt and had met with Shaykh Said, the military support granted to the Khoybun cause from the Barzani tribe (as led by Shaykh Ahmad and commanded by Mulla Mustafa) was unprecedented. This level of support would continue to grow as future Peshmerga, specifically from the Barzani area, would again be called on to defend attempted Kurdish nation-states. Finally, the Khoybun revolt began a pattern of international cooperation against Kurdish nationalism. Exchanges of land between neighboring countries would be seen again as regional powers temporarily put aside their differences in an attempt to suppress Kurdish military ability.
In 1941 Britain and the USSR partitioned Iran into two zones of control in order to prevent the country from entering the war on the side of Germany. In the Soviet zone, the Kurds of northwest Iran enjoyed de facto independence. At war's end, Tehran pressured the Soviets to leave, which they did in December 1945. As they left, the Kurds formally proclaimed themselves independent in January 1946, with their capital at Mahabad. The government included many Kurds from Iraq, including Mustafa Barzani, the army commander. Their forces were Soviet-equipped and uniformed, but they owed no ideological allegiance to the USSR. Their flag was the tricolor of the Kurdish Communist Party, Komala, with the addition of a golden sun in the center.
Teheran gradually marshaled its forces, and when they were satisfied the Soviets would not intervene they crushed the Mahabad Republic in December 1946. The leaders were executed, but Barzani led the Iranian forces on a wild goose chase and eventually escaped to the Soviet Union. His escapades contributed much to Kurdish legend and nostalgia for independence. In 1946 he founded the Kurdish Democratic Party (Kurdish: Partiya Demokrata Kurdistanê). The Mahabad Republic stands as the high point of the Kurdish nationalist movement. This short period of national identity marked the official creation of the peshmerga and cemented the role of Mustafa Barzani as a military hero of the Kurdish people.
The Peshmerga also were soon deprived of their leader. Within weeks of their arrival, Mustafa Barzani was escorted to Nakhichevan, Soviet Armenia, where he stayed until being transferred to Shush and finally to Baku, Soviet Azarbaijan. Eventually, many of the Peshmerga leaders were separated from the rank and file and their families. Among those separated were Shaykh Sulayman, Ali Mohammad Siddique, Sa’id Mulla Abdullah, and Ziyab Dari. The separation would not last however, as the rest of the Barzani tribe and their Peshmerga were brought to Baku by the end of 1947. While in Baku, the Peshmerga were reorganized under the command of As’ad Khoshavi. Under Khoshavi, Sa’id Wali Beg, Mohammad Amin Mirkhan, Mamand Maseeh, and Misto Mirozi were appointed company commanders. Once reconstituted and given Soviet uniforms and weapons, the Peshmerga conducted training in “regular” military operations under the tutelage of several Soviet military officers.
After their first few years in the Soviet Union, the Peshmerga and other followers of Barzani saw their training cease, quickly becoming subject to government manipulation. For long periods the Peshmerga were separated from their leadership with many forced into hard labor. Only after Barzani personally wrote to Soviet leader Josef Stalin did conditions finally improve for his followers. The Peshmerga were finally reunited with their command in late 1951.
Conditions also improved for Mulla Mustafa Barzani as he was eventually granted the privileges of a leader-in-exile. Throughout his years in the USSR, Barzani was able to broadcast via Soviet radio and attended courses in language and politics. Although many sources claim Barzani was given the rank of general in the Soviet Army, Massoud Barzani denies that this occurred. Possibly most important, however, was Barzani’s ability to correspond with Kurdish exiles throughout the world, including Jalal Talabani and Ismet Cherif Vanly.
Meanwhile, the successful coup d`etat of Brigadier Abd al Karim Qasim and his followers in Iraq in July 1958 opened a new chapter in Iraqi-Kurdish relations. Shortly after taking power, Qasim pardoned Shaykh Ahmad Barzani and allowed Mulla Mustafa, his followers, and his Peshmerga to return to Iraq. The Barzani exile in the Soviet Union ended after 12 years, and upon their return, the Peshmerga would once again play a prominent role in Iraqi regional politics.
The Shah stopped the Iranian support to the rebels, withdrew his forces and sealed the border on April 1. The Iraqi army was able to crush the Peshmerga rebellion until the end of March. Many leaders of the Kurds, including Mustafa Barzani fled to Iran and others to Turkey.
When the KDP laid down arms following theAlgiers agreement in 1975, the Politbureau joined with other groups to form the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). PUK quickly ecoming the second biggest party in Northern Iraq and the, building its own force of Peshmerga.
The PUK and the KDP developed an intense rivalry that would even lead to war between the two factions.
During the Iran-Iraq War the Iraqi Kurds sided with Iran against the Ba'athis Iraq. Help from the Kurds was an important factor in Iran's early success on the Northern Front (Iraqi Kurdistan) but despite their gains the Iranians were unable to take control of any cities or towns of significance. Iraq responded with chemical gas and Saddam Hussein and his government gassed thousands of Kurds and Iranian soldiers. Although the gas did beat the Iranians in the Central Front and Iraq could recapture all lost territories there including the oil-rich Majnoon Islands Iran kept on making gains in the North until the Iranians accepted Saddams truce. However Saddam tried to invade Khouzestan as he thought he could still win the war and the Mujahedin al-Kalq (an Iranian terrorist organisation that had sided with Iraq) attacked Iran in the center, but both of these invasions failed (though Iraq did make small gains in Iran) and Saddam also accepted the truce. The Iranians pulled out of North Iraq and Iran stopped supporting the Kurds in Iraq. The Kurds had to now continue fighting Saddam on their own and were unsuccessful.
The emergence of strict, militant Islamic groups such as the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan in northern Iraq had by then already been an additional source of fighting and political tension for some time. The international prominence of al-Qaeda following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the U.S. led to the Qaeda-brokered creation of Ansar al-Islam, which further exacerbated sectarian violence. Although sporadic fighting continued with the PKK (the Turkish-based Kurdish Worker’s Party), the PUK Peshmerga faced its largest threat from Ansar al-Islam, which was also supported by the Ba'athist government . Led by Mullah Krekar, a Kurd of strict Islamic faith, Ansar al-Islam was composed of over 500 guerrilla fighters, many of whom fled Afghanistan after the U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom.
Although they had faced traditional military opposition from the Iraqis and mountain-based guerrilla tactics during inter-Kurdish fighting, the PUK Peshmerga had difficulty countering the fanatical assault of Ansar al-Islam. The foreign fighters used suicide attacks, assassinations, mines, bombs, and swords and machetes to not only kill the Peshmerga but to desecrate their bodies. Whereas Ansar al-Islam allegedly received support from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, the PUK Peshmerga had only the KDP forces as allies. Both parties were steadfast in their displeasure about the Ansar al-Islam presence. PUK commander Anwar Dolani, for example, asserted there is “no room for terrorism in Iraqi Kurdistan” and Massoud Barzani claimed Peshmerga forces did not need assistance to defeat the unwelcome militants. Despite Kurdish solidarity, U.S. preparations to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein brought welcome reinforcements to the conflict.
The Peshmerga are allied with the American-led coalition. The Peshmergas of the PUK and the KDP are now working together, but whether this alliance will hold remains to be seen, considering that the KDP actually helped Saddam's forces drive out the PUK in the 1990s.
Peshmerga forces fought side by side with American troops in the 2003 Iraq War in Iraqi Kurdistan. Since that time the Peshmerga have assumed full responsibility for the security of the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq.
In late 2004, when Arab Iraqi Police and ING (Iraqi National Guard) units in the city of Mosul collapsed in the face of an insurgent uprising, Kurdish Peshmerga battalions, who had recently been converted into ING forces, led the counter-attack alongside US military units. To this day, there are a number of Kurdish battalions of former Peshmerga in the Iraqi Army serving in Northern Iraq.
It is estimated that as of January, 2005 there were 180,000 Peshmerga fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan. The article estimates their number to be 270,000 A recent CBS News reports places their number at 375,000.
The Peshmerga are an active partner in the American-led coalition in Iraq. Many Peshmerga are fluent in Arabic, in contrast to foreign coalition troops, and they therefore play an important role in the Sunni triangle of Central Iraq. On the strategic level the Peshmergas are ready to fight a guerrilla war of any invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan.