German missiles give Peshmerga respite from ISIL truck bombs
Kirkuk, Iraq // The dirt track to the front line does not lend itself to a smooth ride, but the driver pushes down on the accelerator. “Snipers,” he explains.
The berm shielding the SUV from gunsights does not line the final stretch of road to the mud-walled compound held by Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga. As the speeding vehicle nears the outpost, a line of trees is visible a few hundred metres in the distance – it is from there that ISIL militants train their guns on the Kurds.
While the threat from snipers is ever present, it was another weapon that until recently had proved to be ISIL’s most potent: motorised suicide bombers that deliver a deadly load on their final drive.
Known as vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED), they strike fear into their opponents and punch large holes into defences. The vehicles used range from captured US-made armoured cars to trucks and bulldozers clad in heavy iron plates.
Desperately short of means to stop these vehicles at the start of the war, the Peshmerga have since received hundreds of Milan anti-tank missiles from Germany. Fired from a tripod launching pad, the wire-guided missiles are capable of knocking out any moving ground target.
But farther south, the suicide truck bombs continue to wreak havoc among the Iraqi security forces and the Shiite militias battling ISIL in Anbar province. The bombers played a key role in the extremists’ capture of Ramadi last month and on Monday dozens of Iraqi security force members were killed when militants ploughed explosives-laden Humvees into a police base.
The Iraqi army has complained that they do not have the right weapons to cope with the threat. Here, on a different front against ISIL and with their Milan missiles, the Peshmerga are at ease behind the walls of their compound.
The position is a short drive from Maryam Beg, a canal that was part of the front line around Kirkuk until the Peshmerga took more ground from the extremists in March.
The new front line – about 25 kilometres from Kirkuk – has since been static, and ISIL has concentrated its forces at Ramadi in Anbar, Iraq’s Beiji refinery and in Syria.
In a series of deliveries starting last September, the German army delivered 80 portable Milan launchers, together with at least 10 times as many armour-piercing missiles.
The Milans have taken the sting out of the vehicle suicide attacks, and with increasing numbers of them at hand, the Kurdish lines have steadily firmed.
With the Peshmerga fighting on a front line stretching from Syria to Iran, there are never enough Milans to go around, however. The troops at Maryam Beg are lucky, and their remote position is equipped with the missile.
It is operated by First Lieutenant Rebor, a 34-year-old Peshmerga from Sulemaniya. Together with a select few, he was sent to Germany in January to learn how to fire the Milan, then rushed back to his unit.
“We spent seven days training on the Milan. When I got back, I was sent to the Kirkuk front line immediately,” says the lieutenant standing next to the rocket launcher that has been assembled in the courtyard of the compound. He was able to put his new skills to the test two months later, when he knocked out an ISIL bulldozer that was trying to smash through the Peshmerga defences.
As he speaks, shots ring out across the field. Such sniping is common, but the ISIL fighters have also been put on alert by the dust whipped up by the SUV.
A couple of kilometres farther back from the outpost, an ageing Russian T-52 tank stands guard at the second line of defence. Parked on a large mound of earth, its crew has a commanding view of the flat farmland before it.
It is supported by a small group of Peshmerga who have positioned themselves next to the road leading back to Kirkuk.
The unit was defending a bridge at the Maryam Beg canal when ISIL launched a fierce attack on January 30, part of a probing offensive all along the front line that caught the Kurds off guard and was repelled only after heavy losses.
The defenders could not rely on anti-tank missiles that day, and a group of vehicles driven by suicide bombers had crossed the canal and breached the first line of defence by the time a coalition airstrike destroyed the bridge.
“They crossed with pickup trucks, bulldozers, everything they had was ready to explode,” says Salim Mohamed, the group’s commander.
Hunkered down in their trenches 200 metres behind the waterway, the Peshmerga were saved by the marksmanship of Hewan, their sniper. In spite of heavy fog, he managed to deflate the tyres of the heavily armoured vehicles, and then kill their drivers by shooting them through their vision slit. In all, Hewan was able to disable five of the vehicles.
The Peshmerga took one of the knocked-out vehicles back to their base. A truck heavy with protective sheets of metal and a machine gun turret to spray rounds at the defenders until it was close enough to detonate its enormous explosive charge. Its tyres deflated and the driver killed, the lumbering beast was a reminder of ISIL’s suicidal ingenuity.
Near disasters like Maryam Beg show that the Peshmerga urgently need more military aid from the West, says General Hewar Abdullah Ahmed, and more Milans are at the top of their wish list.
“Our weapons are the same ones we used to fight Saddam, we’ve been using them for 25 years or more. They are old. The enemy has modern weapons,” says the general, who commands the section of the front around the canal.
ISIL may be preoccupied with other battles now, but the group is known for suddenly shifting its forces to deliver concentrated blows elsewhere. With its vast oilfields and sizeable population, Kirkuk remains a coveted prize, and the Kurds may soon be fighting to keep control of the city, which their forces occupied in response to ISIL’s advance across Iraq last year.
“Kirkuk is a very strategic city, they want it as much as they want Beiji or any other place,” says Gen Ahmed.
Updated: June 1, 2015 04:00 AM