BAQOFA, Iraq: Jihadists targeting minorities are “worse than Saddam,” a Kurdish commander says, standing near a sand barrier at a front line in north Iraq, the militants’ black flag fluttering in the distance.
The desert area was until recently under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, which launched a renewed push in Iraq’s north earlier this month, taking ground from Kurdish forces, attacking minority groups and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee for their lives.
ISIS is “worse than Saddam. They use terror and chaos to force the population to flee. Then they take over,” says Maj. Gen. Abdulrahman Kawiri, an officer in the Kurdish peshmerga forces, puffing on a cigarette as the sun sets.
It is an emotive assertion for a member of Iraq’s Kurdish community, which was targeted in a genocidal campaign in the 1980s by the regime of now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein – a campaign that killed tens of thousands of people.
Kawiri’s deputy, Maj. Gen. Sardar Kamal, says the Kurds’ experience under Saddam was part of the reason they were so keen to join the fight against ISIS.
“We don’t want history to repeat itself,” Kamal says as his men pitch tents and get ready to spend the night guarding their freshly recaptured ground, just a few dozen meters from the nearest ISIS position.
In the distance, columns of smoke rise from the sites of American airstrikes carried out in support of the Kurdish and federal security forces fighting ISIS.
Kawiri says the strikes have been “very, very helpful.”
His forces also have strong Kurdish nationalist sentiment on their side. “We are fighting a war in self-defense, and we believe in our cause,” he says.
Kamal says he has been fighting with the peshmerga since he was 16 years old.
“I can’t remember how many battles I’ve fought,” he laughs, while nearby, fighters unload watermelons, ice blocks and crates of water bottles from pickup trucks bringing in supplies.
The peshmerga’s long experience with guerrilla war against Saddam’s regime has helped the Kurds to turn the tide, after initially losing large swaths of territory to ISIS in recent weeks, he says.
The peshmerga’s worst defeat was the ISIS capture of the Mosul Dam, the country’s largest, nearly a fortnight ago, but peshmerga and Iraqi security forces retook it Sunday.
Deployed just a few dozen kilometers from the dam, Kamal says he cannot remember any wars quite like this one.
ISIS “had the element of surprise to begin with, but now we know their tactics,” he adds, while other peshmerga gather to listen in.
“They send fighters with explosives strapped around them into areas and start blowing things up.” he says. “They attack the civilians – men, women and children – and terrorize the rest into flight.
“Within a short space of time, they take over,” he says.
While many older peshmerga fighters have a wealth of combat experience, others are facing battle for the first time.
Aram Hikmet, a slight 19-year-old carrying a large machinegun, wasn’t born when Saddam’s forces carried out their heaviest crackdowns on the Kurds.
“I heard of the Yazidi and Christian women and children being killed,” he says, referring to minorities targeted by ISIS. “I couldn’t take it. I had to join the fight.”
Another fighter, Jassem Yahya, says he came out of retirement.
“I spent eight years in the Iraqi army, fighting the Iraq-Iran war” that ended in 1988, he says.
“I am a good fighter,” he adds. ISIS “was attacking ferociously. I had to do something.”