Explainer: Who are the Peshmerga?

Kurdish Peshmerga in Kirkuk. (Getty)

Australia is set join international efforts in Iraq and help transport weapons to Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants, but who exactly are we helping?


Australia is set join international efforts in Iraq, joining the US, Albania, Croatia and Denmark in transporting weapons to Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants.

Kurdish community representative Ali Erdogdu, based in Sydney, said his community supported the government arming Kurds in northern Iraq, but said it was vital that support went to the correct group.                                     

SBS World News asked Jacky Sutton from the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University for some insight.

Listen: Jacky Sutton speaks to Stephanie Anderson


Who are the Peshmerga?

The Peshmerga - which means “those who confront death” – began as guerrilla forces in the 1920s.

Ms Sutton said the group became affiliated with Kurdish leadership from the 1940s onwards, being targeted by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army in the late 80s and taking part in the Kurdistan region’s civil war in the late 1990s.

Ms Sutton said since 2003, Peshmerga is the official name for the forces loyal to the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

“They are legally, under the constitution, authorised the Kurdistan region of Iraq,” she said.

It's believed the group consists of up to 200,000 members, though ranks have been swelling as volunteers join the fight against the ISIS advance.

What history do they have with American and Australian forces?

Ms Sutton says the group has a “very, very good relationship” with the United States, aiding with the fall of Saddam Hussein.

“As far as the Iraqis are concerned, from 2003 the Allied Forces were pretty much the same,” she says.

“If Australian forces were working along American operatives in the run up to the downfall of Saddam Hussein, then certainly the Kurdish would have cooperated with them as well. In the fighting itself, from 2003 onwards, certainly the Kurdish forces were cooperating with the Coalition forces.”

What is their role in the current conflict in Iraq?

Ms Sutton says the Peshmerga are fighting for the survival of Kurdish villages.

“IS has threatened genocide of some communities and has certainly made it very clear that this is a brutal, nasty war being waged against civilians,” she said.

Despite this threat, Ms Sutton said there was some anger and suspicion within Iraq that the Peshmerga have “manipulated the situation” to seize control of the oil rich city of Kirkuk.

She says the region is historically disputed, with both Kurds and the Iraqi Government believing the city belongs to them.

“So very early on in the onslaught of ISIS, Kurdish forces routed ISIS in Kirkuk and stayed,” she says.

“The role of the Peshmerga is both to fight for the survival of the Kurdistan region… and to certainly further the strategic goals of the Kurdistan regional government.

“Now they’ve established themselves in the Kirkuk city, it’s going to take quite a lot of negotiating by the Bagdad government to persuade them to leave.”

Source World News Australia

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