In heaviest fighting since August, Kurds turn back Islamic State assault near Irbil

Islamic State fighters killed at least 30 Kurdish militia members in fierce fighting over the weekend, the heaviest combat near Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, since the U.S. began airstrikes last August.

The fighting took place on the outskirts of Gwer, the same town 30 miles outside of Irbil whose capture by Islamic State militants in early August helped prompt the U.S. aerial intervention, and began Saturday morning when hundreds of Islamic State fighters crossed a small river in boats in hopes of outflanking Kurdish militia who’ve occupied Gwer for the last five months.

At least 24 Kurdish militia, known as the peshmerga, and members of the Kurdistan internal security service, the Assaysh, were killed Saturday before a fierce counterattack drove the attackers out of Gwer and into the contested village of Sultan Abdullah. U.S. airstrikes played a critical role, with the U.S. Central Command reporting the destruction of 21 boats that the Islamic State had used to cross the river.

In an interview Sunday at his command post just a few hundred meters from the front lines, Sirwan Barzani, nephew of the Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, said that the Islamic State had attacked their positions again Sunday morning with armored vehicles, mostly looted from the Iraqi Army after its collapse in Mosul last June, but that newly arrived heavy weaponry allowed the Kurdish forces to repel the attack.

“The situation is stable now,” he said in the late afternoon as his forces fired Katusha rockets and a Soviet-era 105mm howitzer from nearby positions. “We have captured several of their vehicles and will put them back to use,” he said. He also said his forces had destroyed several other Islamic State vehicles with German-supplied Milan anti-tank missiles.

Barzani said Kurdish troops had recovered at least 17 bodies of dead Islamic State fighters and had paraded them in nearby villages because “seeing dead terrorists is good for the morale of the people.”

Kurdish officers on the scene said that at least six peshmerga fighters had been killed Sunday, bringing the weekend’s total dead for the Kurdish forces to at least 30, a strikingly high number of casualties in a short period for the peshmerga, which has lost about 800 members since the Islamic State took over much of northern Iraq in June.

Gwer and the nearby town of Mahmour mark a strategic front line that controls the southern approaches to Irbil as well as to oil fields and power plants coveted by the Islamic State. Militants took control of both places in a surprise attack in August that brought home that the peshmerga was ill-equipped to counter the Islamic State, which had looted thousands of vehicles and heavy weapons from Iraqi army stockpiles in its push through northern and central Iraq.

While Kurdish forces retook the two towns in late August with the help of U.S. airstrikes, the Islamic State has held onto territory just outside them.

“It has taken us nearly six months to retake the road you drive to get to this position,” a peshmerga fighter told a McClatchy reporter from a location overlooking the village of Sultan Abdullah. “I have been fighting in the same 10 square kilometers for five months.”

International military aid, primarily heavy weapons from Germany and ammunition and small arms from the United States, along with improved relations with the central government in Baghdad, have improved Kurdish military capabilities, fighters interviewed Sunday said. They were especially thankful for Milan anti-tank missiles from Germany.

“The Milan from Germany is great and unlike August we have plenty of ammunition,” said Barzani.

Still, Barzani said Kurdish forces have been unable to dislodge the Islamic State. “But we can protect Irbil,” he said.

When asked if the peshmerga had enough manpower and equipment, one chubby fighter laughed.

“I’m a civil servant and studying for my PhD in the United Kingdom,” he laughed. “If we had what we needed, do you think I would be out here?”

“Look at me,” he added, pointing to his ample girth. “I’m not a solider, I don’t even know the names of half these weapons. I can only use this,” pointing to his Kalashnikov assault rifle.

“If we had enough men and equipment, I could go home, but this is my country and I will fight for it because there’s nobody else to do it,” he added.