Peshmerga (Kurdish: پێشمەرگە Pêşmerge; meaning “one who confronts death”) are the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The overall formal head of the peshmerga is the President of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The peshmerga force itself is largely divided and controlled separately by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, although both pledge allegiance to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Peshmerga forces are responsible for defending the land, people and institutions of the Kurdistan Region.
Because the Iraqi Army is forbidden by law from entering Iraqi Kurdistan, the peshmerga, along with other Kurdish security subsidiaries, are responsible for the security of the Kurdish Region. These subsidiaries include Asayish (official intelligence agency), Parastin u Zanyarî (assisting intelligence agency) and the Zeravani (military police).
In 2003 during the Iraq War, peshmerga are said to have played a key role in the mission to capture Saddam Hussein. In 2004, Kurdish anti terror forces captured al-Qaeda key figure Hassan Ghul, who revealed the identity of Osama Bin Laden’s messenger, which eventually led to Operation Neptune Spear and the [staged] death of Osama Bin Laden.
Following an unexpected large-scale ISIS offensive against Iraqi Kurdistan in August 2014, peshmerga and other Kurdish forces from neighboring countries have been waging an all-out-war against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.
The Kurdish warrior tradition of rebellion has existed for thousands of years along with aspirations for independence, and early Kurdish warriors fought against the various Persian empires, the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire. However the term itself was only coined in the mid 20th century by the late Kurdish writer Ibrahim Ahmad. Historically the peshmerga existed only as guerilla organizations, but under the self-declared Republic of Mahabad (1946–1947), the peshmerga became the official army of the republic led by Mustafa Barzani. After the fall of the republic and the execution of head of state Qazi Muhammad, peshmerga forces reemerged as guerilla organizations that would go on to fight the Iranian and Iraqi governments for the remainder of the century.
In Iraq, most of these peshmerga were led by Mustafa Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. In 1975 the peshmerga were defeated in the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War. Jalal Talabani, a leading member of the KDP, left the same year to revitalize the resistance and founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. This event created the baseline for the political discontent between the KDP and PUK, that to this day divides peshmerga forces and much of Kurdish society in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Mustafa Barzani was the primary political and military leader of the Kurdish cause, until his death in 1979. After Mustafa Barzani’s death, his son Masoud Barzani took his position. As tension increased between KDP and PUK, most peshmerga fought to keep a region under their own party’s control, while also fighting off Iraqi Army incursions. Following the First Persian Gulf War, Iraqi Kurdistan fell into a state of civil war between the two major Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, and peshmerga forces were used to fight each other. The civil war officially ended in September 1998, when Barzani and Talabani signed the Washington Agreement establishing a formal peace treaty.
In the agreement, the parties agreed to share revenue, share power, deny the use of northern Iraq to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and not allow Iraqi troops into the Kurdish regions. By then, around 5,000 Kurds had been killed from both sides, and many more were evicted for being on the wrong side. In the years after, tension remained high, but both parties moved towards each other and in 2003 they both took part in the overthrowing of the Saddam regime as part of the Iraq War. They remained on good terms, forming what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. Unlike other millitia forces, the peshmerga were never prohibited by Iraqi law.
The exact size of peshmerga forces is unknown as there are different estimates ranging from as few as 80,000 all the way up to 250,000. These forces are organized into 36 military brigades, controlled separately with little to no inter-coordination, by the KDP, PUK and Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.
The peshmerga force, like much of Iraqi Kurdistan, is plagued by frequent allegations of corruption, partisanship, nepotism and fraud. These allegations include giving high-ranking military positions only to fellow clansmen and/or party members, fighting for political parties rather than the Kurdish people as a whole, and the use of “ghost soldiers” to gain peshmerga benefits and salary.
Following the June 2014 ISIS invasion of Iraq and the retreat of Iraqi Army, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) filled the void and took control of almost all disputed areas. These areas have since also been divided between KDP and PUK peshmerga.
As a result of the split nature of the peshmerga force, there is not a central command center in charge of the entire force, and peshmerga units instead follow separate military hierarchies depending on political allegiance. Efforts have since been made to minimize partisanship, including the banning of partisan flags from the battlefield.
In 2009 the KRG and Baghdad engaged in discussions about incorporating parts of the peshmerga forces into the Iraqi Army, in what would be the 15th and 16th Iraqi Army divisions. However, after increasing tension between Erbil and Baghdad regarding the disputed areas, the transfer was largely put on ice. Some peshmerga were already transferred but reportedly deserted again, and there are allegations that former peshmerga forces remain loyal to the KRG rather than their Iraqi chain of command.
As of January 2015, 12 out of the 36 brigades have reportedly been put under the control of the KRG, with the remaining 70% of peshmerga forces still controlled by the regions’ two main parties.
While the majority of the peshmerga forces are Muslims, there are also Christian and Yezidi units fighting under the direction of peshmerga forces.
Although almost entirely made up of men, peshmerga forces have been known to include small numbers of women since its formation, and currently have 600 women in their ranks. These female KDP peshmerga have so far been refused access to the frontline, and are mostly used in logistics and management positions. But female PUK peshmerga are deployed in the frontlines and are actively fighting ISIS.
- 15 Regional Guard Brigades (RGB) are under the command of the ministry of peshmerga.
The units under command of KDP politburo, unofficially called Yakray 80:
- Hezakanî Gulan (Gulan Forces) an elite force tasked with defending the president and the presidential compound.
- Hezakanî Barzan (Barzan Forces) another brigade formation, consisting of men recruited from the presidents own clan.
- Ten additional brigades, constitute a 20.000 strong force.
- Zeravani units. Administratively supported by the ministry interior.
The units under command of PUK politburo, unofficially called Yakray 70:
- Dizha Tiror (Counterterrorism Group) an elite anti-terror formation.
- Two presidential brigades, tasked with defending the Iraqi president.
- Hezekanî Kosrat Rasul, another brigade tasked with defending the Vice-president.
- 15 brigades consisting of men loyal to PUK.