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Kurds battling ISIS with aging arsenal

New arms, training lacking, fighters say

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter stands next to a firearm in Mahmoudiyah, Iraq, Wednesday. Fighters took control of it from the Islamic State group on Tuesday while patrolling in the northern village. (Associated Press)
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter stands next to a firearm in Mahmoudiyah, Iraq, Wednesday. Fighters took control of it from the Islamic State group on Tuesday while patrolling in the northern village. (Associated Press)
Vivian Salama Associated Press

MAHMOUDIYAH, Iraq – The exhausted Kurdish fighters leaned against a pair of antiquated green cannons on a hill overlooking this northern Iraqi village, the ground around them littered with shrapnel from fierce battles with Islamic State militants.

One of them, Moustafa Saleh, tapped the cannon with his mud-caked boots. “Russian-made,” he said, with a smirk. “My grandfather used the same one.”

Iraqi Kurdish fighters on the front lines of battle say they have yet to receive the heavy weapons and training pledged by the United States and nearly a dozen other countries to help them push back the Sunni militants.

U.S.-led airstrikes have forced the militants to retreat or go into hiding in towns and villages across northern Iraq, paving the way for ground forces to retake territory seized by the militant group in its lightning advance since June across western and northern Iraq.

But without more sophisticated weaponry, the Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, have had to rely on aging arms like the Soviet-era cannons, a centerpiece of the offensive Tuesday to retake Mahmoudiyah and the nearby strategic towns of Rabia and Zumar.

While some newly sent arms have stacked up in the Kurdish capital, including a shipment from Germany this week, Kurdish officials say they can’t be distributed until the Kurdish fighters are trained. The delay shows the difficulties on the ground as the U.S. and its allies bomb the militants from the air.

“Peshmerga were only trained before to save Kurdistan and to prevent terrorists from coming inside Kurdistan,” said Halgurd Hekmat, spokesman for the Iraqi Kurdish force in Irbil, the capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region. “We plan to send the heavy weapons, but only after making sure the soldiers know how to use them in battle and fix them when the weapons have a problem.”

At a checkpoint outside Rabia in northwestern Iraq, some two dozen peshmerga soldiers stood guard Wednesday to secure the town they had just retaken. Only one wore a flak jacket. “We don’t have them,” Special Forces commander Hakar Mohsen said. “One of many things we need.”

The U.S. and Western allies including Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands have committed to arming the Kurds, agreeing to send machine guns, assault rifles and ammunition. Hekmat said some units had received the ammunition, since it requires no training. However, fighters at more than a half-dozen units interviewed by the Associated Press said they had yet to receive anything.

Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon press officer, said efforts by the U.S. to arm the Kurds, “have already begun and will accelerate in the coming days with more nations also expected to contribute.”

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