Peshmerga fighters after capturing a village west of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk from ISIS
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman is the Kurdistan Regional Government's Representative to the United States.
Last summer, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces found themselves facing the world's most heavily armed, well-financed and brutal terrorist organisation in the form of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.
With their Mad Max-style lightning suicide-attacks using dozens of bomb-laden tanks and Humvees, the terrorists rampaged across central and northern Iraq, committing atrocities against the Christians in Nineveh and the Yezidi in Sinjar. Their take-over of the city of Mosul in June 2014 had shocked the world, not least because Iraqi soldiers had fled their posts and left their sophisticated weaponry in the hands of ISIS.
What seemed to be an unstoppable force has today been halted by the Peshmerga, who despite being under-equipped and not funded by the Iraqi government, have retaken almost all the Kurdish territory ISIS had overrun.
The Peshmerga are not only protecting our own population and the 1.6 million refugees who have sought sanctuary with us (many of whom are minorities), but also key infrastructure that serves all of Iraq. The Peshmerga are protecting the Mosul dam, which doesn't serve Kurdistan but supplies electricity to Mosul and other areas. While in ISIS' hands, there was a great fear that the militants could open the flood-gates, putting the lives of millions of people at risk. The Peshmerga are protecting the oil installations in Kirkuk and our government is exporting oil from those fields in agreement with the federal government in Baghdad, supporting the economy of the whole country.
The Peshmerga have delivered great success despite facing great disadvantages.
The advances by the Peshmerga, whose courage has been acknowledged around the world, were possible thanks to the support of the United States and the coalition it has put together to counter ISIS. When ISIS approached the Kurdish capital of Erbil in August 2014 and launched its genocide against the Yezidi, the US and coalition responded with humanitarian aid and airstrikes. In Gwer and Makhmour near Erbil, it was the first time that ISIS' momentum was halted and, together with US and coalition air power, the Peshmerga disproved the myth of ISIS' invincibility.
The West and some countries in the Middle East are committed to the destruction of ISIS but are not willing to send their own ground forces. The Peshmerga are the ground forces that have delivered great successes, such as the retaking of Zummar and most of Sinjar as well as the Mosul dam. The Peshmerga have done so despite the great disadvantages they face.
We should be clear that the people and government of Kurdistan are grateful to the United States and all those in the coalition for standing by us against ISIS. We know that without the airstrikes and the delivery of weapons, our situation would be dire. We are also grateful for the humanitarian assistance we have received to help us cope with the large and sudden influx of displaced people, which last year resulted in a 28 per cent increase in our population and which continues to grow.
Those who have and continue to seek shelter are Syrian refugees and Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities. They flee to Kurdistan, when in some instances it would have been easier for them to flee elsewhere, because of Kurdistan's culture of co-existence and respect for religious freedom and diversity. It is these values and the values of democracy and freedom that the Peshmerga are willing to die for and have done so in great numbers. Over 1,200 Peshmerga have been killed and thousands injured.
Some have criticised the United States and other countries for sending weapons to the Peshmerga and for even considering the delivery of equipment direct to Kurdistan rather than via Baghdad. The Peshmerga were denied weapons, training and funding by the Iraqi government even though the Iraqi constitution recognises them as part of Iraq's defence system. Weapons designated for the Peshmerga by the United States were deliberately held back under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Even today, the Peshmerga are under-equipped to face the sophisticated weapons used by ISIS, including the 2,300 armoured vehicles they captured in Mosul and other advanced weapons they recently took in Ramadi.
For historical reasons, the Peshmerga were established along party-political lines but we have been working towards unifying our security forces. Established in 2011, the Kurdistan Region Security Council coordinates efforts between branches of the Kurdistan Region's security apparatus. At President Masoud Barzani's request in August 2014, these institutions have redoubled their efforts to unify command. All weapons are delivered to the Ministry of Peshmerga whose minister is from the former opposition party. Contrary to misinformed critics, the ministry sends stocks to where they are needed and not according to any party bias.
We should encourage Baghdad to honour its agreements with the Kurds and Sunnis.
Some argue that arming the Peshmerga will further divide Iraq. Yet Iraq has never been a country at ease with itself. Its entire history is riddled with violence and division. The people of Kurdistan have endured discrimination, dictatorship, war, the use of chemical weapons and genocide. We welcome the efforts of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to be more inclusive. Yet even under his leadership, we see a failure by Baghdad to honour its commitments, for example, the budget law which stipulates that the Kurdistan Region will be given 17 per cent of Iraq's budget in exchange for oil exports. Despite our adherence to the agreement, Baghdad has failed to honour its part in full, leaving the Kurdish economy struggling unsustainably with a war and a huge humanitarian burden.
Instead of focusing on the question of arming the Peshmerga, who need the weapons to protect the displaced and to be the boots on the ground against ISIS, those critics would serve Iraq better by encouraging Baghdad to honour its agreements with the Kurds and Sunnis, and to recognise the many times since 2003 when it was the Kurds who helped fellow Iraqis find a way out of a political impasse.
It is difficult for the world to be optimistic about Iraq. Having lost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars to liberate the country from Saddam Hussein and to defend the country from extremism, it is painful to see the black flag of ISIS over cities like Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul.
But in spite of the chaos into which Iraq has descended, Kurdistan is a success story that needs to be nurtured. Kurdistan is uniquely positioned to serve as a bulwark against extremism in the Middle East, if given the chance. As a still-point in a turbulent region, we have built a functioning, nascent democracy that deserves recognition and continued support.