Kurds have bird’s-eye view of ISIL forces

Peshmerga and Canadian forces were both to blame for the death in friendly fire of Sgt. Andrew Doiron, says a senior Kurdish infantry commander who has worked closely with Canadian advisers since last fall in the fight against ISIL forces.

“It was the fault of both sides,” said Brig.-Gen. Ameed Bahram, as he kept a close watch on his troops who were dug in within 800 metres of the militant forces on Bashiqa Mountain.

“The reason was a lack of communication between the Canadians and the peshmerga on the front lines, and we are full of sorrow for what happened. It is an unhappy issue because the Canadians have come to help us and this was done to one of them by the peshmerga.

“The Canadians thought that they had been recognized and they hadn’t been. The two sides were not aware of each other. The Canadians were a new team without much experience of working together with us. The old one had left a couple of days before.”

The general commands a 17-kilometre-long sector of the front, only 10 km from the outskirts of the strategically vital ISIL-held city of Mosul.

The Canadians had remained “very professional and strong” since Doiron’s death, he said.

Bahram apologized for being unable to provide further details about the tragic incident, which happened nearby. This is because the matter is still being investigated by the peshmerga and the Canadians.

The findings will be made public once the reports have been completed and reviewed, said Brig.-Gen. Helgurd Hikmet Mela Ali, the peshmerga’s media relations director in Irbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region.

Postmedia’s visit to the front was arranged through the peshmerga.

Over five days, the peshmerga, who say they have lost about 1,200 men fighting ISIL since last summer, provided Postmedia with unprecedented access to troops on several front-line positions, including those on Bashiqa Mountain who are being aided by some of the 70 Special Forces advisers Canada has sent to northern Iraq. Requests to speak with Canada’s Special Operations Forces Command advisers and trainers in Iraq have been turned down.

Bahram was speaking in a disputed area where coalition aircraft assisted by Canadian advisers acting as forward air controllers struck four ISIL targets the previous evening.

ISIL reported on its walkie-talkie radio network that 18 of its men had died in the Sunday night attacks, including a local commander. A few hundred metres away from the general, in a small, heavily fortified bunker looking down on the Mosul Plain, Capt. Shoro Hamadamin urged his visitor to keep his head down below the top of a wall of sandbags because of ISIL snipers.

As he spoke, his radio crackled with the voices of ISIL fighters passing on orders to prepare a rocket attack on the outpost.

Through a small opening in the bunker wall, the occupants could use binoculars to see the black flags of ISIL and jihadi forces moving around in two civilian vehicles. All the while, a reconnaissance drone whined overhead, the sound often drowned out by the roar of coalition fighter aircraft higher in the sky.

“We see the most activity at dusk and at dawn,” Hamadamin said. “They sometimes move a heavy machine gun around on the back of a truck, which they put a cover over. They use tractors and motorcycles, too. They are even using horses and donkeys.

“Because they know the aircraft won’t attack civilians, they try to make it look as if they are civilians by never using military vehicles. But there are no civilians in Bashiqa today.” Before the hostilities erupted, the olive-farming town below the mountain was populated by Yazidi and Shabak Kurds, a Christian Assyrian minority, and a few Iraqi Sunni Arabs.

Peshmerga sheltering in bunkers and trenches nearest the front said they much preferred being with their Canadian advisers at this spot, than the American and French soldiers.

Ali Mohammed, who described himself as the general’s bodyguard, said what surprised them most about the Canadians was “we eat big meals of rice and they eat small meals out of packages. We really don’t understand how they can manage to be healthy eating so little food.”

The Canadians “were the most effective” coalition advisers because they worked so hard, Bahram said.

As well as teaching his men how to call in airstrikes, the Canadians provided training courses in first aid, how to read maps and handle weaponry, such as sniper rifles and rocketpropelled grenades. “It is very important having the Canadian trainers so close to us so that our men can fight ISIL at night and then take courses during the day,” he said. “The Canadians ask us what courses we want, we tell them and they then organize those courses for us.”

The coalition airstrikes, which Bahram said were sometimes carried out by Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornets, were “very positive because when they attack, Daesh (the Arab acronym for ISIL) don’t attack us for a while. Each time there is an air attack, the enemy loses people or weapons.”

Several other peshmerga generals said the Kurdish troops perched atop the mountain were poised to play a key role in the joint offensive with Iraqi security forces on Mosul, expected before this fall.

“This is high ground and we can spy on them from here as we prepare for the battle,” Bahram said. “We are only 10 minutes away by car from Mosul, so we are under daily attacks here by snipers and small rockets.”

It was a bit of a surprise to learn the general knew about Canada’s upcoming federal election and the possible impact of Doiron’s death on voters.

“I worry that it could affect the general idea that Canadians have about having their advisers and their aircraft here,” he said. “We really need your help.”

BY MATTHEW FISHER – NATIONAL POST

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