To get to Bashiq Mountain – and the front line between the Kurdish peshmerga army and forces of the so-called Islamic State – you drive a long bumpy highway through just-planted fields of rice and corn, passing a white-tent settlement for refugees from nearby IS-controlled Mosul, and a succession of tin-roofed Kurdish checkpoints. Somewhere nearby lies the spot where Sergeant Andrew Doiron died in a “friendly fire” incident last month.
Barring the way is the ambiguous figure of Farhang Afandi, with two flags on his military uniform, a one-man representative of the Byzantine politics and murky chains of command in this breakaway region of northern Iraq.
“I can’t let you go,” Mr. Afandi says, overruling both the office of Kurdish president Masoud Barzani and the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, both of which made calls last week to facilitate The Globe and Mail’s second effort to reach Bashiq Mountain, after Mr. Afandi denied The Globe permission to travel two days earlier.
He declared that the decisions of the local commander take precedence over those made in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, though the reason Mr. Afandi gives for the refusal shifts over the course of the two conversations. First it’s safety, then it’s a blanket ban on journalists and civilians travelling to the area. Several times “the media” is asked to stop digging into Sgt. Doiron’s death, and to focus on “positive stories” about Canada’s military involvement in northern Iraq.
But although the Peshmerga Ministry says the efforts of Canada’s soldiers in northern Iraq (the Canadian government says there are 69 advisers deployed in Iraqi Kurdistan) are concentrated on the Bashiq Mountain front – and the troops are regularly at the front line, unlike other Western military trainers deployed here – we’re told we can’t see or speak to them.
Mr. Afandi doesn’t actually give his name, and raises his voice when asked what his rank is. “You don’t have the right to ask for my position!” he shouts.
But everyone in the area knows who Mr. Afandi is. He’s the son of Hamid Afandi, a former Minister of Peshmerga Affairs and the current commander of 10,000 men defending district 7.2 of the Kurdish front line, which includes both the green-covered rise of Bashiq Mountain, and the soldiers of the Halgurd Unit that opened fire on Sgt. Doiron, a 31-year-old Moncton native, and three other Canadian soldiers at a checkpoint near here on the night of March 6 in an apparent case of mistaken identity.
The younger Mr. Afandi’s loyalties are complicated. He speaks flawless English and is referred to locally as “our Canadian.” During an unguarded moment, he reveals that he grew up in Ontario, and that he’s actually on contract to the Canadian special forces stationed in northern Iraq, not his father’s peshmerga unit.
He wears a pale green army uniform – lighter in colour than the dark green uniforms most peshmerga wear – with a black “Kurdistan Army” patch on his right shoulder, and a khaki maple leaf on the left. Before he denied The Globe permission to travel on our first effort to reach Bashiq Mountain, Mr. Afandi consulted with two Canadian special forces soldiers who walked into the peshmerga base at Dubardan, at the northern foot of Bashiq Mountain. The two Canadians quickly donned sunglasses and retreated to a back room when told there was a reporter present.
Canada’s Department on National Defence says Mr. Afandi is a contracted interpreter working for the Canadian military on an “as required basis” in northern Iraq. “He does not hold a military rank or special status but is afforded the professional respect and privileges of a military contractor by Canadian military personnel while he is working for the Canadian Armed Forces in Iraq,” Daniel Le Bouthillier, a spokesman for the department, said in response to e-mailed inquiries from The Globe.
Mr. Le Bouthillier said Mr. Afandi was not a Canadian citizen and cited the Privacy Act when asked whether he had permanent resident status. Mr. Le Bouthillier said Mr. Afandi had purchased his own uniform and that it was “common practice for forces working together to show solidarity by displaying their partner’s cultural symbols or national flags.”
So who is preventing journalists from visiting the front line at Bashiq Mountain, when the rest of the 1,000-kilometre-long peshmerga frontline is very receptive to media visits?
“We recommend that you contact the Ministry of the Peshmerga,” was Mr. Le Bouthillier’s reply when asked to explain Mr. Afandi’s actions.
But Lieutenant-General Jabar Yawar, a member of the Peshmerga General Command who approved The Globe’s trip to the front, clearly feels he’s reached the extent of his authority when it comes to who can visit Bashiq Mountain. After he gave his permission for a visit to the peshmerga soldiers of the Halgurd unit who were on duty the night Sgt. Doiron was shot, Mr. Afandi blocked us for a second time. I called Lt.-Gen. Yawar. He asked to speak directly to Mr. Afandi – who moved out of earshot to have the conversation – and then apologized after Mr. Afandi handed the mobile phone back. “I’m sorry,” the general said, “this is all I can do.”
“You can say it’s the local command [that made the decision],” Mr. Afandi said afterwards. “We don’t need civilians wandering around here. The investigation [into Sgt. Doiron’s death] is over.”
Mr. Le Bouthillier said he could not say whom Mr. Afandi reported to in either instance, including the first encounter when he was seen consulting with two Canadian special forces officers. “We are not in a position to confirm the contents of every single discussion between CAF members and its partners,” the DND spokesman said, “nor can we confirm if the gentleman was “on the clock” with the CAF or, as previously stated, if he was working for the peshmerga sector commander at the time of the interaction.”
'THE INVESTIGATION, I THINK, IS FINISHED
The assertion that the investigation into Sgt. Doiron’s death has been completed is a surprise. There has been no public announcement about the outcome of any of the two Canadian inquiries into Sgt. Doiron’s death. The U.S.-led coalition against IS is also investigating, as did the Kurdish government. Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Mr. Barzani, also refers to the investigation in the past tense.
“The investigation, I think, is finished. It was an unfortunate incident,” Mr. Hussein said in an interview in his Erbil office. “We are shocked always when we lose a peshmerga. …. And then, to lose a soldier who came here to help us, to support us, to give training to us, it was deeper. We are very sorry about that. But this happens, unfortunately, sometimes, in a war.”
Formally or informally, there appears to be a decision on both the Canadian and Kurdish sides to stop talking about – and blaming each other for – the night Sgt. Doiron died. “They told us not to say anything to you,” said a commander in the Halgurd unit who spoke briefly by phone with The Globe from his position on Bashiq Mountain.
In Erbil, Kurdish officials are clearly anxious to repair any damage that was done to the relationship with Canada. They no longer suggest that Sgt. Doiron and the other Canadian troops may have been somewhere they shouldn’t have been on March 6. “Whatever was said in the past, until now, was personal opinion, not formal,” said Lieutenant-General Jabar Yawar, a member of the Peshmerga General Command. “What happened was a great sadness for us.”
But the story blaming the Canadians for what happened is still the one that fighters of the Halgurd unit tell when their commanders aren’t listening.
The front line, they say, is a nebulous thing around Bashiq Mountain. Roughly, the Kurds control the jagged, green-covered mountain, 20-some kilometres north of Mosul. Islamic State – which is also known as ISIS, ISIL and Da’esh – controls the town of Bashiq itself, at the southern foot of the mountain. The Halgurd unit controls the space between the eastern edge of the mountain, up to the bumpy north-south highway that leads to Commander Afandi (the elder)’s headquarters in a converted hospital a short drive north at Dubardan.
Firefights in the area aren’t uncommon – the peshmerga say their positions on the mountain come under small-arms fire about once a week – but nerves tingle the most at night, when any approaching stranger could be an ambush party, or a suicide bomber, sent by IS.
The Halgurd unit was particularly jumpy the night of March 6 because of a clash the day before that had left an Islamic State fighter dead. The militant’s body was still lying where he had been shot – within sight of the Halgurd positions – and the peshmerga were anticipating a move by IS to try to reclaim the corpse.
From there, the stories diverge.
In the Kurdish version, the four Canadians had gone on foot towards the town of Bashiq – Kurdish officials initially said they were helping identify targets for coalition air strikes – without checking in at the Dubardan peshmerga base for that night’s password. When they emerged out of the dark at around 11 p.m. that night, the peshmerga demanded the password. The reply allegedly came in Arabic and one or more Kurds opened fire, shooting that only stopped when the Canadians’ driver, who had been left with his vehicle behind the Kurdish position when the four Canadians proceeded on foot, alerted the peshmerga that they were shooting at their allies.
“We were very sad. I wish it was one of us who had been killed instead, because the Canadians have come here to support us,” said a 32-year-old member of the Halgurd unit who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said he was not stationed at the checkpoint the shots had been fired from, but the details of the incident were well known to all in the unit. “If you don’t have the password, you can’t even go to the toilet. There are no peshmerga who would speak in Arabic, so we thought they were our enemies.”
In the Canadian version, Sgt. Doiron and his comrades had prearranged their movements that night, and had passed two other checkpoints without incident before the third post opened fire on them. Defense Minister Jason Kenney has said the troops weren’t at the front, and weren’t involved in calling in air strikes, but were fired upon as they approached an “observation post” 200 metres behind the line.
It wasn’t the first time Canadian troops have come under fire in northern Iraq. The Department of National Defence has reported three occasions when Canadian troops have exchanged fire with IS fighters since the start of 2015. That’s led to heightened political debate about the mission, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper initially telling the House of Commons last fall that the Canadians were being sent to northern Iraq “to advise and to assist … not to accompany” the Kurdish forces.
That doesn’t match the role the peshmerga describe the Canadians as playing here. “We’ve gotten many benefits from the Canadian side, because they are with us on the front line, advising us. They are on the front line, helping us there,” Lt.-Gen. Yawar said. He positively contrasted the role of the Canadian advisers with those of other coalition countries that insist their trainers must be nowhere near the fighting.
Speaking in January, General Michael Rouleau, commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, told journalists in Ottawa that “80 per cent” of what Canadian forces did in Iraq happened “kilometres behind the front lines.” He said “the other 20 per cent or so happens in forward positions, mostly close to the front lines but sometimes right at the front lines if that is the only place from where we can accomplish it.”
While Lt.-Gen. Yawar said there is a Canadian military adviser seconded to the Peshmerga General Command in Erbil, there is no Canadian military spokesperson in Iraq. The British, German, Dutch and Italian trainers work under a joint Kurdistan Training Coordination Center that gives regular briefings. The U.S. has a large diplomatic presence here. Yet the only Canadian diplomatic representative in Iraq is a charge d’affaires in Baghdad, housed in the British embassy. That led to brief confusion last year when a Canadian citizen was discovered among the refugees escaping IS, and no one among the Western diplomats stationed in Erbil knew who to contact.
Canada is deeply involved in the war for this country – there are also six CF-18 fighter jets based in Kuwait that carry out bombing runs against IS targets in Iraq and Syria – but diplomatic coverage and consular services for Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are provided out of the Canadian embassy in Amman, Jordan.
That’s nearly 900 kilometres from where Canadian troops have been placed, if not on the front line, certainly in the line of fire.
ONE WHO CONFRONTS DEATH
The peshmerga are legendary warriors. The name means “one who confronts death,” and they have been doing that for decades, having fought first Saddam Hussein’s army during the 1980s, then each other during a three-year civil war in the 1990s, then Saddam again following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and now IS. But they are collectively still something closer to a people’s militia than a professional army.
While most fighters wear dark green military uniforms donated by the U.S., some still wander around bases and checkpoints in traditional Kurdish attire, their baggy pantaloons held up with cloth belts. Their weapons are primarily Kalashnikov rifles and grenade-launchers – most of them supplied by the U.S. – plus the occasional truck-mounted machine gun. There’s no Kurdish air force, and the peshmerga possess little in the way of tanks or artillery.
Asked what Kurdish fighters need most, the fighter from the Halgurd unit who spoke to The Globe immediately replied “money.” Front-line fighters are paid just $400 to $500 a month, he said, forcing many – even in the middle of the war against Islamic State – to request time away from their units to work second jobs to support their families.
Divisions and resentments from the 1990s civil war still linger, adding to the confusion around who gives the orders in a place like Bashiq Mountain. Lt.-Gen. Yawar, the man who authorized The Globe’s trip to the front, has three portraits of former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani in his office, indicating his loyalty to Mr. Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the belligerents in the 1990s. Commander Afandi was peshmerga minister to Mr. Barzani’s rival Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the fighters of the Halgurd unit are drawn from KDP loyalists.
But, despite all the challenges – and with the aid of coalition trainers and warplanes – the Kurds are slowly advancing along most of their 1,000-kilometre front line, and Islamic State is on the retreat.
THE BATTLE FOR MOSUL
That, perhaps, is why the Canadians and Kurds stationed at Bashiq Mountain have decided to stop bickering about who was at fault the night Sgt. Doiron was killed. There is a war to win.
Looming large for the peshmerga and their allies is the city of Mosul, the heart of Islamic State operations in Iraq, and the city where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself last summer to be the “emir” of a new “caliphate” stretching across much of western Iraq and eastern Syria.
Mosul, in Saddam-era guidebooks to Iraq is described as “a city for walking” that was undergoing “a great burst of modernity.” But Mosul has been in a state of near-continuous war since the U.S. invasion of 2003. The city emerged as a centre of Sunni Arab resistance first to the U.S. occupation, then to the Iranian-backed governments that emerged in Baghdad. Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, made their final stand at a safe house in Mosul after the fall of Baghdad. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq – the predecessor organization to Islamic State – frequently used Mosul as a base as he waged his holy war against the U.S. Army.
Although most religious and ethnic minorities immediately fled Mosul when IS entered the city last June, many Sunni Arab residents initially welcomed the jihadis as preferable to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army. After 10 months of harsh Islamic law, power outages and water shortages, it’s not clear how much support remains for IS among the million-plus people believed to still be living in Mosul (the pre-war population was 1.8 million). But it’s also unclear that they would welcome “liberation” by either the Iraqi army or the peshmerga.
That’s exactly what’s being planned, however. After the Iraqi army, with the backing of Shia militias, drove Islamic State out of the central city of Tikrit last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi flew to Erbil to discuss with Mr. Barzani the terms for Kurdish involvement in an assault on Mosul.
Both sides are wary. The Kurds fear being further drawn into an ethnic or sectarian conflict, while the Iraqi government worries the peshmerga won’t later withdraw from areas (such as the neighbourhoods of Mosul that lie east of the Tigris River) it considers part of historic Kurdistan. But while any push towards Mosul is likely months away, if not longer, preparations are already being made.
“The decision is that [the peshmerga] will take part in recapturing Mosul,” said Lt.-Gen. Yawar. “Our concern is what role we will play: Will we enter [the outskirts] of Mosul but not enter the city? Or enter the city and then come out again? We still need to discuss these things.”
Such a battle, he said, is where the Canadian advisers will be most helpful. Despite their long experience with war, the peshmerga have mostly fought defensive battles, usually on mountainous terrain. The Canadians, and other coalition advisers, are helping prepare the peshmerga for an offensive along a long front, over flat ground – and eventually for the kind of house-by-house, street-by-street urban warfare that would be required to oust IS from Mosul.
Mr. Hussein, the presidential chief-of-staff, said the training is very welcome, but added that he wishes Canada and the West would supplement it by providing the peshmerga with the modern tanks and heavy weapons he said could bring the war against IS to a quicker and less costly conclusion.
He said the Kurds have paid for every advance so far with “peshmerga lives,” with some 1,200 Kurdish fighters killed and more than 5,000 injured since the conflict against Islamic State began last summer. He said the peshmerga often find themselves in battle against the kind of M-1 Abrams tanks and howitzer artillery – supplied by the U.S. to the Iraqi army, then seized by IS last summer during its lightning advance – that the West refuses to provide to its Kurdish allies.
At the Dubardan base, two rusty armoured personnel carriers sit parked beside a small Russian-made tank that looks like it saw battle during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. According to the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, Kurdish forces have just 150 such tanks – all of them supplied by the Soviet Union to Saddam Hussein’s army – scattered along its front line with Islamic State.
“If we had heavy weapons, we could reach the same victories that we are now, but with less victims. We are gaining these victories, most of the time, with the blood of our peshmerga,” Mr. Hussein said.
He said the Kurdish leadership has requested heavy weaponry many times, at various levels, in its communications with Western governments, but so far has received only a smattering of help: anti-tank missiles from Germany, truck-mounted heavy machine guns from France, and half a dozen anti-mine robots from Canada that have yet to be deployed. But no tanks.
The request, and the West’s slow response to it, are a reminder of the higher stakes swirling in the background of this war as the investigation into Sgt. Doiron’s death is quickly concluded away from prying eyes.
The Kurds are the West’s willing foot soldiers against IS, both because they fear the spread of extremism and because they are gathering ground ahead of an eventual, inevitable push for independence from an Iraq they see as broken beyond repair. The West is keen to aid the Kurds in the first effort, but nervous about offering any help that could later be repurposed towards the second ambition. (There’s a fear that tanks, for instance, could one day be used in a war of independence.)
Ten months ago – in the wake of Islamic State’s shocking capture of Mosul – Mr. Hussein told The Globe that it was time to “prepare the ground” for a referendum on Kurdish independence. Last week, sitting in the same office, he edged away from such talk, saying the more pressing priority is the war against IS, and that the timing of any future referendum will depend on “the political situation” in Iraq.
The way Iraqi Kurdistan sees its deal with the West is clear. The peshmerga are fighting IS on everyone’s behalf now, and even willing to help in an assault on Mosul, in hopes that the West will reciprocate eventually with support for the Kurdish goal of independence from Iraq. Dropping the Kurdish claim that it was the Canadian special forces troops who were at fault the night of March 6 aids the long-term Kurdish goal of shoring up the alliance between Ottawa and Erbil.
“We faced many tragedies in our history. Sometimes, we faced our tragedies alone. We were crying alone. People were not ready to listen to how we felt. This is part of this history also,” Mr. Hussein explained when asked how important the Canadian presence here is to Iraqi Kurds. “When Canada came and supported our peshmerga and gave them training and helped us, for us it was very important…. It gives us more hope, for the future also.”
Back at the base at the foot of Bashiq Mountain, the younger Mr. Afandi leaves no doubt what cause he sees himself serving as he keeps journalists away from the place where Sgt. Doiron was killed. “I hope to see you another time,” he says, smiling, friendly only as we depart. “I will welcome you happily on the day Kurdistan becomes independent.”
Steven Chase in Ottawa contributed to this story