- - Sunday, September 6, 2015

IRBIL, Iraq — Gen. Dedawa Khurshid, a commander of the Kurdish peshmerga forces battling the Islamic State militants, faces a unique terrorist-style of warfare on a daily basis.

“Daesh modifies trucks and bulldozers by welding steel all over them,” said Gen. Khurshid, using the Arabic term for the jihadi Islamic State, which now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria. “Then they take high explosives and mount them in a special way on the front of the vehicles. A man will then take the vehicle and drive into our line and detonate it.”

Called VBEDs — or vehicle-borne explosive devices, as opposed to the far better known IEDs, or improvised explosive devices designed to function like booby traps or land mines — the trucks typically carry about 550 pounds of explosives that can injure and kill soldiers within a radius of less than 900 yards when detonated, the general said.

Islamic State militants often use U.S. military Humvees or bulldozers and other construction equipment seized as spoils of war. Recycling the vehicles for use on the battlefield is a sign that the militants are facing stiffer opposition from Kurdish forces than from the Iraqi troops they easily defeated last year when they took over much of northern Iraq.

“While ISIS has used suicide vehicles in the past, the modification of cars and tractors to attack on the front line like this is a new development,” said retired Col. Chris Kilford, a lecturer at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and a former military attache at the Canadian Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. “It’s an adaptation to the forces Daesh are facing.

“The Islamic State is not getting the armaments it wants,” he said. “When they run into a fortified front, they will modify their equipment and tactics.”

The enemy’s use of vehicle-borne suicide attacks is one reason Kurdish forces say they are in desperate need of heavy weaponry that can detonate the bomb-filled trucks before they reach peshmerga soldiers dug into positions near Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and an Islamic State stronghold.

“We need special anti-tank weapons,” he said, citing artillery and shoulder-launched rockets specifically. “We need to be able to destroy these vehicles before they get close to us.”

Masrour Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Region Security Council and is the son of longtime Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, has said that multiple instances of chemical attacks by Islamic State forces strengthens the Kurds’ argument for better equipment, including gas masks, body armor and heavy artillery.

“We don’t have the kind of equipment that we wish to have, especially when it comes to heavy weapons,” the younger Mr. Barzani told the BBC in an interview Friday, adding that the last major shipment from Baghdad arrived in May. Peshmerga forces have only about 1,000 gas masks, he said.

“Unfortunately,” the issue of adequate supplies and firepower “has been a problem from Day One” of the war, he said.

More firepower needed

After resisting proposals to arm the Kurds directly rather than through the central government in Baghdad, the Obama administration began supplying Kurdish forces with weapons last year, American officials said. But Gen. Khurshid said those weapons are mostly small arms that are inadequate to fight Islamic State militants.

“We are not getting enough,” said the general. “We do not have enough ammunition. This is a heavy fight with no real help from the world.”

Republican congressional leaders are divided over further arming the Kurds. Most Republican presidential candidates support expanding direct American military assistance to the peshmerga forces, which are widely seen as more effective than the Iraqi national army. The White House has insisted on giving the Shiite-led Iraqi government military assistance and letting Baghdad dole it out.

But officials in Baghdad aren’t helping, said Gen. Jabar Yawar Manda, who serves as secretary general of the ministry that oversees the peshmerga in the Kurdish autonomous government in Iraq.

“We are not allowed to buy weapons for ourselves by officials in Baghdad, so we have repeated supply shortfalls,” he said. “Ammunition has to be rationed. This is not a good situation for our units stationed on the front.”

Gen. Manda stressed how heavy weaponry — including advanced howitzer artillery pieces — were crucial not only to blunt Islamic State suicide attacks but also to reclaim territory lost in the past year.

“With these weapons, we can force them back and then take ground back we have lost,” he said. “With enough ammunition, ISIS could be contained and not pose such a threat with their heavy attacks on our forward positions.”

But Col. Kilford said it was no mystery why Baghdad or other states in the region are resisting giving the Kurds heavy weaponry.

“The central government of Iraq is reluctant to send modern arms to the Kurds because they have a fear that at some time in the future, the Kurds will begin a campaign to separate and form an independent Kurdish state,” he said, adding that Turkey has expressed the same reservations against arming the Kurds because of Kurdish independence movements on its territory.

The Canadian military analyst also didn’t believe the Kurds had the expertise to use the artillery they believed would help them turn the tide against the Islamic State.

“Artillery is a complex weapons system that takes many months of training for a crew to be use with any effectiveness at all,” he said. “You need a great deal of specialized training on particular weapons to handle the piece safely, use it with accuracy and not damage the gun. They are surprisingly fragile despite their size.”

He recalled an incident that undercut the heroic portrayal of Kurdish forces often propagated in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“I viewed at one point a three-star peshmerga general flying a helicopter dropping bombs himself on Islamic State targets,” said Col. Kilford. “To have this being done by a commanding general, even for television cameras and as a method to raise morale, just shows how little of military science and professionalism is being demonstrated by this army.”

More training would be required before the Kurds could use artillery effectively, the Canadian analyst said.

But at Baqrata on the southern Mosul front, where his troops regularly trade fire with Islamic State fighters in the nearby villages of Fatuma, Al Kharbania and Mhamoudia, peshmerga Col. Abdullah Sabah didn’t his troops don’t need any more training to take the fight to the Islamic State. Greater firepower, he insisted, was the only solution.

“We live in fear of more armored vehicle suicide attacks,” said Col. Sabah. “We also need more equipment and ammunition, mostly, I would say, anti-tank weapons. We do not need more training. We know what we are doing.”

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