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New programme recruits Americans to fight against IS

Peshmerga programme aims to integrate growing number of foreign volunteers to fight with the Kurds against IS in Iraq
Although Western governments are against the Iraqi Kurds recruiting foreigners, a number of US citizens have joined Kurdish militias (MEE/Jeremy Woodard)

DAQUQ, Iraq - Jeremy Woodard, 28, a former US soldier, was sipping his tea together with Kurdish fighters in a Peshmerga base in the Iraqi city of Daquq. Woodard served in Iraq in 2007, and returned to join the Kurds to fight against the militant Islamic State (IS) group, south of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

"My aim is to help liberate Kurdistan and help the innocent people to fight Daesh [Islamic state]," he told Middle East Eye from a Peshmerga base in the mixed city of Daquq. A 10-man unit of foreign fighters has participated in several Peshmerga offensives against IS around the province of Kirkuk, including one operation in the south of Kirkuk on 18 March.

In one video from the Kirkuk frontlines, published on a Peshmerga Facebook page on 28 March, US volunteers Woodard, Samuel Swann, Aaron Core and Chris Toney can be seen waving to a Peshmerga fighter saying "hello". "There are our American volunteers," the Peshmerga says in the video, while Peshmerga forces are firing with Russian anti-aircraft guns on IS positions south of Kirkuk.

"These people have been fighting for years now and are fighting to build their own independent country ... These people have more respect for anyone else, and you see other people that don’t give a shit, they don’t care," said Woodard, who feels frustrated with the lack of support the Kurds are getting.

"When this whole ISIS thing started, then people started to pay attention, and fall in love with the Kurdish people. There is no other word for it, these people are selfish," Woodard said.

Another American, known as Mickey, said the foreigners do not join the Peshmerga to become famous. "We are not in Kurdistan for the money or movie rights. We are here to liberate Kurdistan, and we are not here to get famous."

US objections

Officially, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces do not accept foreign volunteers due to objections of the US government, reported the New York Times.

The Iraqi Kurds, since being attacked by IS in August 2014, have received weapon support from the West and training through the US-led coalition's Kurdistan Training Coordination Centre (KTCC).

Since the Iraqi Kurds have been dependent on Western air strikes and weapons support to defend Kurdish territory in Iraq, it is difficult for the Iraqi Kurds to reject requests from Western partner nations.

The Syrian Kurds do not face the same problem since they do not receive any direct weapon deliveries or training from the West. NATO-ally Turkey opposes any Western support or training going to the People's Protection Units (YPG), which is linked to the still-outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), based in Turkey and Iraq. The YPG has recruited several foreigners through Facebook.

"Unfortunately, it's difficult," said Colonel Hajar O Ismail, from the Peshmerga ministry in Erbil. "The US consulate officially says they don't accept any volunteers from the US to join the Peshmerga forces," he said.

Ismail told MEE that many volunteers have tried to join the Kurds. "But we thank them, and said we appreciate them, but we told them to go to their foreign consulates," Ismail told MEE.
 
Also, Jabbar Yawar, the official spokesperson of the Peshmerga ministry in Erbil, denied in a telephone interview that foreigners join the Peshmerga forces.

"We have no decision regarding foreign volunteers. There is no decision or desire in the Ministry of Peshmerga for any forces from any other nationalities to join the Peshmerga forces," he said.

US foreign fighters pose with Kurdish Peshmerga (MEE/Wladimir von Wilgenbrg)

Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has visited the frontlines in Kirkuk, said he met some US volunteers in March.

"The volunteers are often quite isolated, especially when there is no shared language at their frontline location. Some of the volunteers seem to have experienced difficulty settling back into civilian life in the US and might be having difficulties with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]," he told MEE. 

Although Western governments are against the Iraqi Kurds recruiting foreigners, Peshmerga brigade commander Araz Abdulqadir commands some foreign fighters in Daquq, south of Kirkuk.
 
"We cannot stop anyone from fighting ISIS. They are dangerous, we need to get rid of them," he told MEE. "Anyone who wants to help can join," he said.

FRAME recruitment programme

In fact, his Peshmerga unit has developed an application programme to recruit foreigners, and a number of them have joined the Peshmerga forces to fight IS since November.

"We cannot accept all of them," he said. "They must go to the headquarters in Slemani, and check if the person involved is not from ISIS or has a criminal background," said the Peshmerga commander.

"We are happy if they come to help or join us. We don’t have a problem, they fight very well," Abdulqadir said.

US volunteer Woodard says that the programme, called Kurdish Peshmerga Foreigner Registration, Assessment, Management and Extraction (FRAME), makes it easier for foreigners to join the Kurds to fight IS, and that their backgrounds will be checked and picked up at the Sulaymaniyah airport.

"Before it was harder, you would have to find a contact to see where you can go and how you can get picked up," he told MEE.

The FRAME website says its their mission to recruit foreign volunteers to join the Peshmerga in Kurdistan.

"Our role is to assess the candidate for their experience and skill set. Manage the candidate once they arrive in Kurdistan and ensure the candidate is placed in a proper military unit where their particular skill set is needed. We also manage the extraction of the candidate from their unit when their service is complete and ensure they make their appropriate flight home," the FRAME website says.

Initially, most foreigners joined the Syrian Kurdish YPG, due to their active Facebook recruitment page, Lions of Rojava. "It was pretty much impossible to join the Peshmergas, but now there is a little movement," Woodard said.

But the FRAME website and Facebook page may convince foreigners to join the Peshmerga, after complaints that the YPG is not allowing some foreign fighters to fight on the frontlines, although a British ex-marine died fighting with the Syrian Kurds against the IS in March.

US foreign fighters pose in front of a Kurdish army base in Daquq (MEE/Wladimir van Wilgenburg)

Joining the Kurkish forces

Woodard, who initially joined the YPG in Syria, says the Peshmerga are a better-equipped force than other militias. "They are much better than the YPG/YPJ. You see more people have body armour and Humvees. In Syria, you see none of that," he told MEE.

Samuel Swann, 29, from East Texas, who in the past was deployed with the US army in Afghanistan, said he joined the Kurds to help them out. "Kurds are the only ones who are fighting back against the ISIS," he told MEE.

"They are pretty much on their own, it is a real struggle, and I believe they could use our assistance."

Aaron Core, 27, from Tennessee, also served in Iraq. He said he wishes he had never left the US army in 2012. "I heard on the news about the decapitation of a number of Americans. That was the reason for me to get back to the fight."

The former US soldiers who fight with the Kurds now have to adapt to a new situation, with the Peshmerga having old weapons. "They could use the support, they need a lot of equipment," Core said.

Core, who used to patrol villages with the US army in Iraq, had to adapt to local standards when he first arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"When I first walked around in the city with no weapon and no armour, I felt exposed. I remember when I was in the US military, you didn't go out of your Humvee without everything being locked and loaded," he said.

The FRAME website warns new recruits that they will not receive brand new weapons. "If you are planning and expect to go over and be handed a brand new M4/AK/HK and going to battle with 360-420-700 rounds of ammo, then your expectations will not be met. You will be provided an AK or RPK or Dragonuv," the Frame Facebook group said in a recent post.

The eventual goal of FRAME is to increase their number of fighters and create a foreign fighter unit.

“Rather than you being transported somewhere in Kurdistan, all foreign volunteers are being grouped together as one unit. Currently we have a 10-man team already in place. We would like to get that to 30 ASAP,” the Facebook page says.