Millionaire commander protects Kurdish capital against IS
MAKHMOUR, Iraq - Before reaching the Black Tiger Peshmerga Base, which borders the frontline with the Islamic State-controlled area south of Mosul, one can see a banner that proclaims “Kurdistan or Death”.
This is the base named after a high-profile Kurdish businessman, Sirwan Barzani, who received the “Black Tiger” nickname when he was fighting in the mountains against the forces of Iraq’s late president Saddam Hussein.
Barzani, 45, is now back under arms to fight against the Islamic State (IS) group - it is from this sector that the US-led coalition is now planning future operations against the IS power base of Mosul.
At the same time, he remains the managing director of mobile-telephone operator Korek Telecom, a company worth around $2 billion, with seven million subscribers and close to 3,500 towers across Iraq.
Barzani is also more than a businessman and a fighter. He is the nephew of 69-year-old Massoud Barzani, the acting president of the Kurdistan region and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Critics of the KDP suggest that Sirwan Barzani has become rich only through nepotism.
“He could have supported the Peshmerga [Kurdish militia] through his giant companies, but everyone knows Sirwan Barzani has become a billionaire by using KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] institutions,” said Kamal Chomani, a well-known local critic of the KRG.
It is not unusual in Kurdistan for business to be mixed with politics, according to Vager Saadullah, a freelance journalist from Duhok. “Most Kurdish politicians are businessmen, even Peshmerga commanders,” he told Middle East Eye.
More damning, a former government adviser told MEE on condition of anonymity: “He [Barzani] is neither a professional military general nor a professional businessman.”
Sirwan Barzani argues that jealousy of his success is behind his critics’ negative comments. “This is normal. When people talk bad about you, it means that you are doing good, and I will do more,” he told MEE.
In some cases, criticism of Barzani is unfounded, notably claims that he lacked military experience. Barzani was a Peshmerga fighter in the KDP for more than 12 years, received an education in the military academy in Zakho, and established the Barzani brigade in 1994.
“Before 1991, I was a Peshmerga in the mountains,” Barzani told MEE. “In 2000, I went to the president and told him: ‘I think there is no big [security] risk any more. I think I can do more with business to rebuild the country. If you need me again, I am ready.’ Thank God, I was successful.”
When the IS group threatened the Kurdistan region in June 2014, Massoud Barzani called on all veterans to return to the front line, with Sirwan being asked to return to play a leading role in the Peshmerga forces. IS eventually attacked the Iraqi Kurds in August 2014.
“People of Kurdistan one day woke up to see a new Peshmerga commander who was known only for his ownership of Korek Telecom and for being the nephew of [President] Barzani,” said Roman Zagros, a London-based Kurdish affairs analyst.
“One of my close friends told me, ‘Some day you will be rich and you won’t come back,’” Sirwan Barzani said. “But when I was in Paris for meetings, they [the Kurdish president’s office] called me and asked me to return to the Peshmerga forces.”
“Are you coming or not?” he was asked. “Of course, I will return,” he told them.
Nor had Barzani ever forgotten his earlier life in the mountains while in business. “Even before this [IS], I camped in the mountains. I didn’t want to forget the mountain life; I like to be in the mountains,” he said, although he conceded that he has “difficulties to run the business remotely” from his present frontline position.
On 3 August, Barzani and his men were preparing to go to Sinjar, which had already been taken by IS, but on 6 August, Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, came under threat when IS took Makhmour and Gwer.
“I was taking a rest in the night,” he said. “Then I received a phone call. ‘What’s happening?’ I said. ‘Daesh [IS] is coming to Erbil,’” the president’s office told him.
Barzani took 150 men to protect the city and pushed back IS’s forces in Gwer on 10 August, helped by the US administration’s decision to provide the Kurds with air support.
“I said I just needed four hours, and we pushed back ISIS. I said [it], but nobody believed this [was possible],” Barzani said.
Before the war against IS and even after the initial fighting, Barzani’s name was rarely mentioned in the Kurdish media. Then in January 2015, IS carried out a surprise attack on Gwer, killing 26 Peshmerga forces and injuring 46, after senior Iraqi defence officials visited Barzani to discuss joint operations. Media affiliated to the rival Patriotic Union Party (PUK) blamed him for the losses.
“Unfortunately [because of the war], I lost my privacy and became famous,” Sirwan said.
More than Sirwan’s public profile was affected by the war against IS. Although he has three sons, four brothers and two sisters, he almost never sees them. “My wife told me, 'Even when you were in business we didn’t see you. It is better for you to fight Daesh and kill terrorists.'”
Yet he and his wife were already marked by the loss of family members during Saddam’s genocidal campaigns against the Kurds.
Barzani said: “My father was hanged by Saddam Hussein when I was 13 years old, and I lost 38 family members; 8,000 Barzanis were killed [in 1983], and my wife lost three brothers.”
Now he is the leader of one of the “hottest” sectors of the Kurdish front line, which will be central in future plans to take Mosul from IS.
“I can say that 15 percent of the pressure is in my sector,” he said. “This is important because we protect Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region.”
The IS group also understands the importance of this front line. It attacked Makhmour with chemical weapons last August after the Peshmerga slowly regained the initiative. “In the end, they used chemical weapons,” Barzani said. “You can go there and can still smell the gas.”
For Sirwan Barzani and the Peshmerga forces along the 1,500 kilometres of front lines, the nature of their fighting has changed since the campaigns against Saddam Hussein.
“We are not guerillas fighting in the mountains any more. We are facing the most dangerous terrorist group in the world. They are a real Islamic state, they have everything: a government, a budget, and more weapons than the Peshmergas,” he said.
Barzani says that for future operations in Mosul the Peshmerga need more weapons.
“For a big operation like Mosul, of course we don’t have enough weapons,” he said. “If there was a big attack on my sector [now], I would not have enough ammunition.”
He called on the world to do more, since, he says, Peshmerga fighters are giving their blood to defend the world.
“Compared to that, what we are actually getting is nothing.”