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US airstrikes helped, but Kurds from Syria turned tide against Islamic State

A volunteer dressed in traditional Kurdish garb shows off his Russian-made Dushka heavy machine gun Aug. 7, 2014 at the front lines in Kalak, west of the Iraqi Kurdish capital Irbil. Kurdish Pershmerga are gathered there, facing militants from the Islamic State just a little over a mile away. Hundreds of regular soldiers have been joined by retired peshmerga and volunteers to protect the capital.

GWER, Iraq — Victory, they say, has many fathers, and as Kurdish peshmerga militia pushed Islamic State forces from a string of towns near Irbil Sunday and Monday, it was easy to cite two: accurate airstrikes by U.S. aircraft that eliminated artillery positions and convoys and timely deliveries of light arms and ammunition from the CIA.

But a third may have been just as important, though less publicized: the addition of hundreds of fighters from a Turkish group designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization.

Visits to front-line positions Monday made it clear that an influx of fighters with links to the Kurdish Workers Party, known by its Kurdish initials PKK, had played a major role in driving the Islamic State from key areas within a 30-minute drive of Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. It was Irbil’s possible fall last week that ended weeks of Obama administration inaction on Iraq.

“The PKK took Mahmour,” a peshmerga fighter at a checkpoint outside Mahmour acknowledged, shaking his head in admiration. Then, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, he offered an explanation: “They’re very experienced from fighting Daash in Syria and are true guerrilla fighters from their time in Turkey. They have more experience and training than we do.”

There was plenty of gratitude for the U.S. intervention, which since Friday has included at least seven announced airstrikes on Islamic State targets near Irbil.

“The strikes came at the last second but, thank God, they came,” said one Kurdish defense official at Kalak, where the peshmerga has set up a defense line that, compared with last week’s ragged look, had developed a formidable array of machine guns mounted on pickup trucks with ample supplies of light ammunition.

A U.S. Department of Defense official confirmed that a series of covert supply missions by the CIA using Iraqi-flagged aircraft had delivered much-needed ammunition and weapons to Irbil at the height of the crisis. Public statements by administration officials indicate that more aid could be in the pipeline.

Kurdish officials have been told, however, not to expect the heavier weapons they need to defeat the better-armed Islamic State, particularly U.S.-supplied armored vehicles like Humvees, which the extremists plundered from the Iraqi army. The issue, said one official, is that the Obama administration still recognizes the government in Baghdad as the only legitimate recipient of government-to-government aid.

“Light weapons aren’t going to cut it,” said a Kurdish official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “You can’t pierce armored Humvees with light ammunition. That’s not what we’re looking for.”

And that made the introduction of Kurdish fighters from Syria and Turkey that much more important to the peshmerga’s recent victories.

Kurdish officials are reluctant to discuss the presence of hundreds of PKK fighters and would confirm only that some of the units were from “our Kurdish brothers in the self-defense forces from Syria.”

But the fighters made no effort to hide themselves Monday in and around Mahmour, and their presence was also confirmed at Gwer.

The entry of PKK forces into the fighting in northern Iraq, particularly so close to Irbil, which the Obama administration has declared particularly sensitive because of the large American consulate and the joint operations center based there, could prove somewhat embarrassing.

The PKK has been operating under the designation “Local Self Defense Forces,” or YPG in Kurdish, in northern Syria in intense battles with the Islamic State for control of key areas along the Turkish border. The YPG designation, according to PKK members, was designed to, at least superficially, obscure the role of the PKK, which has been designated by the United States, the European Union and Turkey as a terrorist group. Iraq, Turkey and the United States, however, appear to have accepted the need to allow one terrorist group — the PKK — to combat a much worse designated group, the Islamic State.

According to one PKK commander currently in Irbil, the PKK forces arrived Friday and at first took up defensive positions to help protect the capital, including in Irbil’s largest open space, Sami Rahman Park, in plain view of the city with their distinctive uniforms and female fighters, something the peshmerga does not have.

“We first based in the park,” said the commander, who asked to be called Ali. “But it was not a good situation to be so visible in the center of town. And once the Americans began bombing, we were asked to move out on the offensive to retake Mahmour. There are tensions between our party and the (Kurdish President Massoud) Barzani over his close relationship with Turkey, but we have set these aside to face the Daash threat together.”

As for the irony of being considered terrorists by the United States even as they play a critical role in protecting U.S. assets in Irbil from other radicals, Ali laughed.

“It’s a special situation, and everyone is smart enough to know we’re nothing like Daash,” he said. “We only fight for a Kurdish homeland and freedom for our people. We’re not like these animals. Our designation is only politics now.”

By Sunday, PKK fighters were openly on the attack in Mahmour, while peshmerga fighters supported them and concentrated on the Islamic State-held town of Gwer. With U.S. airstrikes and the influx of ammunition and experienced fighters, both towns were firmly in the control of the Kurds by Sunday night.

At one checkpoint on Monday, PKK fighters, including several women, were checking cars and joking with the handful of locals who had returned to the area. But nearby peshmerga fighters politely ended an interview with a journalist, joking that they were too tired to talk to reporters.

On Monday, Gwer was completely deserted except for exhausted peshmerga and a handful of shepherds who had returned to gather dozens of lost cows that were wandering around the wreckage of the battlefield in some confusion.

“We need to find as many of our cows as possible,” said Yassin, a local shepherd who ignored warnings of snipers. “At least the ones Daash didn’t eat,” he added, somewhat irritably.

“The Americans came down and hit them, so we attacked,” said one fighter manning a checkpoint in the center of the city. “They blew up the bridge as they left so we could not chase them.”

At the far end of the village, the destruction was more intense. There, airstrikes had destroyed Islamic State positions, and peshmerga fighters were napping in a partially destroyed bunker that had changed hands three times in a week.

Set at the edge of the destroyed bridge, they said that despite Islamic State fighters being dug in about 300 yards away, the day had been quiet except for one sniper, who was periodically taking shots at vehicles and exposed Kurdish fighters.

“You should be careful leaving, and next time bring security,” one fighter joked. “He’s not very good, but we don’t want him to get lucky and hit our honored guest.”

Mitchell Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this report.

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