As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other Sunni extremist militants quickly gain territory in Iraq, the Kurdish Security Forces are increasing their own operations in an attempt to shelter Iraqi Kurdistan from war.
The Kurdish forces, known as Peshmerga, have proven themselves to be the most effective bulwark so far against ISIS’s blitz. The Peshmerga, whose name is Kurdish for “those who face death,” have helped to limit ISIS’s incursions towards Baghdad from the north. At the same time, the Kurds have also seized oil-rich Kirkuk, known as the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” which is formally outside of the autonomous Kurdish Region in Iraq.
The Peshmerga’s numbers, dedication, and discipline make them possibly the strongest fighting force in Iraq.
The Peshmerga began as a tribal force headed by Shaykh Mahmud Bazanji in 1919. Bazanji had the goal of forming the Kingdom of Kurdistan, but the British, Iraq's colonial administrators, quickly put down his revolt.
The Peshmerga continued to exist as a fighting force, but it splintered into two bitterly-opposed factions in 1975.
Following U.S.-mediated talks after the first-Gulf War in the early 1990s, the Kurdish factions eventually reached a rapprochement.
Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish region of Iraq became autonomous. Peshmerga forces received formal recognition, and it began holding joint military operations with the Iraqi Army.
The Peshmerga are incredibly well equipped, and have received funding and weapons from both the U.S. and Russia.
Kurdish forces have three varieties of Soviet battle tanks, several different types of artillery, and Bell and Sikorsky helicopters.
Some 35,000 uniformed Peshmerga have been incorporated into the Iraqi security forces and serve as the Kurdistan Regional Government's official army ...
... Although it is estimated that there are anywhere from 80,000 to 240,000 Peshmerga fighters in total who do not report to Baghdad.
The Kurds are also somewhat unique in the region, in that women are encouraged to join the Peshmerga.
The Peshmerga have also turned into a de-facto police force in some places -- Iraqi police abandoned their posts in Kirkuk, for instance. Here, Peshmerga forces detain a suspected ISIS militant.
It's possible that the Kurds, suddenly in a position of military power and prestige, may use the current crisis to push for a fully independent state.
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