The chukar partridge is a plump little bird whose songs swing between dulcet and alarming. But for many Kurds, a partridge’s song is less important than the sting in its beak. Partridge fights, common in Kurdistan, can last for hours. Patience is bitter, goes a Kurdish saying, but it can bear sweet fruit.
Major Ali has been fighting since he was 13, when it was announced his new school uniform would be that of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Ba’ath Party. When schoolmates told him he would be locked up if he refused to wear it, the skinny kid who had never kissed a girl ran for the hills and took up arms.
In a tent 5km east of Mosul, Major Ali’s prize partridge, briefly uncaged, runs amok. Off a long run-up, it plunges its scarlet beak into hands and feet, while cross-legged Peshmerga rumble with laughter. Major Ali, short and stout, smiles serenely, while counting off prayer beads.
“Villagers would look at me and say: ‘How come this boy is a Peshmerga? Couldn’t his parents feed him?’ They didn’t know my story. The Ba’ath Party had treated us terribly, we couldn’t even leave our houses. So we had to start fighting them in the mountains. And I wasn’t afraid of fighting Saddam.”
That was 1983, at the time of the Kurdish rebellion, triggered by the Iran-Iraq War. The rebellion was the result of decades of persecution by the Iraqi government, but it ended in genocide. Between 1986 and 1989, as many as 182,000 Kurds were killed in Saddam’s Al-Anfal campaign, which reached its wicked nadir with the chemical attack on Halabja, when 5,000 civilians were killed.
“I remember the attack on Halabja well. A plane came over our village and some of us tried to shoot it down. But my uncle told us to stop firing. There were only a few people left in our village, so he knew it wasn’t for us.”
The West, not for the first time, looked the other way. Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini was the American demon; Saddam, in the words of one member of the US government, was “our son of a bitch”. If a few thousand Kurds got killed in the crossfire, whether accidentally or deliberately, so be it.
Three years after Halabja, the Kurds were abandoned again. Stirred into action by President George HW Bush, who called on the Iraqi people “to take matters into their own hands”, Kurds in northern Iraq and Shia in the south rose up almost simultaneously. But as the uprising spread, US officials disavowed Bush’s words and Saddam exacted brutal retribution. Kurds and Shia were rounded up and massacred.
Thousands who did manage to escape the towns starved to death in the mountains. Many thousands more fled to Iran, Syria, Turkey and western Europe, never to return.
“Saddam was badly weakened, so the Peshmerga came down from the mountains and joined up with Arabs to fight for freedom,” says Major Ali, who had been released from a squalid jail in Baghdad just before the 1991 uprising. “But nobody helped us. We felt betrayed. Why was everyone ignoring us again? Only a few years earlier, there had been a genocide. Now this.
"So we had to ask ourselves the question: Are we humans? Or are we animals?”
The introduction of a no fly zone over northern Iraq, as part of Operation Provide Comfort, led to the withdrawal of Saddam’s forces and allowed the Kurds to take control of the region. A de facto Kurdish state was born, although more comfort would have been derived had Saddam been removed. By the time the West chose to topple him 12 years later, Saddam posed far less threat.
Major Ali’s time in an Iraqi jail was a brutal reminder that the road to independence would be a rocky one. One of 20 Kurds among 800 prisoners, he was routinely beaten by members of the majority Shia population. But the conflict between the Kurds of Erbil and the Kurds of Sulamaniyah was often worse. In 1994, economic hardship in the region, caused by embargos imposed by the UN and Saddam, led to civil war. The conflict, nominally between Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and which might have led to Saddam retaking the region, was the cause of shame for many Kurds.
“That was the worst time for the Kurdish people,” says Major Ali, who fought on the side of Barzani, whose stronghold was Erbil. “We’d removed this evil man only to start fighting each other. The economy had collapsed and nobody was happy. But killing our brothers was perfect for Saddam and Turkey [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, had been waging an insurgency in Turkey for decades, so Kurdish strife gave Ankara a reason to enter northern Iraq].”
After a lunch of rice and goat, which we saw chopped to smithereens by a cleaver-happy butcher in the nearby town of Bardarash, we take a stroll along the virtual northern border of Kurdistan. Perched atop a snaking earthwork, we can see smouldering Mosul, the scene of vicious fighting between the Iraqi Army and ISIS. The Iraqi Army has told the Peshmerga to stay put, which is fine by Major Ali. He remembers when the Arab soldiers weren’t so brave.
When an ISIS force of between 800 and 1,500 men entered Mosul in 2014, an Iraqi force of about 60,000 turned tail. The US had spent eight years and billions of dollars training and equipping them, only for their knees to start knocking at the sight of the black flags.
For Major Ali, who was doing battle with Saddam’s forces before he even knew how to shave, the capitulation of the Iraqi Army was contemptible. “They had tanks and the latest weapons and ran away. We have simple weapons, ancient Kalashnikovs, and we’re still managing to break ISIS.”
We climb into Major Ali’s van and he takes us on a tour of Bashiqa, which the Peshmerga liberated from ISIS last November. Before ISIS entered the city in 2014, many of its Yazidi citizens, whom ISIS regards as devil worshipers, fled. Men who didn’t make it out in time were massacred; women who didn’t make it out in time were sold as slaves or converted to Islam and taken as brides.
Most of Bashiqa having already been flattened by coalition airstrikes, Major Ali and his mates formed part of an offensive which descended on three fronts. ISIS fighters emerged from tunnels dug under the town, climbed into cars and blew themselves up rather than risk being captured; vehicles, churches and other structures were booby-trapped; fields surrounding the town were dotted with mines. If ISIS couldn’t keep the town, they were going to make sure none of it was left for anyone else. There wasn't much to liberate and Major Ali admits the battle was terrifying.
“ISIS think they are the only true Muslims and everyone should be like them,” says Major Ali, as we watch three generations of a family sifting through the rubble of what was once their home. “But Muslims don’t blow up mosques and churches and behead people. We’ve never seen anything like them before. They give Muslims a bad name. They’re not Muslims, they’re animals.”
Bashiqa was once a thriving tourist town, famous for its olive oil. Now its grand holiday homes are torn open, spewing furniture and white goods. On the front of some shops is sprayed “Christian” or “Shia” in Arabic. Graffiti on a garage door reads: “There is no god but Allah – Muhammad is his messenger.” If this was Muhammad’s message from Allah, then Allah is a hateful god.
Last year, 40 of Major Ali’s fellow Peshmerga were killed while playing football. ISIS had been watching their position like hawks and struck when soldierly boredom led to a catastrophic lapse in judgement. One of his brigade had his head shot off while he was shaving in his trench. So even if ISIS is defeated in Mosul any time soon, Major Ali and his mates will remain vigilant.
“Right now ISIS is weak, but they have so many different groups that nobody really knows who ISIS is. Only recently we discovered two ISIS members in my home town of Ari. A couple of months ago 100 of them appeared from nowhere. This isn’t the last battle, there will be many more ahead.”
Major Ali describes the period between the end of the civil war and the arrival of ISIS in 2013 as “a perfect time for our people”. “We could put down our guns and relax. The economy was booming, everyone was so happy. It was the best time I remember, since I joined the Peshmerga as a child.”
But the Peshmerga made the mistake of relaxing too much. When ISIS appeared, the Peshmerga’s young recruits were raw and loose, and so veterans such as Major Ali became doubly important.
Major Ali had spent much of the previous decade pottering around his bee hives, collecting honey which he handed out to grateful neighbours. Now he bought himself an M4 rifle and went back to doing what he knew best. Only this time around, fighting was a family business.
“I’m so proud to be fighting alongside my son, he’s a fine soldier,” says Major Ali, while swiping through old photos of family and friends, all fellow Peshmerga, on his phone. “It’s very difficult for our wives and I’d prefer to be at home. But we are fighting for freedom. And if we’re not fighting ISIS, who is? I understand why youngsters want to escape to Europe. It’s not because they’re not brave, it’s because the economy is so bad in Kurdistan and they just want to work and provide for their families.
"But the reason people can have their picnics in Erbil is because we’re out here, away from our families, freezing in the winter, frying in the summer, fighting ISIS. I’m 47, but young enough and strong enough. And better to do it now, before we get too old.”
Kurdistan is sometimes described as “what the West wanted Iraq to be”. But without proud men like Major Ali, the black flags of ISIS might be fluttering above the walls of Erbil’s famous citadel. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that President Trump’s attempt to ban Iraqi citizens from the US (Trump has since removed Iraq from his hit list) did not go down well with the Peshmerga.
“That made me angry. We are Muslims, but not all Muslims are the same. And the US should differentiate between the Iraqis and the Kurds. The Kurds had a great relationship with American forces during Obama’s time – we saved them here and they appreciated that. I hope Trump is a good president. But I don’t understand him and I’m told that he’s a bad man. We’ll have to wait and see.
“The whole world should respect what we’re doing. If we put down our guns, ISIS would become bigger and bigger and maybe take over the world. So if Trump wants to help us, great. We’ll tell our grandchildren who was with us and who wasn’t. But if Trump doesn’t want to help us, never mind.”
If you’d been sold out as many times as the Kurds, you might sound as blasé. The likelihood is that once ISIS has been flushed out of Mosul, Trump will trumpet a great victory and his country’s part in it before withdrawing his support. ‘America First’ will mean more power in the region for Iran, Turkey and Russia, and that might mean more turmoil for the Kurds. A referendum on independence is expected soon, but the birth of a nation will be anathema to neighbours and no doubt painful.
Before I leave Major Ali and his men, and after my bag is loaded up with oranges, I ask him what he might have done with his life, had he not felt compelled to become a soldier at the age of 13.
“I was top of my class at school, but it all changed that day I ran away and joined the Peshmerga. I would have liked to have been a teacher. Or maybe an engineer or a lawyer. Anything to help, instead of fighting people. I hope my grandchildren can finish school. I hope they will have a country to call their own. I hope they don’t have to fight. I hope they have a quieter life than me.”
And so the plump little man cradling his M4 rifle finished with a bitter song. Will sweet fruit follow?