Sirwan Barzani, Peshmerga commander of the Makhmour-Gwer front says the Kurdish Peshmerga’s top priority is to return to areas disputed between Baghdad and Erbil, and that they are optimistic that ongoing talks with Iraqi army will bear fruit to fill the security void in the disputed territories that have turned into a breeding ground for Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
Speaking to Rudaw on Monday, Barzani said Kirkuk is the core of the problem, and that the two sides have not agreed on how to jointly work in the province. The Peshmerga and Iraqi army will need to reach a mechanism on how to deploy troops given the “sensitivity” of the area, he added.
He blames consecutive Iraqi governments for neglecting the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which has led to the long standing unresolved dispute between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Barzani also said the support of the US-led coalition is vital in fighting ISIS, and labeled calls for coalition troops to leave Iraq as “the biggest mistake.”
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Rudaw: At what level are the talks between the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs and the Iraqi Defense Ministry. What is the core issue in the way of reaching a final agreement between both sides. Are there developments?
A degree of mistrust has been created between us and the Iraqi army in the wake of the October  events. It has recently improved. As you know, the last meeting was held in Baghdad and the latest one was held in Erbil today.
You want Peshmerga to return to the disputed areas, but the Iraqi government does not agree. What obstacle is in the way of an agreement?
I am not part of the committees, but as you know these problems are more political than military. If the politicians do not come to an agreement, it will be quite difficult for the military teams to be able to solve the problems. Fortunately, they have edged closer towards each other. They are in talks in Erbil. We are optimistic an agreement will be reached. We should understand that reaching an agreement on the disputed areas or Kurdistani areas outside of the Kurdistan Region is not that easy. Kirkuk is an impediment. We have not agreed on the deployment of forces in or outside of the city center. It is not easy for either side to resolve the sensitivity of Kirkuk city center. All in all, they will reach an agreement very soon and there are plans to establish a major joint coordination centre in Baghdad, one in Erbil and four more coordination centers between the Iraqi Defense Ministry and the Ministry of the Peshmerga Affairs in Kurdistan. We are very optimistic that we will reach a solution.
Are there parallel political talks for resolving the long-standing security and military issues?
Definitely. Should the politicians not reach a deal, the Peshmerga and Iraqi defense ministry cannot do anything. The problem is political in the first place, not military. This issue dates back a long time, to the establishment of the Iraqi constitutionand Article 140. Unfortunately, consecutive Iraqi governments kept postponing the implementation of this article and the referendum was never held in the disputed areas. This problem is not vested in the Region’s government. It was unfortunately the result of the negligence of the consecutive Iraqi governments. Politicians are in continued talks to resolve these issues.
What are the demands of the Kurdistan Region or the Peshmerga ministry? On what points do you want to agree with the Iraqi defense ministry?
The agreement is aimed at eliminating Daesh (ISIS) given that they have taken shelter in the territories between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army does not have enough manpower to bring these large swathes of territory under control. Problems grip locals on a daily basis. As you know, they torch farmlands and kill a large number of people, especially in the areas of Khanaqin and Garmiyan. What we want is to create stability in these areas and for people to be safe. There needs to be complete control of these areas, similar to those administered by the Peshmerga. This is the top demand that we need to agree on by allowing joint forces to be present in them. We want Peshmerga to return to the areas that had been under their control before the October  events. The security of the disputed areas must be guaranteed, especially around the Kurdish-inhabited villages.
As a Peshmerga commander who runs a large frontline, Makhmour and Gwer, how do you assess ISIS activities, especially near Makhmour? What is their estimated number? do you know where they are?
They are very very active, they move a lot in the Qaraj plains. Qaraj and Qarachogh are connected to Qayyarah and other areas down south, to Hawija, through the Tigris river. In this region, they are active and move around all the time. They move freely at night. Their exact number cannot be known because they have become a guerilla group. What we can estimate at this stage is that approximately 150 Daesh militants are active on the ground at Mount Qarachogh alone. Many times individual and joint operations have been carried out between the Peshmerga and coalition teams backed by coalition drones and warplanes. Some people might not know this information because we cannot always announce our operations. Daesh militants have come under bombardment 34 times over the past two months, killing more than 100 terrorists. This is not a small number at a time people doubt whether or not Daesh exists. Again, I can’t say the exact number, but at least 100 terrorists have been killed over the past two months.
Why is Daesh still present in an area where the Iraqi armed forces are present and the coalition has bombed them numerous times. Why have they not been eradicated?
Mount Qarachogh is very rugged. The mountain range is 50 kilometers long. It is true that the mountain is surrounded by plains. On the eastern side, it is more than 800 meters high. The southern side [under Iraq’s control] which overlooks Qaraj is very rugged, and is where they have dug tunnels, in addition to the numerous natural caves they also use. This has become a safe haven for them. They can easily move down the plains because there are not enough armed forces to repel them. Naturally, you only deploy troops to certain locations. They cannot be present. When the region was under the control of the Peshmerga, we had a face-to-face frontline against the terrorists, we dug trenches and the place was fully controlled by the Peshmerga. Even if one Daesh fighter wanted to cross to the other side, we would see him. In other words, they were never able to even reach Mount Qarachogh. This is not the case now. The plain is wide open to them. Yet, there are people in the region who work and coordinate with them either out of fear or shared ideology. We do not exactly know. It is clear that they receive food and they can easily commute and return to their bunkers on the mountain.
Do the coalition forces continue to assist the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army, especially after they halted their work due to Covid-19 measures?
During the onset of the outbreak of the coronavirus, they reduced their coordination and operations. They are actively engaged in coordination with the Peshmerga. We constantly have coordination. I am speaking about our frontline. I would say we hold a meeting every two to three days. They precisely monitor Mount Qarachogh and assist us in a serious way. Without their help, it would be very hard to hit them [ISIS] because the fighting techniques have changed as they have resorted to guerilla activities. Without technology from the coalition, it is difficult to kill them in such large numbers. The same is true when it comes to their coordination with Iraq. The biggest mistake is calls for the withdrawal of the coalition partners by some parties in Iraq. If Iraq does this, it will greatly suffer and Daesh will further deepen the issue of stability, and they will be able to control many areas.
Interview by Sangar Abdulrahman
Translated by Zhelwan Z Wali