Islamic State: Turkish Kurds help their Iraqi brothers to resist Isis advance

Female guerrillas are leading the PKK's fight against militants in a rare display of unity with Peshmerga

After the northern Iraqi town of Makhmour fell to Islamic State militants last month, Kurdish forces were gathered in the nearby village of Bazarga. Perched on the hillside overlooking the city, it gave the Kurds a safe vantage point from which to observe their enemy.

Volunteers had also converged on the area, offering their help to the Kurdish army, or Peshmerga. Hundreds of parked cars lined the side of the main road from the regional capital, Erbil, with young men leaning against their doors. Like the security forces stationed at a camp hidden from the road, they were waiting for an opportunity to take on the militants.

"We come here because we want to fight terrorists. We have guns in the car; we will fight these people until we die," explained Moukadam Aziz, who returned to Kurdistan from Norway, where he lives, to defend his homeland from Islamic State (formerly known as Isis).

Like Aziz, many volunteers standing around in the late afternoon heat had returned from abroad after Islamic State took Mosul in June. Others came to Bazarga from across Kurdistan, determined to resist the militants.

The assortment of armed forces gathered in the area told a similar story, with Kurdish government troops fighting alongside guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Within the official forces, the battle for Makhmour saw a rare display of unity between battalions whose loyalties are divided across Kurdistan's different political parties and provinces.

At a military base nearby, men were milling around a central courtyard, some in uniform, some in traditional Kurdish dress, but all sharing the mood of restless anticipation, filling the time talking and smoking, apparently oblivious to the intermittent artillery fire around them.

Brigadier Colonel Hejar, of the Kurdish security services, in charge of the base, said they clashed with Islamic State the day before, killing dozens of militants. "We brought two bodies back to the camp and buried them this morning," he said.

The troops were defending a UN-run refugee camp in Makhmour, which has been home to more than 12,000 Turkish Kurds for the last 15 years. The refugees had to flee their own country because of their allegiance to the PKK, which Turkey – like the US, EU and Nato –considers a terrorist organisation.

Founded by Abdullah Ocalan in the 1970s to fight for Kurdish cultural and political rights, the PKK has been engaged in an intermittent struggle against the Turkish government ever since. Ocalan is now serving a life sentence for treason in Turkey.

The upside to the current crisis, says a 28-year-old PKK guerilla called Slaw, is that the Kurds are finally working together. One of the PKK's many female fighters, Slaw lives in the Makhmour camp. The battle for Makhmour was her first experience of armed combat and the first time she had seen Kurds united.

"Now there are no borders between the different parts of Kurdistan. Kurds from Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq are here. We've all crossed the borders to fight the Isis. The Kurds are united to bring our land back under our control."

Kurdish forces successfully retook Makhmour a few days later and the PKK have now deployed to Sinjar and Jalawla, Kurdish areas in the west and east of the country where extensive fighting continues. But divisions between the different factions are starting to re-emerge, with the Kurdish authorities apparently distancing themselves from the PKK.

The local media close to the government has played down the role of the PKK in providing aid to the tens of thousands of Yazidi stranded on a mountain after Islamic State militants overran the western district of Sinjar, and then in creating a safe corridor that allowed them to escape.

Unlike the recent refugee camps scattered across the Kurdistan region, Makhmour's residents live in houses, some built out of local stone, others out of grey cement blocks. Trees, gardens, and winding streets give the camp a village-like feel, while pictures of Ocalan and pro-PKK graffiti leave no doubt about where the residents' allegiances lie.

When Islamic State entered Makhmour the battle-hardened PKK fighters are said to have volunteered to take the front line, ahead of the Peshmerga, who had not been engaged in active combat for years.

"We thought it would raise their morale to have us in front of them," said Massoum, one of three PKK commanders who run the camp.

Massoum says the international community is reluctant to give the PKK the credit they are due or the military support they could use to help to keep Islamic State at bay. "People are blind, deaf and dumb and don't want to strengthen the PKK. They call Isis 'jihadists' and call us 'terrorists'. They see us as a threat when they should understand that none of us can stand alone against Isis."

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