Sahela Battle: Kurdistan marks anniversary of successful resistance

The Kurdistan Region on Friday marked the first anniversary of victory in the Sahela Battle against Iraqi troops and Shia militias who tried to advance toward the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in response to the controversial independence referendum.
author_image Sangar Ali

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The Kurdistan Region on Friday marked the first anniversary of victory in the Sahela Battle against Iraqi troops and Shia militias who tried to advance toward the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in response to the controversial independence referendum.

On Sep. 25 of last year, the Kurdistan Region held a historic referendum on independence, which saw 93 percent of people favoring secession from Iraq.

The federal government of Iraq deemed the vote “illegal” and “unconstitutional.” In addition to Baghdad, neighboring countries like Iran and Turkey also firmly opposed the referendum. The United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations were also critical of the vote's timeframe.

After the military takeover of Kirkuk and other disputed territories on Oct. 16, Iraqi forces and the Hashd al-Shaabi militias, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), advanced in the province of Nineveh toward the Turkish border.

The purpose of the Iraqi forces’ attack in the area was to control the Feysh Khabour border crossing of the Kurdistan Region with Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) and also the Ibrahim Khalil International border gate with Turkey, chief of staff of the Peshmerga forces Jamal Iminki told Kurdistan 24 on Friday.

In the battles of Sahela and Mahmoudiya that took place afterward, Iraqi forces and Shia militias failed to advance after Peshmerga forces resisted and strengthened their lines of defense. The clashes resulted in dozens of casualties on both sides, but the strong resistance of the Peshmerga have been marked as a victory and an achievement for the Kurdistan Region.

In the battle, some 22 Peshmerga fighters fell and several more wounded, a source from Peshmerga Ministry told Kurdistan 24 on condition of anonymity.

Peshmerga officials estimated the casualties of Iraqi forces and Shia militias to be much higher. When Kurdistan 24 contacted Iraqi military commanders, they declined to share official casualty numbers.

“Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the epic battles of Sahela and Mahmoudiya where the Peshmerga recorded a new chapter of resilience. Our heartfelt gratitude to those brave forces who participated and our salutes to the souls of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” former President of the Kurdistan Region and current leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Masoud Barzani, posted Friday on his official Twitter account.

By late 2017, Peshmerga and Iraqi forces had been fighting alongside each other against the Islamic State (IS) for three years, but ties between them deteriorated following the independence referendum.

During the Sahela battle, Kurdistan 24 correspondent Masoud Mohammed was in the forefront of the fight reporting the clashes. In a live broadcast, it showed Iraqi artillery and mortars targeting the Kurdish front lines frequently.

A Peshmerga commander named Badal Bandi was seen repeatedly telling fighters “Don’t duck!” with shells landing meters away from them. Later, the term, “Don’t duck,” became the symbol of the battle’s victory.

Kurdish leaders have stated that the resistance of the Peshmerga against Iraqi forces and Shia militias in the town of Altun Kupri (Pirde), located on the outskirts of Erbil Province, and Sahela, in Nineveh Province, kept the integrity of the Kurdistan Region intact.

A year has passed since the clashes took place. Erbil and Baghdad are trying to open a new page in their relations, especially through the formation of the new Iraqi federal government led by Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Editing by John J. Catherine