Kurds say US special forces have been secretly fighting Islamic State jihadists for months
On a damp afternoon in Iraqi Kurdistan, a 29-year-old peshmerga fighter named Peshawa pulls out his Samsung Galaxy mobile phone, flicks hurriedly through his library until he finds the video he wants, and presses play.
The clip, filmed just after dawn on 11 September, shows four tall and western-looking men in the heat of a battle against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. “These are the Americans,” says Peshawa in a secretive tone.
One is crouched behind a machine gun firing round after round from the top of a fortified mound; another lies on his front a few feet away, legs outstretched and taking aim at the enemy with a long rifle. A third wields a long-lens camera taking photo after photo, and the last stands back, apparently overseeing the others during the combat south-west of the city of Kirkuk.
The footage, Peshawa says, is evidence that US special forces have been waging a covert war on the frontline in Iraq for months. Such a claim could alter the feverish debate over whether Barack Obama should move farther and faster against Isis in the wake of the Paris attacks .
A string of terrorist atrocities in France, Lebanon and elsewhere has intensified pressure on Obama to take a more aggressive stand against Isis in Iraq and Syria. Having won election promising to end the Iraq war, however, the president has repeatedly insisted that he will not send back ground troops. In June last year he announced the redeployment of up to 300 military advisers there but pledged: “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.”
The US military denies any special operations forces involvement in combat on 11 September or in three other other incidents listed by the peshmerga. Yet in interviews with the Guardian, a dozen Kurdish fighters and commanders said that US special forces troops have been participating in operations against Isis for months.
In another video, dated 11 June, an American soldier wearing the fatigues and insignia of a Kurdish counter-terrorism unit can be seen walking alongside two dozen peshmerga in the aftermath of a seven-hour firefight with Isis militants in the village of Wastana and Saddam settlement, according to the peshmerga who filmed the video.
“Initially, the Americans rained fire on Wastana,” said Major Loqman Mohammed, pointing to the hamlet which remains under Isis control.
None of the peshmerga were willing to publish their photos or video footage for fear of dismissal, but they allowed the Guardian to watch the video and see the images on their mobile phones.
Karwan Hama Tata, a peshmerga volunteer, showed a Guardian reporter a video which appeared to show two Americans in the midst of the battle accompanied by three peshmerga fighters. He said: “They fight and they even fight ahead of the peshmerga. They won’t allow anyone to take photos of them, but they take photos of everyone.”
The American special forces arrived in Kirkuk earlier this year to train, advise and support peshmerga forces fighting Isis. According to a Kurdish peshmerga commander, about 30 American special forces operatives set up an operations room in the city.
A senior peshmerga commander, who did not wish to be named, said: “In February, for the first time, four American snipers came to south Kirkuk because we had lost several peshmerga to the Isis snipers.
“The peshmerga snipers were weak and before we could hit a single Isis sniper, we would lose a few men. Therefore we desperately needed American snipers. They had taken part in all the fights in south Kirkuk and they had really good snipers.”
A western volunteer with the peshmerga, who did not wish to be named, said: “The joke going around here is there are no boots on the ground because they’re all wearing sneakers.”
The scale of military activity on the ground is likely to surprise politicians and analysts who portray the current strategy in narrow terms of airstrikes.
Peshmerga sources said that the US has been involved in a series of firefights with Isis:
- On 20 April US forces played a role in an operation to retake Dawus al Aloka village south-west of Kirkuk, in which they fired about 47 mortars at Isis positions;
- They were also involved in two attempts to retake the villages of Wastana and Saddam settlement south-west of Kirkuk on 11 June and 26 August;
- On 11 September special forces troops participated in the successful operation to retake Wastana.
When presented with these details, US Central Command in Baghdad denied the peshmerga’s claims. “No US or coalition SOF [special operations forces] were engaged in any of these events you listed,” it said. “The coalition continues to support local partners through our advise and assistance role, but we have no reports of any coalition advise and assist teams becoming engaged during the actions you referenced.
“As US senior leaders have repeatedly stated, the US is not conducting a combat mission. We continue to conduct an advise and assist mission.”
It was not clear why the peshmerga’s claims were at such odds with those of US Central Command. But the dividing line between “advise and assist” and participation in combat is one that can easily be blurred, analysts said.
Aaron David Miller , a former adviser to secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, said: “The issue is really situational. You’re advising and assisting but put in situations that are much closer to engagement and combat. In those circumstances, I suspect the line becomes a very fine one – a matter of metres.
“We’re playing roles where we’re advising in forward positions. One man’s floor is another man’s ceiling. There’s a very fine distinction.”
Miller, now based at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, added that he found it “kind of stunning” that such reports had not been made public before and predicted an increase of such activity following the Paris attacks. “It doesn’t come as a total shock to me there would be special forces on the frontlines advising and assisting. You need to get someone on the ground who could give you a more military-oriented view of how this evolved.
“The way this is going post-Paris, you’re going to see more of that. Rather than sending in large numbers, it could be a changing of roles in the way the Obama administration pursues its strategy on the ground. The size of our deployment may not change but the character of that mission may, particularly in Syria.”
US special operations near Kirkuk did come to public attention last month when Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, 39, was killed when US special operations troops and Kurdish forces raided an Isis compound, freeing approximately 70 hostages said to be facing imminent execution.
In the aftermath of the raid, army colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters: “We’re in combat, I mean, of course, this is a combat zone. There’s a war going on in Iraq, if folks haven’t noticed. And we’re here and it’s all around us.”
And last week Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy to the global coalition to counter Isis, acknowledged that advisers sometimes provide much more than advice in both Iraq and Syria.
“For the most part, our military advisers are providing advisory support, training, and assistance,” he said. “However, there are times, of course, when we believe it’s in our national security interests and the president authorises for more direct action missions.”
McGurk pointed to a special forces raid in eastern Syria this May targeting Isis commander Abu Sayyaf, who the US says was an instrumental figure in the group’s financial structure. Sayyaf’s wife was captured during the operation, during which the US also seized intelligence materials.
“[That raid] was what has led now to a number of operations to really just completely uproot Isil’s economic financial networks in Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria, and you’re going to see more of that,” said McGurk.”
Around 3,500 US personnel are currently stationed in Iraq. Bloomberg reported last month that according to US and Kurdish officials, America runs an operations centre in Irbil staffed by a special operations taskforce that has worked in recent months to identify and locate senior leaders of Isis.
American joint terminal attack controllers, who help paint targets for airstrikes of Isis vehicles, camps and buildings, also operate in northern Iraq, it added.
Anthony Cordesman , a security and intelligence analyst for past US administrations, denied that Obama had been dishonest about the extent of military involvement. “I think the problem often lies in not listening to the subtext of what the US says,” he said. “It has never said it does not have some elements of special forces there.”
Asserting there will not be boots on the ground does not mean “every damn boot”, added Cordesman, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. A “train and assist mission is by its very nature not something you wish to publicise”, he said.
Back in Iraqi Kurdistan, peshmerga fighters said they welcomed the US aid, but added that what they really needed was more weapons: “All my men have bought their own guns to fight this war,” said one Kurdish officer. “I have told the Americans: give us the equipment and guns you have and we will fight this menace ourselves.”
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