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Peshmerga soldiers prepare to conduct a combined arms live-fire exercise near Erbil, Iraq.jpg
Peshmerga soldiers in northern Iraq, 2016.
Active Early 1920s–present
Allegiance Kurdistan Regional Government(disputed, see Structure)
Branch Army
Size 247,000(disputed, see Structure)
Headquarter Erbil
March Ey Reqîb[citation needed]
Commander-in-Chief Masoud Barzani
Minister of Peshmerga Affairs Mustafa Sayid Qadir

Peshmerga (Sorani Kurdish: پێشمەرگە‎, translit. Pêşmerge, lit. 'Before death', IPA: [peːʃmɛɾˈɡɛ]) are the military forces of the federal region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Because the Iraqi Army is forbidden by Iraqi law from entering Iraqi Kurdistan,[1][2] the peshmerga, along with their security subsidiaries, are responsible for the security of the regions in Iraqi Kurdistan.[3][4][5][6] These subsidiaries include Asayish (intelligence agency), Parastin u Zanyarî (assisting intelligence agency) and the Zeravani (military police). The peshmerge itself predates Iraq, starting out as a strictly tribal pseudo-military border guard under the Ottomans and Safavids to a well-trained, disciplined guerrilla force in the 19th century.[7]

Formally the peshmerga are under the command of the Kurdistan Regional Government's Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs; in reality the peshmerga force itself is largely divided and controlled separately by the two regional political parties: Democratic Party of Kurdistan and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Unifying and integrating the peshmerga has been on the public agenda since 1992 but the forces remain divided due to factionalism which has proved to be a major stumblingblock.[8]

In 2003, during the Iraq War, peshmerga were said to have played a key role in the mission to capture Saddam Hussein;[9][10] in 2004, they captured key al Qaeda figure Hassan Ghul, who revealed the identity of Osama Bin Laden's messenger, which eventually led to Operation Neptune Spear and the death of Osama Bin Laden.[11][12]


The term "peshmerga" was only coined in the mid-20th century, by the Kurdish writer Ibrahim Ahmad.[13][14][15] It is a combination of two Kurdish words; pesh[16] meaning to confront or face, and the word Merg which means death.[17] The literal word is defined as "one who faces death",[7] the term is primarily used by Sorani speaking Kurds to refer to Kurdish forces in Iraq while Kurmanji speaking Kurds use the term "gerîla" for armed Kurdish forces in Turkey, Iran and Syria. The word is mutually intelligible to speakers of Farsi.[18]


Mustafa Barzani was the primary political and military leader of the Kurdish cause until his death in 1979.

The Kurdish warrior tradition of rebellion has existed for thousands of years along with aspirations for independence, and early Kurdish warriors fought against the various Persian empires, the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire.[7]

Historically the Peshmerga existed only as guerilla organizations, but under the self-declared Republic of Mahabad (1946–1947), the peshmerga led by Mustafa Barzani became the official army of the republic,[19][20] after the fall of the republic and the execution of head of state Qazi Muhammad, peshmerga forces reemerged as guerilla organizations that would go on to fight the Iranian and Iraqi governments for the remainder of the century.[21]

In Iraq, most of these peshmerga were led by Mustafa Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party;[20] in 1975 the peshmerga were defeated in the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War. Jalal Talabani, a leading member of the KDP, left the same year to revitalize the resistance and founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. This event created the baseline for the political discontent between the KDP and PUK that to this day divides peshmerga forces and much of Kurdish society in Iraqi Kurdistan.

After Mustafa Barzani's death in 1979, his son Masoud Barzani took his position,[20] as tension increased between KDP and PUK, most peshmerga fought to keep a region under their own party's control, while also fighting off Iraqi Army incursions. Following the First Persian Gulf War, Iraqi Kurdistan saw the Kurdish Civil War between the two major parties, the KDP and the PUK, and peshmerga forces were used to fight each other, the civil war officially ended in September 1998, when Barzani and Talabani signed the Washington Agreement establishing a formal peace treaty.[22] In the agreement, the parties agreed to share revenue and power, deny the use of northern Iraq to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and not allow Iraqi troops into the Kurdish regions. By then, around 5,000 had been killed on both sides, and many more had been evicted for being on the wrong side;[23] in the years after, tension remained high, but both parties moved towards each other and in 2003 they both took part in the overthrowing of the Baathist regime as part of the Iraq War. They remained on good terms, forming a government of Iraqi Kurdistan. Unlike other militia forces, the peshmerga were never prohibited by Iraqi law.[24]


Peshmerga special unit near the Syrian border on June 23, 2014.

The peshmarga are mostly divided among forces loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and those loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK),[25] while other, minor Kurdish parties such as the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party also have their own small peshmarga units.[26] The KDP and PUK do not disclose information about the composition of their forces with government or media,[25] thus there is no reliable number of how many Peshmerga fighters exist.[25] Media outlets have speculated that there are between 150.000 and 200.000 peshmerga, but this number is highly disputed.[27][28] Peshmerga have divided Iraqi Kurdistan into a KDP-governed "yellow" zone covering Dohuk Governorate and Erbil Governorate and a PUK-governed "green" zone covering Sulaymaniyah Governorate and Halabja Governorate.[29][25][8] Each zone has its own branch of peshmerge with their own governing institutions and parallel peshmerga units that do not coordinate with the other branch.[8]

As a result of the split nature of the peshmerga force, there is no central command center in charge of the entire force, and peshmerga units instead follow separate military hierarchies depending on political allegiance.[30] Multiple unification and depoliticizing efforts of the peshmerge have been made since 1992, but so far all deadlines have been missed,[8] reforms have been watered down[25] and most of the peshmerga is still under the influence of the KDP and the PUK, whom also maintain their separate peshmerga forces. Following the events of the Iraqi Civil War in 2014 the United States and several European nations pressured the PUK and KDP to set up mixed brigades of peshmerga, as a condition for aid and funding. The PUK and KDP united 12 to 14 brigades under the Regional Guard Brigades which were then placed under the command of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affair,[25] however officers continue to report to and take orders from their party leaders who also control the deployment of forces loyal to them and appoint front-line and sector commanders [8]

Both the KDP and the PUK rely heavily on irregulars in times of conflict to increase their ranks,[31] however both maintain several professional military brigades. The following units have been identified within the peshmerga force:

Force Estimated size Commander Party affiliation
Regional Guard Brigades[25][8] 40000 - 43000 Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs supposedly apolitical
Hezekani Kosrat Rasul[8] 2000-3000 Kosrat Rasul Ali PUK
Anti-terror force[8] unknown Bafel Talabani PUK
Presidential peshmerga brigades[8] unknown Hero Ibrahim Ahmed PUK
70 Unit[8][25] 60000 unknown PUK
Emergency Forces[8] unknown unknown PUK
PUK Asayish (security) force unknown unknown PUK
Nechirvan Barzani's bridage[8] unknown Nechirvan Barzani KDP
80 Unit[8][25] 60000 Masoud Barzani KDP
Zerevani[8] unknown Masoud Barzani KDP
Êzîdxan Protection Force [32] unknown Masoud Barzani KDP
KDP Asayish (security) force unknown unknown KDP

Due to limited funding and the vast size of the peshmerga forces, the KRG has long planned to downsize its forces from large numbers of low-quality forces to a smaller but much more effective and well-trained force.[33][34] Consequently, in 2009, the KRG and Baghdad engaged in discussions about incorporating parts of the peshmerga forces into the Iraqi Army, in what would be the 15th and 16th Iraqi Army divisions.[35][36] However, after increasing tension between Erbil and Baghdad regarding the disputed areas, the transfer was largely put on hold, some peshmerga were already transferred but reportedly deserted again, and there are allegations that former peshmerga forces remain loyal to the KRG rather than their Iraqi chain of command.[37][38]

The peshmerga forces are secular with a Muslim majority and Assyrian Christian and Yezidi units.[39][40]

Equipment and capabilities[edit]

Peshmerga soldiers stand in formation during the Modern Brigade Course graduation ceremony.

Peshmerga forces largely rely on old arms captured from battles, the peshmerga captured stockpiles of weapons during the 1991 Iraqi uprisings.[41] Several stockpiles of weapons were captured from the old Iraqi Army during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, in which peshmerga forces were active. Following the retreat of the new Iraqi Army during the June 2014 ISIS offensive, peshmerga forces reportedly again managed to get hold of weapons left behind by the Army,[42] since August 2014, peshmerga forces have also captured weapons from ISIS.[43] In 2015, for the first time, peshmerga soldiers received urban warfare and military intelligence training from foreign trainers, the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve.[44]

The peshmerga arsenal is limited and confined by restrictions because the Kurdish Region has to purchase arms through the Iraqi government. Due to disputes between the KRG and the Iraqi government, arm flows from Baghdad to Iraqi Kurdistan has been almost nonexistent, as Baghdad fears Kurdish aspirations for independence.[45][46][25] After the ISIS offensive of August 2014, multiple governments armed the peshmerga with some light equipment, such as light arms, night goggles and ammunition.[47][48][49][50] However, Kurdish officials and peshmerga stressed that they were not receiving enough, they also stress that Baghdad was blocking all arms from reaching the KRG, emphasizing the need for weapons to be sent directly to the KRG and not through Baghdad.[51][52] Despite this the United States has mainted that the government of Iraq is responsible for the security of Iraqi Kurdistan and that Baghdad must approve all military aid.[25]

The peshmerga lack a proper medical corps and communication units,[25] this became apparent during the ISIS offensive in 2014 where the peshmerga found itself lacking ambulances and frontline field hospitals, forcing wounded fighters to walk back to safety.[25] There is also a lack of communication tools as Peshmerga commanders are forced to use civilian cellphones to communicate with each other.[25] Under guidance of the US-led coalition the peshmarga has started to standardize its weapons systems. Replacing Soviet-era weapons with NATO firearms[25]

Role of women[edit]

Women peshmerga on the front line in 1969.

Women have played a significant role in the peshmerga since its foundation, the Kurdish Zand tribe was known for allowing women in military roles.[7] During the Iraqi-Kurdish conflict the majority of women served within the peshmerga in supporting roles such as building camps, taking care of the wounded and carrying munitions and messages.[31] Several women brigades served on the front lines, the most famous peshmerga was Margaret George Shello who managed to secure a leading position.[7] The PUK started recruiting women during the Kurdish Civil War. Women were given a 45-day basic training that included parade drills and basic marksmanship with various rifles, mortars, and RPGs;[7] in the months leading up to the US 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States launched Operation Viking Hammer which dealt a huge blow to Islamic terrorist groups in Iraqi Kurdistan and uncovered a chemical weapons facility.[53][54][55][56][57] The PUK later confirmed that women Kurdish fighters had participated in the operation.[31]

The modern peshmerga is almost entirely made up of men while having at least 600 women in their ranks;[58] in the KDP, these women peshmerga have so far been refused access to the frontline and are mostly used in logistics and management positions,[59] but women PUK peshmerga are deployed in the front lines and are actively engaged in combat.[60][61][7]


The peshmerga forces are plagued by frequent allegations of corruption, partisanship, nepotism, and fraud.[62][63][64][65][66][67] A common result of corruption in the peshmerga are "ghost employees" which employees on paper who either do not exist or do not show up for work but receive a salary, those setting up such a scam split the salary of these employees.[25]

In addition the KDP and PUK have used the peshmerga to exert, or attempt to exert, a monopoly on the use of force within their zones;[25] in 2011 KDP peshmerga fired on anti-government protesters in Sulaymaniyah on and the PUK later used its own security forces to break up these protests.[8] Leading to criticism from all of the opposition parties in the parliament; in 2014 the KDP used its peshmerga to stop ministers from the Gorran Movement to enter Erbil and attend parliament.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Iraqi PM criticizes Kurdish region for barring army from Syrian border area". Xinhua News Agency. 28 July 2012. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  2. ^ "Information about Kurdistan". Kurdistan Development Organization. 2014. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  3. ^ "Summary of the most important tasks of the Ministry of Peshmerga". Ministry of Peshmerga. 12 November 2012. Archived from the original on 12 January 2015. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  4. ^ Newton-Small, Jay (31 December 2012). "Destination Kurdistan: Is This Autonomous Iraqi Region a Budding Tourist Hot Spot?". Time. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  5. ^ Druzin, Heath (29 September 2013). "Rare terrorist attack in peaceful Kurdish region of Iraq kills 6". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  6. ^ Krajeski, Jenna (20 March 2013). "The Iraq War Was a Good Idea, If You Ask the Kurds". The Atlantic. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Lortz, Michael (2005). "Willing to Face Death: A History of Kurdish Military Forces - the Peshmerga - From the Ottoman Empire to Present-Day Iraq". Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. 1038: 108. Archived from the original on 27 July 2015. Retrieved 12 February 2018. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o van Wilgenburg, Wladimir; Fumerton, Mario (16 December 2015). "Kurdistan's Political Armies: The Challenge of Unifying the Peshmerga Forces" (PDF). Carnegie Middle East Center. Retrieved 12 February 2018. 
  9. ^ Rai, Manish (6 October 2014). "Kurdish Peshmerga Can Be A Game Changer In Iraq And Syria". Khaama Press. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  10. ^ "Operation Red Dawn's eight-month hunt". The Sydney Morning Herald. 15 December 2003. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  11. ^ Ambinder, Marc (29 April 2013). "How the CIA really caught Bin Laden's trail". The Week. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  12. ^ Roston, Arom (9 January 2014). "Cloak and Drone: The Strange Saga of an Al Qaeda Triple Agent". Vocativ. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  13. ^ Stratton, Allegra (26 June 2006). "Hero of the people". New Statesman. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  14. ^ Koerner, Brendan (2003-03-21). "What does the Kurdish word peshmerga mean?". Retrieved 2016-10-18. 
  15. ^ From the Kurdish pêş (پێش) "before" and merg مەرگ "death".
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Stilo, Donald (March 2008). "Aspects of Iranian Linguistics". Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Retrieved 19 October 2017. 
  19. ^ Abdulla, Mufid (12 June 2011). "Mahabad – the first independent Kurdish republic". The Kurdistan Tribune. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  20. ^ a b c "President". Kurdistan Regional Government Representation in Spain. 2015. Retrieved 14 February 2015. 
  21. ^ Meiselas, Susan (2008). Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-51928-9. 
  22. ^ Abdulrahman, Frman (23 February 2012). "never ending mystery: what really happened to Kurdish civil war missing". niqash. Retrieved 22 February 2015. 
  23. ^ McDermid, Charles (20 February 2010). "New force emerges in Kirkuk". Asia Times Online. Retrieved 22 February 2015. 
  24. ^ Profile: Who are the Peshmerga? BBC News. Retrieved 19 December 2014.
  25. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Helfont, Samuel (1 March 2017). "Getting Peshmerga Reform Right: Helping the Iraqi Kurds to Help Themselves in Post-ISIS Iraq". Foreign Policy Research Institute. 16: 13. 
  26. ^ "Kaka Hama, head of Kurdish Socialist Party joins Mosul battle plan with force". Rudaw Media Network. 16 October 2016. Retrieved 24 February 2018. 
  27. ^ "Over 150,000 enlisted as Peshmerga troops in Kurdistan Region, official data shows". 3 April 2017. Retrieved 13 August 2017. 
  28. ^ Hawramy, Fazel (13 January 2015). "Kurdish peshmerga divisions hamper war effort". Al-monitor. Retrieved 12 February 2018. 
  29. ^ Chapman, Dennis. Security Forces of Kurdistan Regional Government, US Army War College. 2009, page. 3.
  30. ^ " - Kurdish Peshmerga Forces Have Room to Grow". Archived from the original on 2015-01-13. 
  31. ^ a b c Howard, Michael (26 November 2002). "Revenge spurs women's army". The Guardian. The Guardian, the Guardian. Retrieved 13 February 2018. 
  32. ^ Baxtiyar Goran (9 March 2017). "Haider Shesho: Ezidkhan Units take orders from President Barzani, Peshmerga Ministry". Kurdistan24. 
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  35. ^ "Iraq and the United States". Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
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  38. ^ "Iraq's Insurgency and the Road to Civil Conflict". Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
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  46. ^ "Arms for Kurdish peshmerga to affect military balance". DW.DE. Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
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  49. ^ Spencer Ackerman. "US to directly arm Kurdish peshmerga forces in bid to thwart Isis offensive". the Guardian. Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
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  53. ^ Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward, Simon and Schuster, 2004.
  54. ^ Tucker, Mike; Charles Faddis (2008). Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War inside Iraq. The Lyons Press. ISBN 978-1-59921-366-8. 
  55. ^ An interview on public radio with the author Archived September 30, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  56. ^ Chalk, Peter, Encyclopedia of Terrorism Volume 1, 2012, ABC-CLIO
  57. ^ "Ansar al-Islam". Retrieved 2012-08-08. 
  58. ^ "Meet the Kurdish women fighting the Islamic State". 8 November 2014. Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
  59. ^ "No Frontline Deployment for Female Kurdish Troops". Rudaw. Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
  60. ^ "KRG halts recruiting of female Peshmerga". Rudaw. 
  61. ^ "Meet the female peshmerga forces fighting IS - Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East". Al-Monitor. 
  62. ^ Parkinson, Joe; Nissenbaum, Dion (2015). "U.S., Allies Training Kurds on Using Sophisticated Weaponry Against Islamic State". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 22 February 2015. (Subscription required (help)). 
  63. ^ "The Peshmerga of Iraq". 1 March 2008. Retrieved 22 February 2015. 
  64. ^ "KRG and the 'godfathers': 2006 secret US cable on Wikileaks". The Kurdistan Tribune. 8 May 2014. Retrieved 22 February 2015. 
  65. ^ Devigne, Jacqueline (2011). ""Iraqoncilable" Differences? The Political Nature of the Peshmerga" (PDF). NIMEP Insights. Retrieved 22 February 2015. 
  66. ^ "Presidency of the province renews its call to convert the Peshmerga Army National". The I.Q.D. Team Connection. Archived from the original on 13 January 2015. Retrieved 20 March 2015. 
  67. ^ "PUK official warns Peshmerga will not take orders from anyone else: Iraqi Kurdistan". Retrieved 20 March 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Chapman, Dennis P., Lieutenant Colonel USA, Security Forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Mohammed najat, Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 2011. ISSN 0026-3141 Reviewed by Michael M. Gunter in Middle East Affairs, Vol. 65, No. 3, Summer 2011.

External links[edit]