Washington-Driving through the desert, Azar Mirkhan told me about the death of his father, Gen. Heso Mirkhan, the peshmerga warrior who helped lead the 1974 Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government, and who then took his family into exile in Iran. When the Iran-Iraq war began six years later, Azar said, the Khomeini regime suddenly saw a use for the Iraqi Kurd exiles in their midst and allowed Heso to resume his peshmerga leadership role, as well as his cross-border incursions. That caught up with him in April 1983, when he was killed in an ambush in northern Iraq.
“I don’t really remember him that well, because I was only 8 when he died,” Azar said. “My strongest memory is that there was just a constant parade of peshmerga commanders coming to our house, conferring with my father.”
For nearly 30 years, Heso’s remains were lost somewhere in the mountains of Kurdistan, but a few years ago Azar and his brothers began a monthslong quest to locate them. By talking with villagers and Heso’s surviving companions, they finally found his bones at the bottom of a remote ravine.
“We brought them back to our village, and he was given a hero’s funeral,” Azar said. “Even Barzani was there” — the K.R.G.’s president, Massoud Barzani.
The doctor’s sense of personal loss was more evident when he talked of the death of his brother Ali, the second-oldest of the 14 Mirkhan siblings and the first to follow Heso into the ranks of peshmerga leadership. “When Ali was killed, it was a tragedy not just for the family, but all Kurdistan,” Azar said. “He was a natural leader of men — charismatic, brilliant — and, O.K., he was my brother, but I believe we would be in a very different place now if he had stayed alive. Many, many people who knew him have said this to me.”
Azar told me these stories on the drive described in the preface, perhaps in part to explain why our destination, a little village in Iraq called Gunde Siba, still haunted him. He was on an indefinite leave of absence from the hospital where he worked in Erbil, the K.R.G. capital, to devote all his energies to confronting the crisis caused by the ISIS invasion. His duties, which appeared to be largely self-determined, consisted of periodically touring the peshmerga front lines and advising its commanders. Everyone in the K.R.G., it seemed, knew the Mirkhan name, and one of its happier consequences was that its bearers could expect to be treated with immediate respect and deference.
As we spoke, it became clear that Azar’s self-appointed mission went far beyond confronting the threat of ISIS. He saw in the K.R.G.’s current situation a precious and unprecedented opportunity to create a true Kurdish nation. To achieve that meant not just defeating the ISIS fanatics but ridding the land of the Kurds’ historical enemies, the Arabs, once and for all. “For fourteen hundred years, they have sworn to destroy us,” he said. “At what point do we take them at their word?” To Azar, that point had now been reached. In his view, which is by no means a minority one in the K.R.G., the first task at hand is to sever the remaining vestiges of the Iraqi state — it is a point of pride with Azar that he doesn’t speak Arabic and has only once been to Baghdad — and then to dismantle the legacy of forced Arab-Kurd integration initiated by Saddam Hussein.
Part of the doctor’s severity stems from what he regards as Kurdish complacency in the face of the dangers that lay all around, and it is further fueled by the tragedy he witnessed in Gunde Siba on Aug. 3, 2014.
For 22 years after its creation in 1992, the K.R.G. was a relative oasis of stability and peace in the region, its ties to Baghdad ever more theoretical. That exempt status was most nakedly revealed during the American intervention in Iraq, in which the K.R.G. openly sided with the invaders, providing them with back bases and airfields from which to carry out the fight; as local officials are fond of pointing out, not a single coalition soldier was killed in the K.R.G. during the Iraq war. That calm continued through the steady disintegration of Iraq after the American withdrawal, as the K.R.G. became ever more reluctant to pay even lip service to affiliation with Baghdad. To the good citizens of the K.R.G., it increasingly appeared that their mountain enclave had somehow found a way to escape the maelstroms swirling around it, that the days of warrior families like the Mirkhans might go the way of folklore. That fanciful notion ended with ISIS’ lightning advance into central Iraq in June 2014.
“I’ve never trusted the Arabs, but as strange as it sounds, I trusted Daesh,” Azar explained, using a common term for ISIS. “In the past, the Arabs always lied — ‘Oh, you Kurds have nothing to fear from us’ — and then they attacked us. But Daesh was absolutely clear what they were going to do. They wanted to take this part of the world back to the caliphate. They wanted to eliminate everyone who was not their kind — the Christians and the Kurds and the Shia — and they were absolutely open about it. After their June offensive, I had no doubt they were coming for us next.” The doctor even pinpointed where they would strike first. “Any fool looking at a map could know. It was going to be the Yazidis. It was going to be Sinjar.”
The Yazidis are a Kurdish religious minority that ISIS had long excoriated as “devil worshipers” and vowed to exterminate. Their Mount Sinjar heartland was in the far northwestern corner of Iraq and outside official K.R.G. territory, making them especially vulnerable. What’s more — and this is what a glance at a map made obvious — with ISIS’ capture of Mosul that June, the land link between the K.R.G. and the Yazidi Kurds in Sinjar was reduced to a single rutted farm road.
In the days and weeks after the June offensive, Azar made use of his family name to compel meetings within his circle of civilian and military comrades. At each, he warned of the coming ISIS attack. “No one took it seriously,” he recalled. “They all said, ‘No, their fight is with the Shia in Baghdad, why would they come here?’ ”
On Aug. 1, 2014, ISIS guerrillas attacked an isolated peshmerga outpost in the town of Zumar, which lay just 10 miles away from the last road into Sinjar. When still there was no sign of action by the government, in desperation Azar Mirkhan rustled up five or six of his peshmerga friends, and together they raced west.
“And this is as far as we got,” Azar said. “Right here.”
We were standing on the shoulder of the road in Gunde Siba, just a few miles west of the Tigris River and still some 40 miles from the town of Sinjar. “By then, it was night, and right here we started meeting the peshmerga who had fled from Sinjar and, behind them, the Yazidi refugees. It was impossible to go on because the road was just jammed, everyone trying to escape. We set up a defense post here and rallied some of the peshmerga to stay with us, but this is as far as we got.” He lit a cigarette and blew smoke into the air. “We were one day too late.”
In Sinjar that day — Aug. 3 — ISIS began carrying out mass executions, a slaughter that would ultimately claim the lives of at least 5,000 Yazidis. They were also rounding up thousands of girls and women to be used as sex slaves. Tens of thousands more Yazidis were frantically scaling the flanks of Mount Sinjar in a bid to escape the killers. Of all this, Azar Mirkhan had only an intimation in the terror-stricken faces and anguished accounts of those survivors streaming into Gunde Siba.
But Azar had little time to grasp, let alone address, the tragedy unfolding in Sinjar. Just two days later, ISIS began a second offensive, this one aimed directly at the K.R.G. capital city, Erbil. Turning back from Gunde Siba, the doctor raced south for the battlefield.
As it happened, Azar’s older brother Araz, 44, was the deputy commander of peshmerga forces along the very section of the K.R.G. frontier, Sector 6, that bore the brunt of the new ISIS assault. Azar immediately went into battle alongside his brother — but not just Araz. Most of Azar’s other brothers had long since moved abroad as part of the Kurdish diaspora and had become doctors and engineers in the United States and Europe, but befitting the Mirkhan family’s warrior-caste reputation, many of them set aside their businesses and medical practices to race to the K.R.G. and take up arms. At one point in that summer, five Mirkhan brothers, along with one of Azar’s nephews, were fighting shoulder to shoulder at a Sector 6 firebase.
“It was a good thing ISIS didn’t drop a mortar on us right then,” Azar joked. “Our mother would have been upset.”
But something did happen in the battle that changed Azar. After coming within 15 miles of Erbil, the ISIS advance stalled and was then thrown back by a furious peshmerga counteroffensive. During that counterattack on Aug. 20, an ISIS sniper’s bullet shattered Azar’s right hand. For weeks afterward, there was concern that he might lose the hand altogether, but surgery and physical therapy helped restore some function.
“The important thing is that I can shoot a gun again now,” Azar said, gently curling and uncurling his fingers. “Not as well as before, but almost.”
After our trip to Gunde Siba, in May 2015, Azar Mirkhan took me to the Gwer-Makhmour front, the place where he had been shot by the ISIS sniper. Venturing out to a peshmerga firebase on the forward front line, he climbed the parapet to train his binoculars on a village, perhaps 700 or 800 yards away down the hillside. All was very still there, save for two of the distinctive ISIS black-and-white flags curling in the light breeze.
A soldier called out a warning: An ISIS sniper had been spotted in the village an hour earlier, and, in his current stance, Azar made for a very easy target. The doctor gave the man an irritated look, then turned back to his binoculars.
The firebase consisted of a series of hastily constructed berms and dugouts on a ridge line about three miles from the Tigris River, with ISIS in control of the lowlands below. In the time he spent here, Azar had survived several ISIS attacks.
“First, they send in their suicide bombers in armored Humvees. If you don’t destroy them as they come up the hill — and you need to make a direct hit — they blast huge holes in the walls, because these are just massive explosions. Then in the confusion of that, they send in their infantry and, behind them, the snipers. It all happens very fast: Everything quiet, and then suddenly they’re everywhere. The important thing is to stay calm, to pick your targets, because if you panic, you’re finished. That’s the problem with the Iraqi Army; they always panic.”
Panic didn’t seem to figure prominently in Azar’s range of emotions. “I like fighting Daesh,” he said. “They’re actually quite smart. It’s almost a kind of game.”
Perhaps not surprising in a people so implacably committed to establishing a homeland, the Kurds of the K.R.G. find it intolerable that ISIS should maintain dominion over any of their territory. Much as the United States Army will sustain more casualties in order to retrieve their battlefield dead, so the peshmerga have been willing to suffer higher losses to recover Kurdish ground more quickly.
At Black Tiger Camp, the back-base command center of Sector 6, Sirwan Barzani, the overall sector commander, could point to the enormous color-coded battlefront map on his office wall and rattle off statistics remarkable in their specificity. “When I first arrived here,” he said, “Daesh was just three kilometers down the road. Now we have cleared them for 23 kilometers to the west and 34 kilometers to the south. In my sector, we have retaken 1,100 square kilometers, but we still have about 214 square kilometers to go.”
By May 2015, Barzani said, nearly 120 peshmerga had died in Sector 6, where the greatest ISIS incursions had occurred. At the same time, peshmerga commanders make an interesting distinction between where they are willing to suffer losses to regain land and where they aren’t. For example, the ISIS-held village that Azar studied with his binoculars was inhabited by Arabs, not Kurds.
“So even though it is on K.R.G. territory, it’s not worth losing men for,” he explained. “Not until we’re ready to do a much bigger offensive.”
But when that offensive might come was a matter tied up with international geopolitics, and with the outcome of decisions being made in Washington and Brussels and Baghdad. In light of the woeful conduct of the Iraqi Army in the past — and absent any will to place significant numbers of Western troops on the ground — many American and European politicians and foreign-policy advisers were calling for deputizing the one fighting force in the region that had proved its mettle, the peshmerga, to lead the campaign to destroy ISIS. Less clear was whether anyone had seriously discussed this idea with the Kurds.
“You know, the Americans come here, and they want to talk about retaking Mosul,” Sirwan Barzani said. “Are you going to do it with American troops? No. Are you going to do it with the Iraqi Army? No, because they’re useless. So let’s have the Kurds do it. But what do we want with Mosul? It’s not Kurdistan; it’s Iraq, and why should we lose more men for the sake of Iraq?”
Animating that resistance, beyond the traditional Kurdish antipathy for the regime in Baghdad, was what the Iraqi Army collapse in 2014 brought down on the K.R.G. The Iraqis, by abandoning their American-supplied heavy weaponry and vehicles to ISIS — in most cases, they didn’t even have the presence of mind to destroy it — had virtually overnight converted the guerrilla force into one of the best-equipped armies in the region, and it was the Kurds who paid the price.
By May 2015, the Americans were still trying to cobble together a workable arrangement. The response time for airstrikes against ISIS targets had greatly improved because of the recent deployment of American aerial spotter teams in the K.R.G., but much slower going was the effort to forge some kind of rapprochement between the peshmerga and the Iraqi Army. Directly beside Barzani’s Black Tiger Camp in Gwer was a smaller base where Iraqi soldiers were receiving American training. “I pray for the day I don’t have to see that anymore,” Barzani said, pointing to the Iraqi flag flying from the adjacent base.
But Black Tiger Camp revealed something else about the K.R.G., an aspect of the society that most of its officials, whether civilian or military, try to play down or avoid speaking about altogether. For the entire time of its existence — and indeed, far predating that — the K.R.G. has been riven into two feuding camps, a schism that led to open civil war in the 1990s. On the surface, it has the trappings of a political duel between its two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (K.D.P.) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K.), but in actuality, it is a contest between two great tribal groupings, the Barzani and the Talabani. The territory’s north is thoroughly dominated by the Barzanis and their tribal allies — the Mirkhans among them — virtually all of whom are K.D.P. Southern K.R.G., by contrast, is controlled by the Talabanis and their tribal allies under the P.U.K. label.
The feudalistic nature of this arrangement was on display at Black Tiger. All of the peshmerga at the camp, and along the entire 75-mile front of Sector 6, are “Barzanis,” as denoted by their red-and-white tribal scarves. In the Talabani sectors of southern K.R.G., the peshmerga scarves are black and white.
Further, Sirwan Barzani is the “commander” of Sector 6 less through any military acumen on his part — before the war, he was the extremely wealthy owner of a cellphone-service provider — than through the fact that he is the nephew of the K.R.G.’s president, Massoud Barzani, who in turn is the son of the legendary Kurdish warlord Mustafa Barzani. This also explains Sirwan’s impolitic frankness with a foreign journalist; as a full-fledged Barzani, he is quite beyond the reach of more temperate but lesser-named K.R.G. politicians to muzzle.
This enduring schism has had tragic consequences. In the first days of the ISIS advance into the K.R.G., the peshmerga’s performance was extremely shaky, and as much as they wish to fix blame for that on the collapse of the Iraqi Army, an enormous contributing factor was that there were actually two peshmergas, with little in the way of coordination between them. ISIS took advantage of that to nearly capture the K.R.G. capital, Erbil, and to start their extermination campaign against the Yazidis.
Time and again in the K.R.G., I detected a sense of guilt, even of shame, when conversation turned to the fate of the Yazidis. With no one, though, did I sense it more than with Azar Mirkhan. Part of that may have stemmed from his having tried to aid them at their critical hour, only to discover that the hour had come and gone. But on a philosophical level, he also felt the Kurds had betrayed their history.
“You could say that, in many ways, the Yazidis are the pure Kurds,” he explained. “Their religion is what all Kurds believed at one time, not all this Shia-Sunni business. Everyone else changed, but they stayed true to the faith.”
Along with his touring of the battlefronts, Azar has spent a great deal of time at the Yazidi displaced-persons camps in northern K.R.G., often working with a Kurdish-Swedish doctor named Nemam Ghafouri. These camps — some run by small independent charities, some by large international relief organizations — are home to tens of thousands of the Yazidis who outran the ISIS advance of August 2014, but when I visited in May 2015, they were being joined by a handful of others who had recently either escaped or been ransomed out from ISIS control. Despite having interviewed countless war and atrocity survivors across the world over the years, I found something uniquely horrifying about these returnees’ stories. It took me some time to realize this was because of what was left unsaid, the need to puzzle out the depravity to which they were subjected.
ISIS had used rape and sexual slavery as a weapon of war to destroy the fabric of Yazidi society, and now that some of these girls and women were returning, the conservative Yazidi honor code didn’t permit them to speak of what happened to them. In the company of Ghafouri, I met a 10-year-old girl whose extended family had raised $1,500 — the savings of several lifetimes — to buy her freedom the week before. She said her ISIS owners had only made her clean and wash their clothes, that they never touched her, and this was a story the family was determined to believe. I met two teenage girls who had escaped from ISIS after one month, along with a relative whom I took to be their mother — she looked perhaps 45 years old, but a very hard 45: sunken cheeks, missing teeth, graying hair — who had been held for eight months. Except this woman wasn’t their mother; she was their older sister, and she was only 24. By her account, she had feigned deafness, which is seen by ISIS as a sign of mental illness, and in this way she, too, avoided being molested. As Ghafouri explained, her mission now was to come up with some pretext to see the 10-year-old girl and the 24-year-old woman alone. After winning their trust, she would conduct a physical examination. If they had, in fact, been raped, she would inform their families that they had some sort of infection and needed to be placed in a special hospital — no visitors — for a week.
“So then they are taken to Erbil,” she explained. “They have the reconstruction — it’s actually a simple operation — and they come back as virgins. Then they can be accepted back; they can marry someday. Of course it means they can never talk about what happened. They must keep it inside forever. But this is what passes for a happy ending now.”
Hearing such testimonials has further hardened Azar Mirkhan’s beliefs about what needs to be done if the Kurds are ever to find safety. In his view, ISIS was only the latest in a long line of implacable Arab enemies. “If this was the first time, then maybe you could say, ‘Oh, it’s this horrible group of terrorists.’ But this has been going on for our entire history. I can promise you that when we retake Sinjar, we will go there and we will find that the Arabs stayed with ISIS,” Azar said. “O.K., some are here in the camps, but many more stayed. So that is why I say our enemy is not just ISIS; it’s all Arabs.”
The New York Times Magazine