Next to a row of abandoned shops, three peshmerga fighters warm themselves around a campfire at the entrance to Sinjar town as their comrades, backed by US-led coalition airstrikes, battle Islamic State (ISIS) militants a few hundred meters away.
“All Kurdish forces fight Daesh together in Sinjar town. … I don’t care which party the peshmerga next to me belongs to when we fight these terrorists,” says Moein Mawlood, a 54-year-old fighter. “We are all in this fight together.”
Facing a common enemy along the front line in northern Iraq, Kurdish peshmerga have set aside their partisan loyalties to protect their homeland. The division between the region’s main two political parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — however, persists.
While peshmerga have emerged as the most trusted ally of the US-led coalition fighting IS — albeit at a great price to them, with close to 800 peshmerga dead and more than 3,500 wounded — the lack of a unified command and force divisions have undermined their efforts against the extremist group.
When IS fighters launched coordinated attacks along a 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) front line in early August, the fragmented and poorly armed and trained peshmerga forces could not respond in kind, because they lacked organization under a centralized command. Many peshmerga still owe their allegiance to the PUK or KDP, not the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The division among Iraqi Kurds emerged in 1975, when the PUK branched off from the KDP. The two parties subsequently fought a bloody civil war in the 1980s and 1990s over leadership of the Kurdish struggle, resulting in several thousand deaths. A legacy of that conflict is the entrenched rivalry between the leadership of the two parties, which has prevented the unification of the peshmerga.