Last updated
Peshmerga soldiers prepare to conduct a combined arms live-fire exercise near Erbil, Iraq.jpg
Peshmerga soldiers in Iraqi Kurdistan, 2016.
ActiveEarly 1920s–present
Allegiance Kurdistan Regional Government (disputed, see Structure)
Size247,000(disputed, see Structure)
Headquarter Erbil
March Ey Reqîb [ citation needed ]
Commander-in-Chief Masoud Barzani
Minister of Peshmerga AffairsMustafa Sayid Qadir
Flag Flag of Kurdistan.svg

Peshmerga (Sorani Kurdish : پێشمەرگە, translit. Pêşmerge, lit.  'Before death', or 'Those who face death' [1] IPA:  [peːʃmɛɾˈɡɛ] ) are the military forces of the federal region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Because the Iraqi Army is forbidden by Iraqi law to enter Iraqi Kurdistan, [2] [3] the Peshmerga, along with their security subsidiaries, are responsible for the security of the regions in Iraqi Kurdistan. [4] [5] [6] [7] These subsidiaries include Asayish (intelligence agency), Parastin u Zanyarî (assisting intelligence agency) and the Zeravani (military police). It has been argued [ by whom? ] that 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. [8]

Literal translation, direct translation, or word-for-word translation is the rendering of text from one language to another one word at a time with or without conveying the sense of the original whole.

Iraqi Kurdistan Iraqi part of Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan, officially called the Kurdistan Region of Iraq by the Iraqi constitution, is an autonomous region located in northern Iraq. It is also referred to as Southern Kurdistan, as Kurds generally consider it to be one of the four parts of Greater Kurdistan, which also includes parts of southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, and northwestern Iran.

Iraqi Army land warfare branch of Iraqs military

The Iraqi Army, officially the Iraqi Ground Forces, is the ground force component of the Iraqi Armed Forces, having been active in various incarnations throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. It was known as the Royal Iraqi Army up until the coup of July 1958.


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. [9]

Kurdistan Regional Government Ruling body of the Iraqi Kurdistan region

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is the official ruling body of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region.

Kurdistan Democratic Party political party

The Kurdistan Democratic Party, usually abbreviated as KDP or PDK, is one of the main Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. It was founded in 1946 in Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan. The party claims it exists to combine "democratic values and social justice to form a system whereby everyone in Kurdistan can live on an equal basis with great emphasis given to rights of individuals and freedom of expression."

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is a Kurdish political party in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PUK describes its goals as self-determination, human rights, and democracy and peace for the Kurdish people of Kurdistan and Iraq. The current Secretary General is Kosrat Rasul Ali. Fuad Masum, co-founder of the PUK, was the President of Iraq from 2014 to 2018. It was founded on 22 May 1975 in Iraqi Kurdistan by Adel Murad, Nawshirwan Mustafa, Ali Askari, Fuad Masum, Jalal Talabani and Abdul Razaq Feyli.

In 2003, during the Iraq War, peshmerga were said to have played a key role in the mission to capture Saddam Hussein. [10] [11] 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. [12] [13] [14]

Iraq War war which started on 20 March 2003

The Iraq War was a protracted armed conflict that began in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq by a United States-led coalition that overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein. The conflict continued for much of the next decade as an insurgency emerged to oppose the occupying forces and the post-invasion Iraqi government. An estimated 151,000 to 600,000 or more Iraqis were killed in the first three to four years of conflict. The U.S. became re-involved in 2014 at the head of a new coalition; the insurgency and many dimensions of the civil armed conflict continue. The invasion occurred as part of a declared war against international terrorism and its sponsors under the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Saddam Hussein Iraqi politician and President

Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti was President of Iraq from 16 July 1979 until 9 April 2003. A leading member of the revolutionary Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party, and later, the Baghdad-based Ba'ath Party and its regional organization the Iraqi Ba'ath Party—which espoused Ba'athism, a mix of Arab nationalism and socialism—Saddam played a key role in the 1968 coup that brought the party to power in Iraq.

Hassan Ghul, born Mustafa Hajji Muhammad Khan, was a Pakistani or Saudi Arabian member of al-Qaeda who revealed the kunya of Osama Bin Laden's messenger, which eventually led to Operation Neptune Spear and the death of Osama Bin Laden.


The term "peshmerga" was only coined in the mid-20th century. Some[ who? ] suggest it was coined by the Kurdish writer Ibrahim Ahmad. [15] [16] [17] Others however[ who? ], such as Valentine states it was first used by Qazi Muhammad in the short lived Mahabad republic 1946–47. [18] As stated above it is a combination of two Kurdish words; pesh [19] meaning to confront or face, and the word Merg which means death. [20] The literal word is defined as "one who faces death". [8] 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. [21]

Ibrahim Ahmad was a Kurdish writer, novelist and translator.

Central Kurdish Indo-Iranian language, spoken in Iraq and Iran

Central Kurdish, also called Sorani is a Kurdish language spoken in Iraq, mainly in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as the Kurdistan Province, Kermanshah Province, and West Azerbaijan Province of western Iran. Central Kurdish is one of the two official languages of Iraq, along with Arabic, and is in political documents simply referred to as "Kurdish".

Northern Kurdish Indo-Iranian language spoken mainly in Turkey

Northern Kurdish, also called Kurmanji, is a Kurdish language spoken in southeast Turkey, northwest and northeast Iran, northern Iraq and northern Syria. It is the most widespread language of the Kurdish languages. While Kurdish is generally categorized as one of the Northwestern Iranian languages along with Baluchi, it also shares many traits with Southwestern Iranian languages like Persian, apparently due to longstanding and intense historical contacts, and some authorities have gone so far as to classify Kurmanji as a Southwestern or "southern" Iranian language.


Mustafa Barzani was the primary political and military leader of the Kurdish cause until his death in 1979. Barzani1.jpg
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. [8] [22]

Ottoman Empire Former empire in Asia, Europe and Africa

The Ottoman Empire, also historically known in Western Europe as the Turkish Empire or simply Turkey, was a state that controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. It was founded at the end of the 13th century in northwestern Anatolia in the town of Söğüt by the Oghuz Turkish tribal leader Osman I. After 1354, the Ottomans crossed into Europe, and with the conquest of the Balkans, the Ottoman beylik was transformed into a transcontinental empire. The Ottomans ended the Byzantine Empire with the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror.

British Empire States and dominions ruled by the United Kingdom

The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, and by 1920, it covered 35,500,000 km2 (13,700,000 sq mi), 24% of the Earth's total land area. As a result, its political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.

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. [23] [24] 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. [25]

Republic of Mahabad former country

The Republic of Mahabad was a short-lived Kurdish self-governing state in present-day Iran, from 22 January to 15 December 1946. The Republic of Mahabad arose alongside the Azerbaijan People's Government, a similarly short-lived state.

Mustafa Barzani Kurdish nationalist

Mustafa Barzani also known as Mullah Mustafa, was a Kurdish nationalist leader, and one of the most prominent political figures in modern Kurdish politics. In 1946, he was chosen as the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to lead the Kurdish revolution against Iraqi regimes, although at times he also allied himself to the Iranian government. Barzani was the primary political and military leader of the Kurdish revolution until his death in March 1979. He led campaigns of armed struggle against both the Iraqi and Iranian governments.

Qazi Muhammad Kurdish politician

Qazi Muhammad was an Iranian Kurdish leader who founded the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and headed the short-lived Republic of Mahabad. He was hanged by the Pahlavi dynasty for treason.

In Iraq, most of these peshmerga were led by Mustafa Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. [24] 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. [24] 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. [26] The civil war officially ended in September 1998, when Barzani and Talabani signed the Washington Agreement establishing a formal peace treaty. [27] 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. [28] 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. [29]

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter (KDP) in 2003. Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 2003.jpg
Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter (KDP) in 2003.


Peshmerga special unit near the Syrian border on June 23, 2014. Pershmega near Syria - June 23, 2014.jpg
Peshmerga special unit near the Syrian border on June 23, 2014.

The peshmerga are mostly divided among forces loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and those loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), [30] while other, minor Kurdish parties such as the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party also have their own small peshmarga units. [31] The KDP and PUK do not disclose information about the composition of their forces with government or media. [30] Thus there is no reliable number of how many Peshmerga fighters exist. [30] Media outlets have speculated that there are between 150,000 and 200,000 peshmerga, but this number is highly disputed. [32] [33] 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. [34] [30] [9] 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 . [9] [35]

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. [36] Multiple unification and depoliticizing efforts of the peshmerge have been made since 1992. But so far all deadlines have been missed, [9] reforms have been watered down [30] and most of the peshmerga is still under the influence of the KDP and the PUK, who 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. [30] 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 [9]

Both the KDP and the PUK rely heavily on irregulars in times of conflict to increase their ranks. [37] However both maintain several professional military brigades. The following units have been identified within the peshmerga force:

ForceEstimated sizeCommanderParty affiliation
Regional Guard Brigades [30] [9] 40,000–43,000Ministry of Peshmerga AffairsSupposedly apolitical
Hezekani Kosrat Rasul [9] 2,000–3,000 Kosrat Rasul Ali PUK
Anti-terror force [9] unknownLahur Shekh JangiPUK
Presidential peshmerga brigades [9] unknown Hero Ibrahim Ahmed PUK
70 Unit [9] [30] 60,000Sheikh Jaafar Sheikh MustafaPUK. Supposedly becoming incorporated into MPA [38]
Emergency Forces [9] unknownunknownPUK
PUK Asayish (security) forceunknownunknownPUK
Nechirvan Barzani's bridage [9] unknown Nechirvan Barzani KDP
80 Unit [9] [30] 70,000-90,000Najat Ali SalihKDP. Supposedly becoming incorporated into MPA [38]
Zerevani [9] unknownMasoud BarzaniKDP
Flag of HPS.svg Êzîdxan Protection Force [39] unknownMasoud BarzaniKDP
KDP Asayish (security) forceunknownunknownKDP

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. [40] [41] 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. [42] [43] 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,regardless thousands of 80 Unit / KDP and 70 Unit / PUK are based in Baghdad and they have good cooperation with other Iraqi forces in Baghdad. [44] [45] [46] [47] [48] [49] [50]

The peshmerga forces are secular with a Muslim majority and Assyrian Christian and Yezidi units. [51] [52]

Equipment and capabilities

Peshmerga soldiers stand in formation during the Modern Brigade Course graduation ceremony. Task Force Talon advises, assists Ministry of Peshmerga July 28, 2016.jpg
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. [53] 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. [54] Since August 2014, peshmerga forces have also captured weapons from ISIS. [55] 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. [56]

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. [57] [58] [30] After the ISIS offensive of August 2014, multiple governments armed the peshmerga with some light equipment, such as light arms, night goggles and ammunition. [59] [60] [61] [62] 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. [63] [64] 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. [30]

The peshmerga lack a proper medical corps and communication units. [30] 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. [30] There is also a lack of communication tools as peshmerga commanders are forced to use civilian cellphones to communicate with each other. [30] Under guidance of the US-led coalition the peshmerga has started to standardize its weapons systems, replacing Soviet-era weapons with NATO firearms. [30]

Role of women

Women peshmerga in training. znn pyshmrgh.jpg
Women peshmerga in training.

Women have played a significant role in the peshmerga since its foundation. The Kurdish Zand tribe was known for allowing women in military roles. [8] 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. [37] Several women brigades served on the front lines. The most famous peshmerga was Margaret George Shello who managed to secure a leading position. [8] 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. [8] 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. [65] [66] [67] [68] [69] The PUK later confirmed that women Kurdish fighters had participated in the operation. [37]

The modern peshmerga is almost entirely made up of men while having at least 600 women in their ranks. [70] In the KDP, these women peshmerga have so far been refused access to the frontline and are mostly used in logistics and management positions, [71] but women PUK peshmerga are deployed in the front lines and are actively engaged in combat. [72] [73] [8]


The peshmerga forces are plagued by frequent allegations of corruption, partisanship, nepotism, and fraud. [74] [75] [76] [77] [78] [79] A common result of corruption in the peshmerga are "ghost employees" which are 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. [30]

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. [30] 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. [9] 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. [30]

Outside of Iraqi Kurdistan the peshmerga has been accused of using force to exert control of local Arab, Yazidi and Assyrian communities. Particularly after taking control of areas officially outside of Iraqi Kurdistan during the Iraqi Civil War. [80]

See also

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Further reading