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Middle East

Unpaid peshmerga are voting with their feet

Unpaid wages and a flagging economy have zapped the morale of the Kurdish fighters manning the front line against the "Islamic State" in Iraq. Desertions are starting to thin the ranks, reports Florian Neuhof from Irbil.

On a Friday afternoon, Soran is driving his taxi to the swish "Family Mall" on the outskirts of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Fluent in English after spending eight years in the UK, he soon gets talking about his other job: defending the Kurdish region in northern Iraq against the so-called "Islamic State."

Soran is a peshmerga, as the militiamen of the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) are known. Like thousands of his fellow Kurds, he heeded the call to arms when the "Islamic State" surged across the Syrian border in 2014. After sweeping aside the Iraqi army and conquering about a third of the country, the jihadists wheeled around and thrust towards the KRI.

Some desperate defending and the onset of US airstrikes prevented IS from making too much ground, and a front line stretching 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) coalesced, manned by peshmerga huddled in trenches and sandbagged field positions.

The shaky finances of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) limited the fighters' time at the front from the outset. A long standing dispute over oil exports has been limiting revenues since the autonomous region began exploiting its abundance reserves.

With a basic salary of just 500,000 Iraqi dinar (around 400 euros/$435) a month, the peshmerga are forced to rotate in and out of active duty, typically spending as much time making a living as in the trenches.

A peshmerga crouches in a desert landscape

Peshmerga are defending a long front against IS

"If it wasn't for my taxi, I wouldn't be have been able to survive," Soran* told DW. His second job became even more important in the final months of 2015, when the KRG's finances deteriorated so far that it was unable to pay salaries to government employees, including the peshmerga.

The KRG resorted to exporting oil independently of the Iraqi central government when a budget sharing deal broke down last year, a controversial move that initially raised revenue. But the move backfired when the oil price continued its slide to drop below $30 a barrel in January. The KRG claims that resulting loss in income has pushed the Kurdish economy towards bankruptcy.

Desertions on the rise

Like his comrades, Soran went unpaid for four months and said he had been put on half wages for January. This is hard to take for the peshmerga, who put their lives on the line to fend off IS. Over 1,300 have been killed, and many more injured since the summer of 2014. Moreover, they are struggling to make ends meet with part-time jobs.

"All the peshmerga are really tired of this. But we can't leave the army because then IS would come to our cities," says Ferhad, who like Soran is stationed at the front near Irbil. IS's forward units came within seven kilometers of the Kurdish capital before they were stopped by US airstrikes in August 2014, security sources say, but the jihadists remain as close as 40 kilometers from Irbil.

Their sense of duty has not deterred all peshmerga from turning their back on the war. But, according to KRG's deputy prime minister Qubad Talabani, the lack of pay is thinning the ranks.

"We are getting desertions. People are leaving their posts - it will increase," he told Reuters in January.

A German reporter holds a gun that came from the German army

German reporters found assault rifles from the German army on sale at Iraqi gun markets

The same month, an investigation by German broadcasters NDR and WDR found that

assault rifles donated to the Kurdish militia by the German army were being sold on gun markets

in Irbil and Sulamaniyah.

Word amongst the peshmerga is that these are not isolated cases, and that the proceeds are used to finance the perilous journey to Europe. Fed up with a stagnating economy that is showing few signs of improving anytime soon, some fighters are joining the stream of refugees flooding out of war-torn Iraq and Syria.

"Everything here is f***ed, and it's going to get worse," says Ehsan, one peshmerga who is considering leaving. He says he has heard of at least five cases where comrades from other units have sold their German supplied rifles and left the country. Out of loyalty to his commander, he would not hawk his weapon, he says, but sell his car and house to afford the fees charged by smugglers in Turkey and eastern Europe.

Talks with anti-IS coalition over peshmerga pay

Adding to the frustration of the militiamen is the perception of widespread government corruption.

"There is money here, but the politicians are not handing it down," says Ehsan.

Soran, who returned to the KRI in 2010, when the economy was growing strongly and the region seemed on the cusp of an oil bonanza, is equally disillusioned. "The politicians here are all thieves," he says, as his taxi passes the sprawling residential complex of KRG Prime Minister Nechivan Barzani.

The shiny interior of Family Mall, with shops selling luxury items and its 3-D cinema, is off limits for someone with Soran's salary. The mall's footfall has declined markedly over the past months. Other buildings that were supposed to give Irbil a modern face remain unfinished concrete hulls, a testament to a property bubble that was burst by the IS advance.

A worker at the Tawke oil field in northern Iraq

The low oil price has been a setback for the Kurdish regional government

The government has promised to address the flagging economy. Prime Minister Barzani last month pledged that 2016 would be "year of reform and modernization," and the government is mulling privatization of the energy infrastructure, subsidy cuts and a reduction of the government payroll.

The KRG is also in talks with Western countries that are part of the anti-IS coalition over financial assistance to ensure that peshmerga salaries are paid, according to Brigadier General Hajjar at the Ministry of Peshmerga.

"We believe that they will help us," he says.

But such promises have done little to raise the morale of the peshmerga. Their belief in a bright future for Kurdistan has been dashed, and they fear that peace will not come to Iraq anytime soon.

"When IS is gone, the next war will come," says Ehsan.

* The names of all the peshmerga interviewed have been changed.

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