Ambushes, Mines And Booby Traps: ISIS Militants Change Tack : Parallels In northern Iraq, Kurdish fighters have won back territory from the so-called Islamic State only to lose it again. ISIS is using a range of explosives, inflicting heavy Kurdish casualties.
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Ambushes, Mines And Booby Traps: ISIS Militants Change Tack

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Ambushes, Mines And Booby Traps: ISIS Militants Change Tack


We begin this hour in Iraq where the so-called Islamic State is changing its tactics on the battlefield. The group is now relying more on roadside bombs and ambushes. After swaths of Iraq fell to the militants earlier this year, Kurdish forces, or Peshmerga, were able to push back. American airstrikes also helped them fend off the group. But NPR's Alice Fordham tells us with the Islamic State's new tactics, the Peshmerga are struggling to hold onto their gains.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: This is a frontline Peshmerga outpost - a few sandbags, soldiers and grenades perched on the brow of a hill are looking out towards the town of Jalula, maybe three miles away. A few months ago, the Islamic State seized it, then Peshmerga took it back. But now the Islamic State has it again. They catch sight of three vehicles belonging to the Islamic State rolling toward the outpost.


FORDHAM: The Peshmerga fire at the Humvees heading our way, and the vehicles change direction. But that's not always a good sign. The jihadists keep slipping through Peshmerga defenses to stage ambushes and lay roadside bombs. More than four months after the Islamic State burst into towns and cities across Iraq, taking over checkpoints, bases and government buildings, they've changed tack. Now, military commanders say they're using ambushes, booby traps, mines. That's stopping the Peshmerga holding turf and causing heavy casualties. Back at base in the nearby town of Khanaqin, I meet General Mahmoud Sangawy just as his men are serving lunch.

MAHMOUD SANGAWY: (Through translator) I would say that our biggest problem is the roadside bombs and mines, which prevent us from holding the cities.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This one of the roadside bombs that they make. It's just from the rusty...

FORDHAM: His men bring out a roadside bomb they diffused. It's just made from a thick piece of metal pipe. General Sangawy says such devices are cobbled together from pipes, barrels, jerrycans. And booby traps are a big part of the reason they couldn't hold Jalula.

SANGAWY: (Through translator) They booby trap houses. If you open the kitchen door, it will explode, or they leave the gas cylinder open to explode when you enter.

FORDHAM: And the Peshmerga are not trained for this. Several hours drive north, a team of British soldiers and security contractors are giving lessons in how to deal with this new threat. Consultant Chris de Gruchy talks about IEDs - improvised explosive devices.

CHRIS DE GRUCHY: You're starting to see complex attacks where an IED may trigger an ambush for a small-arms attack. There may be complex attacks with further IEDs employed to conduct, or to target, follow-up troop. It's a very valuable weapon in the insurgent arsenal to be able to provide them a capability where they might be outmatched and outgunned in other areas.

FORDHAM: One Peshmerga practices using devices to detect explosives while another lumbers over to a suspect vehicle in a bombproof suit that weigh 70 pounds. His name's Umeid Kharaman. I speak to him after his exercise.

UMEID KHARAMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says he's been a military engineer for three years, but this is the first time he's had any proper training. And he's lost a lot of friends to car bombs. His commander, General Zana Abdulrahman, counters that the Peshmerga are trained but for regular combat in their own mountainous region.

ZANA ABDULRAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says they were inexperienced when they began fighting the Islamic State. But gradually, they're improving their skills. For some, though, that's coming too late. The medical director for the Peshmerga, Dr. Mohsen Rashid, takes me to a hospital in the city of Erbil. We meet soldiers like Rebwa Hassan, lying with bolts in his leg and wincing when he tries to sit up.

MOSHEN RASHID: A brave Peshmerga. He have injured by a bomb - big one with a fractured femur. Lost piece of bone, very big piece of shell, still having two shell in the femur.

REBWA HASSAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: Hassan tells me two people were killed in the attack that shattered his leg.

HASSAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: And the militants put bombs under everything, he says, under weapons they leave lying around, in houses. Dr. Rashid's own family wasn't spared. He tells me his nephew, a young officer, was killed by a mine last month.

RASHID: And we are proud to him, really. Although we miss him too much. Every time I remember him.

FORDHAM: Dr. Rashid won't give specific numbers, but he says so far hundreds of Peshmerga have been killed and injured in this way. He says it's an emergency. Alice Fordham, NPR News.

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