Kurdistan’s Flag Day takes a militarist hue amid ISIS flight

To outsiders, this exuberant display of national pride can seem a little excessive

Florian Neuhof

Published: Updated:

In the days leading to December 17, parents took their children to a part of Erbil's bazaar they don't usually bring their offspring to. A little off the Qalat, the ancient citadel in the city center, and past the vast, covered market, families flocked to a row of military apparel shops that line a broad road leading out of the city center.

Here, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters come to buy everything from body armor to spare parts for their guns. The Peshmerga are a volunteer force, and its members are largely responsible for bringing their own equipment to the fight against ISIS, which continues to menace Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

To outsiders, this exuberant display of national pride can seem a little excessive. (Florian Neuhof/ Al Arabiya News)
To outsiders, this exuberant display of national pride can seem a little excessive. (Florian Neuhof/ Al Arabiya News)

But in the run up to Flag Day, which erupted on the streets of Erbil last week, the tailors cutting and sewing Peshmerga uniforms into the perfect fit (Kurds like to look good when they go to war) have had to readjust. Many of the outfits brought in were several sizes smaller than usual, and were not meant to be carried in the trenches. Instead, young boys and girls were being kitted out in military uniforms, to be worn in school on Flag Day.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) instituted Flag Day in 2009 to commemorate the short lived Kurdish Mahabad Republic in the 1940s. National aspirations run strong in Kurdistan, and have been boosted in Iraq by the central governments dismal performance in the war against ISIS, and by Kurdish battlefield success against the terror group.

On the day, school children sang patriotic songs, and were shown clips hailing the KRG's leaders. In Erbil, huge flags were draped across buildings, and cars covered in the national colours. Near the front, politicians held speeches are held in front of the Peshmerga to the dramatic backdrop of captured and destroyed military gear.

To outsiders, this exuberant display of national pride can seem a little excessive. (For a start, patriotism always seems odd when its not applied to one's own country) The distinct militarist streak of Kurdish nationalism is even a little worrying. I'm not too comfortable with the idea of ten year-olds marching down the streets of Germany in uniforms - we've been there before.

But then, it is easy to see where the reverence for the Peshmerga comes from. These are violent times for Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan, and the militia has been called upon repeatedly in recent decades to fight things out. At present, ISIS poses a clear danger to the KRG.

As if to underline the point, the terror group launched its biggest offensive in months a day prior to Flag Day, advancing near Mosul. Suicide vehicles laden with explosives punctuated the Kurdish front at several points, and the Peshmerga lost men from the suicide attacks and in blunting and reversing the ensuing ISIS infantry attacks. On Flag Day, the jihadists struck at Gwer, a section of the front only about 40 kilometers from Erbil.

With the help of coalition airpower, the Kurds eventually retook lost ground, and inflicted heavy casualties on their opponents. Having fought the terrorists for over a year now, and having received weapons and training from a range of Western countries, the militia is getting increasingly competent.

Because the Peshmerga successfully hold a 1,000 kilometre front, the war seems a world removed from everyday life in Erbil. So while I am still sceptical about sending kids to school in combat fatigues, maybe a small reminder of Peshmerga sacrifice is not a bad thing every now and again.

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