Gen Hussein Yazdanpanah is sipping tea in a leafy shelter atop the arid, pine-dotted hills of Iraqi Kurdistan, gesturing southwards to Kirkuk province, where he and his troops were once ambushed by the Islamic State terror group.
It was raining hard at 10pm on November 20th, 2014. The squad had just set up camp, when they came under attack. Under fire from rocket-propelled grenades, snipers taking aim from three sides, they held out until sunrise, losing three fighters.
It was, he says, “the longest night”.
Yazdanpanah, a dead ringer for Joseph Stalin, with his walrus moustache and brush-like hair, hails from Iran. He leads the exiled Kurdistan Freedom Party (Pak), fighting for a free country uniting the 30 million or so Kurds scattered across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In recent years the fight against Islamic State, also known as Isis, which still stalks the surrounding hills, has taken priority.
The general is known for his showman-like promotion of Pak's tiny unit of Iranian Kurdish fighters, who are integrated into Iraqi Kurdistan's Peshmerga forces. "We are only 1,000, but we fight like 10,000," he says, in a clear pitch for coalition support. "We can take responsibility for the land around here."
“Do you want to see my weapons store?” he asks. “When the enemy is defeated, we take the guns. We did it with Isis, just like when we fought [Iranian supreme leader] Khomeini in the ’80s. No other fighting group has collected as many weapons as we have.”
Yazdanpanah cut his political teeth as a young teen in Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, which sparked a Kurdish rebellion that left 10,000 dead. Fleeing to the Zagros mountains, he witnessed first-hand the guerrilla war between his fellow Kurds and ayatollah Khomeini’s army, an obscure sideshow to the early years of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
None of this bodes well for Kurdish unity
Sheltering in Iraq, his elder brother set up Pak in 1991. A few months later, his brother was murdered, allegedly by Iranian agents. Today, Pak is one of a handful of exiled Kurdish groups which Tehran considers terrorists. Most would settle for some form of regional autonomy. But Yazdanpanah has his eye on the bigger prize of a free Greater Kurdistan.
There’s a lack of unity among Kurds, he admits. Separated by the mountainous borders of their host nations, they have often worked at cross purposes to ensure their survival. Take the Iran-Iraq war, which saw persecuted Kurds of both nations effectively swap places, seeking support from opposite sides of the battle line.
“The tragedy is that through history we have been divided among ourselves,” says Yazdanpanah. “These powerful states that do not want us, create divisions among us.”
In October, Yazdanpanah wanted to come to the aid of Syrian Kurds, who had fought alongside the US in the battle against Islamic State, only to be abandoned when Turkey launched a full-scale invasion of their hard-won territory in northeast Syria, an assault many describe as ethnic cleansing.
"We sent them letters and contacted them by phone to offer help," he says. But it would have been impossible to cross the border without compromising his hosts in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is dependent on Turkey for trade routes to export its oil. The region's authorities have allowed Turkey access to its territory to launch attacks on Kurdish separatists who have waged a decades-long war on Ankara. Such are the harsh realities of realpolitik.
None of this bodes well for Kurdish unity. But Yazdanpanah believes Kurds are still capable of coming together at grassroots level. After all, in 2017, when Iraqi Kurdistan launched a bid for independence, 92 per cent of voters said yes. The poll angered the Iraqi government which retaliated with a land grab, seizing the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Its forces were supported by Iran-backed Shia militias, also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi.
Yazdanpanah recalls the Hashd – Iran’s army, in his view – riding in on Abrams tanks supplied by the US to the Iraqi army. Behind the scenes, Tehran had exploited divisions between rival factions in Iraqi Kurdistan, pre-negotiating the retreat of Peshmerga units. The general led his troops to the town of Altun Kupri, playing a key role in a battle that halted the further advance of Iraqi troops and the Hashd.
Yazdanpanah's resemblance to Stalin has a certain irony. It was the joint invasion of Iran by the Red Army and the British that allowed the only independent Kurdish state in history to come into being. The Republic of Mahabad, set up in 1946, was initially supported by the Soviets who wanted to annex northwest Iran. When Stalin withdrew his backing, under pressure from the US, it collapsed before its first birthday.
As Yazdanpanah points out, the Kurds should really have had their own country by now, had the terms of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which dismantled the Ottoman Empire, been observed.
“It seems that the world does not have any laws or morality when it comes to the Kurds,” says Yazdanpanah. “They kill us, but we rise again. We will plant our trees again. We will build our villages. They cannot destroy the mountains and the rivers.
“There’s a Kurdish nation that needs its independence, it’s as simple as that.”