As Troops Mass In Makhmour, Iraq, An Interview with Mayor Barzan Said Kaka

Brian and Samir
Brian Gruber with surgeon, driver, fixer, friend Samir Barznjy.

Makhmour, briefly overrun by ISIS, is the staging ground for Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga and U.S. forces in advance of the retaking of Mosul. I spoke with a Peshmerga commander and the former mayor of Makhmour during my visit in January.

From “WAR: The Afterparty,” available now on Amazon here.


Samir takes me back to Amazon, a popular Erbil cafe with rich desserts and wall-to-wall hookah smokers. I generally gag at indoor cigarette smoke, but join him for the occasional round of shisha (fruit-flavored tobacco covered with foil, roasted with charcoal in a glass-bottomed water pipe). A young guy comes around regularly with red-hot coals and tongs to stoke our meter-high hookah. Each smoker has a mouthpiece that comes on and off when the pipe hose is passed. Samir tells me the liquid in the hookah is milk, not water, for a smoother inhale.


We are joined after dinner by his cousin, Peshmerga Commander Kurdo Barznjy. He looks more film star than Daesh fighter, with a stylishly-cut gray sport coat, long sleeve black polo shirt, upmarket glasses and a closely-cut head of hair. He says he is 40 but looks younger. He is confident, warm and friendly and in excellent physical condition.

Refugee from Mosul, a sportswriter, selling produce in front of a camp in Erbil.

The United States spent tens of billions of dollars training and equipping the Iraqi army. That army vastly outnumbered Daesh fighters and had far superior gear. Then why did the Iraqi army collapse during the assault on Mosul, just west of Erbil?

No one in the Iraqi army has sympathy for their country. It’s not “my country.” If you compare with Peshmerga, it’s my country, we shed a lot of blood and have a lot of martyrs. They (Iraqi soldiers) joined to take the money, they had no jobs. And where there is a fight, they fade away. Iraq does not exist anymore. You have an army that is Sunni and Shia and no one has sympathy for the other regions, so why fight?

Samir adds, the Shia-dominated Army is fighting well in Shia territories. “Shia say, why should they fight for the Sunni territories?”

I point out that many countries have armies composed of mixed ethnic groups and he challenges me to name one in the Arab world.

Not in an Arab country, never. Never happen. The reality of the Arabs is they cannot accept each other.

So is the Iraqi army able to defeat Daesh in its borders? Kurdo laughs at me.

Sleep and have nice dreams if you think the Iraqi army will defeat Daesh. If America does not want to deceive itself, they need to separate Shia from Sunni, like you did in Berlin, if you want the Middle East to be safe. In the Arab community, democracy will never succeed. They don’t want to give power away in elections, they need someone like Saddam Hussein, Mubarak, Gaddafi.

Should Sunni provinces be conceded to Daesh? Kurdo believes that Sunnis will not accept Daesh in the long term.

You are deceiving yourself if you think Daesh will then rule the Sunni areas.

What will happen after Sunnis are in control of their land. Will they turn on Daesh?

The Sunni have been oppressed by Shia. When Daesh came, it’s like someone was about to throw you in the sea; you want to grab hold of anything to get out of the water. When they saw Daesh coming, they could be free from Shia militia and the Iraqi army. But most Arab Sunnis want to have a life and many things are not allowed under Daesh control. It’s like living in a jungle, in darkness. It is an unrealistic view to keep Iraq united. One hundred years ago, they made a country by force.

Samir asks if I would like to meet the man sitting at the next table. Barzan Said Kaka is the ex-mayor of Makhmour, a town Daesh occupied for several days in 2015 before being pushed out by Peshmerga. Barzan is dressed in business clothes and is frequently interrupted by his playful children, intrusions which clearly delight him. He slides over to our table, insisting he needs a translator, yet speaks English throughout our encounter.

I was there that night when they came to Makhmour. The Peshmerga was not ready to fight. A Daesh leader called Omar said in an interview that Christians and Jews can stay, but no Kurds. Ideologically, they cannot stay. Christians saw how they killed them so they really cannot stay. A Christian was asked, how many times did you pray, the Christian didn’t know, so they killed him.

Makhmour, Iraq MapOur national way is to live with each other and accept each other. Kurdish people have kept their language and culture. We have very open minds, we have more than 1,000 years living with Christians, Jews, a natural ability to accept democracy. The Arabs destroyed cultures in Egypt, North Africa. We have a great opportunity to build a new history for this area and our nation.

One hundred years ago, (the) Sykes-Picot (agreement) divided this area. Saudi wants to sell its ideas, we want to learn from other ideas. We want to benefit from new technology, not build an empire. Saudis donate money to build mosques, to impose their religion on children, teach them to fight. The West gave the Arab world everything when the Saudis and Yemenis just had donkeys, but now they think they are better than other people. I don’t belong to any religion. I just believe in God. If you don’t understand their “true Islam,” if you don’t agree, then they want you to convert, or pay money, or be killed.

Democracy has to wait for a big revolution inside of Islam, similar to the Christian reformation, when they removed power from the church and gave it back to the people. The idea of America is not your economy. Many people who come to America already have money. It’s freedom and democracy.

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