herald

Thursday 25 May 2017

Backpackers on day-trip to Iraq warzone left 'terrified'

William and Craig en route to the front line
William and Craig en route to the front line

Two Dublin backpackers have been labelled "foolhardy" and "naive" by security experts after photographs emerged of them with freedom fighters on the frontline in Iraq.

William Meara (26) and his friend Craig Reynolds (24) travelled to a notorious war-torn area in northern Iraq as part of a backpacking trip around the world.

The pair said they were "terrified" when taken to Daquq last week by Kurdish fighters who have been battling terror group Islamic State (IS).

The frontline has seen a number of deaths to Kurdish militants, the most recent of which came when an IS sniper gunned down a fighter in mid-November.

The pair have spent the past two months travelling across the Middle East. After hitch-hiking from the Iran border to Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, they made acquaintances with Kurdish freedom fighters, the Peshmerga military force.

William and Craig with the fighters
William and Craig with the fighters

Speaking to the Herald, William, from Blanchardstown said they were invited to visit the warzone the day after having a drinking session with some of the Kurdish fighters in what is known as the Peshmerga army.

One of these fighters was a Canadian, who does not wish to be named.

"He introduced us to his friend. The next morning he decided he'd invite us out and try and get us out onto the frontline. We must have said something when we were out with him the night before and that's how he got the idea," William said.

"Before we knew it we were meeting all of these officials. There was a commander of the local area with us. It was absolutely terrifying to be honest.

Assault

"It was probably one of the scariest things I've ever done and usually I'm pretty okay with that kind of stuff. But this was a totally different level, when you see squads of soldiers fully armed in front of us all and around us. I've never had an experience like it.

"It took the biscuit to be honest," he said.

William with the Peshmerga fighters
William with the Peshmerga fighters

The two men posed for photos, smiling with a number of soldiers who were holding heavy armoury, including machine guns and assault rifles.

While making the most of the experience, William attempted to take some more photographs through the sandbags at the frontline but was pulled back immediately.

"I was trying to take pictures but the lads were just like, 'no stand back, this is serious'," William said.

"We were talking to the guys at the outpost and whatever they said to the lads in our convoy, they decided it wasn't safe for us to be there, because we had no military training.

"They were making gestures, in other words, we were in a vulnerable position and shouldn't be there. Even though something might not happen, it wasn't safe," he said.

"We were told to keep our heads low, thrown in the back of the jeep and we pulled out to the main road," he added.

Security analyst and former Irish army captain, Dr Tom Clonan told the Herald that by posting photos of their experience online, the pair could be questioned by a number of governments for information on the Peshmerga army. He said their actions were "foolhardy".

"It's because of their proximity to a group that is operating in combat in Iraq," Dr Clonan said.

"There would be a number of governments that might be interested in speaking to them.

Naive

"I would advise them to get some advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs, especially in relation to what route they might take home, because they might find themselves becoming persons of interest.

"I would be very nervous of posing for a photograph with weapons in an environment where combat is taking place.

"It's just naive, they shouldn't be doing that."

Meanwhile, Professor of Middle East studies at UCD, Vincent Durac said: "You would not be in the right mind in your head to be heading to the frontline of any battle between IS and the Kurdish forces.

"The frontline is no place to be by definition," he added.

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