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ERR in Erbil: Estonian soldiers protect military advisers and provide advice

Estonian soldiers with President Alar Karis in Erbil, Iraq.
Estonian soldiers with President Alar Karis in Erbil, Iraq. Source: Estonian Defense Forces

Estonian soldiers stationed in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, are tasked with looking out for drone missiles, providing security for military advisers and also giving advice themselves.

From Baghdad, where top politicians held a lively debate about the presence of Allied troops in Iraq, a U.S. Air Force plane flew President of Estonia Alar Karis to Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region.

During the meeting there, Kurdistan's President Nechervan Idris Barzani said there was almost unwavering support for allied forces in the region.

Most of the Estonian soldiers in Iraq are also stationed in Erbil, as Estonian military advisers are helping to reform the local Peshmerga army. The armed forces, which up to now have been divided between two major factions, are expected to be merged into a single Kurdish army by the end of 2026.

"Advising is not an easy task because, first of all, you have to understand that this cultural space is very different. Their learning habits are completely different. It is not easy. But we have had certain success stories there," said Lt Col. Vladimir Kolotõgin, senior officer of the Estonian contingent.

The majority of the Estonian contingent, however, is made up of an infantry company, which performs three tasks at the Erbil base: base protection, manning a rapid reaction unit and personal protection. Each of the soldiers performs all these tasks, taking them in shifts. For them however, the most exciting part is providing personal protection, mainly for military advisers, where every little detail can determine the success of the operation.

These VIPs cannot simply open their car doors without prior precautions for instance.

"It's up to us to make sure that the environment around us is really the kind of environment that we want to take these people into. That's why we have to open doors for these individuals," explained Scout Battalion group leader Jr. Lt. Mattias Jõgi.

Since the start of the war in Gaza, the Estonian Rapid Reaction Force has also been busy. Although the Allied air defenses are successfully shooting down drones, the resulting wreckages have to be retrieved, both inside and outside the base.

In the event of an air alert, the soldiers take cover in bunkers. Sometimes that can last just a few minutes, other times it takes an hour.

"We've made these bunkers comfortable for ourselves. We've got benches, we've got water, we've got food and we've got soldiers' boxes. We put warm blankets in them so that if it takes a bit longer, at least the men can keep warm," said Company Sgt. Maj. Madis Kirsipuu.

The 90-strong Estonian unit in Iraq and Kurdistan may grow a little larger in the spring, providing the soldiers hope of being able to go home on leave halfway through their deployment. This was one of the topics the soldiers discussed with President Alar Karis.

"What sticks in my mind is that there are people here, young people who are serving the Estonian state far away. They are maintaining allied relations, which are extremely important for us in order to feel safe and to have friends if we need them," said Karis.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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