Former Iowa National Guardsman returned to Iraq to help fight the Islamic State

A former Iowa National Guardsman who returned to Iraq in May to help fight the Islamic State says he’s now facing a different foe: the Iranian army.

Ryan O’Leary originally went to north-central Iraq, where he volunteered to help train Kurdish soldiers fighting the extremist group also known as ISIS. But he told The Des Moines Register by phone this week that he shifted farther north in July, to work with a Kurdish soldiers trying to hold off Iranian troops along the border between Iraq and Iran.

ISIS has captured world attention recently because of its brutality in the region. But O’Leary said he came to believe Iran poses a bigger danger to the Kurds, a minority population he admires and supports.

“At the end of the day, ISIS isn’t going to be a long-term threat. They’re going to get pushed back, just like Al Qaeda has been,” he said. “They’ll be some of those people in the shadows if there’s a car bomb now and again. They’ll still be a threat. But they’re not going to be holding a lot of land in the future.”

The Kurds have carved out a semi-autonomous area of northern Iraq, but many of their people also live in neighboring Iran and Turkey. Their dream is to have an independent homeland, and O’Leary believes they deserve it. Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons and helicopter gunships to try to snuff out Kurdish ambitions. Saddam is gone, but Iran and Turkey have continued to try to keep a lid on the Kurds.

O’Leary, 28, is a former Iowa National Guard corporal who served in Iraq in 2007-08 and in Afghanistan in 2010-11. He decided to return to Iraq on his own this spring after hearing from a former interpreter who is Kurdish and serving with the Peshmerga, which is the Kurds’ army. O’Leary contends the Kurds deserve more U.S. support, because they’ve been stalwart allies of America.

U.S. officials have warned him it’s dangerous and unwise for him to be in Iraq, but they have told the Register what he’s doing is legal.