“Old Wine in New Bottles”

By Tom Lasseter

Knight Ridder Newspapers

KIRKUK, Iraq – Kurdish leaders have inserted more than 10,000 of their militia members into Iraqi army divisions in northern Iraq to lay the groundwork to swarm south, seize the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and possibly half of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, and secure the borders of an independent Kurdistan.  Five days of interviews with Kurdish leaders and troops in the region suggest that U.S. plans to bring unity to Iraq before withdrawing American troops by training and equipping a national army aren’t gaining traction.  Instead, some troops that are formally under U.S. and Iraqi national command are preparing to protect territory and ethnic and religious interests in the event of Iraq’s fragmentation, which many of them think is inevitable.  The soldiers said that while they wore Iraqi army uniforms they still considered themselves members of the Peshmerga – the Kurdish militia – and were awaiting orders from Kurdish leaders to break ranks. Many said they wouldn’t hesitate to kill their Iraqi army comrades, especially Arabs, if a fight for an independent Kurdistan erupted.  "It doesn’t matter if we have to fight the Arabs in our own battalion," said Gabriel Mohammed, a Kurdish soldier in the Iraqi army who was escorting a Knight Ridder reporter through Kirkuk. "Kirkuk will be ours."  The Kurds have readied their troops not only because they’ve long yearned to establish an independent state but also because their leaders expect Iraq to disintegrate, senior leaders in the Peshmerga – literally, "those who face death" – told Knight Ridder. The Kurds are mostly secular Sunni Muslims, and are ethnically distinct from Arabs.  Their strategy mirrors that of Shiite Muslim parties in southern Iraq, which have stocked Iraqi army and police units with members of their own militias and have maintained a separate militia presence throughout Iraq’s central and southern provinces. The militias now are illegal under Iraqi law but operate openly in many areas. Peshmerga leaders said in interviews that they expected the Shiites to create a semi-autonomous and then independent state in the south as they would do in the north.  The Bush administration – and Iraq’s neighbors – oppose the nation’s fragmentation, fearing that it could lead to regional collapse. To keep Iraq together, U.S. plans to withdraw significant numbers of American troops in  2006 will depend on turning U.S.-trained Kurdish and Shiite militiamen into a national army.

The interviews with Kurdish troops, however, suggested that as the American military transfers more bases and areas of control to Iraqi units, it may be handing the nation to militias that are bent more on advancing ethnic and religious interests than on defeating the insurgency and preserving national unity.

A U.S. military officer in Baghdad with knowledge of Iraqi army operations said he was frustrated to hear of the Iraqi soldiers’ comments but that he had seen no reports suggesting that they would acted improperly in the field.  "There’s talk and there’s acts, and their actions are that they follow the orders of the Iraqi chain of command and they secure their sectors well,"  said the officer, who refused to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak on the subject.  American military officials have said they’re trying to get a broader mix of sects in the Iraqi units.

However, Col. Talib Naji, a Kurd serving in the Iraqi army on the edge of Kirkuk, said he would resist any attempts to dilute the Kurdish presence in his brigade.  "The Ministry of Defense recently sent me 150 Arab soldiers from the south," Naji said. "After two weeks of service, we sent them away. We did not accept them. We will not let them carry through with their plans to bring more Arab soldiers here."

One key to the Kurds’ plan for independence is securing control of Kirkuk, the seat of a province that holds some of Iraq’s largest oil fields. Should the Kurds push for independence, Kirkuk and its oil would be a key economic engine.  The city’s Kurdish population was driven out by former Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein, whose "Arabization" program paid thousands of Arab families to move there and replace recently deported or murdered Kurds.  "Kirkuk is Kurdistan; it does not belong to the Arabs," Hamid Afandi, the minister of Peshmerga for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two major Kurdish groups, said in an interview at his office in the Kurdish city of Irbil. "If we can resolve this by talking, fine, but if not, then we will resolve it by fighting."  In addition to putting former Peshmerga in the Iraqi army, the Kurds have deployed small Peshmerga units in buildings and compounds throughout northern Iraq, according to militia leaders. While it’s hard to calculate the number of these active Peshmerga fighters, interviews with militia members suggest that it’s well in excess of 10,000.  Afandi said his group had sent at least 10,000 Peshmerga to the Iraqi army in northern Iraq, a figure substantiated in interviews with officers in two Iraqi army divisions in the region.

"All of them belong to the central government, but inside they are Kurds … all Peshmerga are under the orders of our leadership," Afandi said.

Jafar Mustafir, a close adviser to Iraq’s Kurdish interim president, Jalal Talabani, and the deputy head of Peshmerga for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a longtime rival of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, echoed that.

"We will do our best diplomatically, and if that fails we will use force" to secure borders for an independent Kurdistan, Mustafir said. "The government in Baghdad will be too weak to use force against the will of the Kurdish people."

Mustafir said his party had sent at least 4,000 Peshmerga of its own into the Iraqi army in the area.  The Kurds have positioned their men in Iraqi army units on the western flank of Kirkuk, in the area that includes Irbil and the volatile city of Mosul, and on the eastern flank in the area that includes the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah.  The Iraqi army’s 2nd Division, which oversees the Irbil-Mosul area, has some 12,000 soldiers, and at least 90 percent of them are Kurds, according to the division’s executive officer.  Of the 3,000 Iraqi soldiers in Irbil, some 2,500 were together in a Peshmerga unit previously based in the city. An entire brigade in Mosul, about 3,000 soldiers, is composed of three battalions that were transferred almost intact from former Peshmerga units, with many of the same soldiers and officers in the same positions. Mosul’s population is split between Kurds and Arabs, and any move by Peshmerga units to take it almost certainly would lead to an eruption of Arab violence.

"The Parliament must solve the issue of Kurdistan. If not, we know how to deal with this: We will send Kurdish forces to enforce Kurdistan’s boundaries, and that will have to include the newly liberated areas such as the Kurdish sections of Mosul," 1st Lt. Herish Namiq said. "Every single one of us is Peshmerga. Our entire battalion is Peshmerga."

Namiq was riding in an unarmored pickup in an Arab neighborhood in eastern Mosul where Sunni Arab insurgents frequently shoot at his men. As he leaned out the window with his AK-47, scanning the streets, he said, "We will do our duty as Peshmerga."  Firas Ahmed, the assistant to the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party office in Mosul, invited a Knight Ridder reporter to inspect the local Peshmerga brigade, motioning to a compound across the street.  It housed the headquarters of the 4th Brigade of the Iraqi army’s 2nd Division.  "We cannot openly say they are Peshmerga," Ahmed said. "We will take you to see the Peshmerga, but they will be wearing Iraqi army uniforms."  Ahmed’s boss, Khasrow Kuran, grinned and chimed in: "We cannot say `Peshmerga’ here."  The 4th Brigade soldiers who met Ahmed at the front gate saluted him and said, openly, that they reported to Afandi, the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s Peshmerga commander.  Col. Sabar Saleem, a former Peshmerga who’s the head intelligence officer for the 4th Brigade, said he answered to the Peshmerga leadership. He also said he had little use for most Sunni Arabs.

"All of the Sunnis are facilitating the terrorists. They have little influence compared with the Kurds and Shiites, so they allow the terrorists to operate to create pressure and get political concessions," Saleem said.

"So they should be killed, too … the Sunni political leaders in Baghdad are supporting the insurgency, too, and there will be a day when they are tried for it."

To the east, in the Iraqi army’s 4th Division, is a brigade of about 3,000 troops in Sulaimaniyah that’s also a near-replica of a former Peshmerga brigade.

Because of a U.S. military mandate, the 4th Division battalion serving in Kirkuk is about 50 percent Kurdish, 40 percent Arab and 10 percent Turkmen.

The battalion on the outskirts of Kirkuk is about 60 percent Kurdish.

Capt. Fakhir Mohammed, a former Peshmerga and the operations officer for the battalion on Kirkuk’s edge, said he wasn’t concerned that the Kurds had only a simple majority in the two Kirkuk battalions: "It’s not a problem, because we have an entire brigade in Sulaimaniyah that is all Kurd. They would come down here and take the Kurdish side."

Sgt. Ahmed Abdullah agreed.

"There are thousands of us Peshmerga, and it is our duty to protect the borders of Kurdistan … we will fight to hold Kirkuk at any price,"

Abdullah said. "We will fight that battalion (in Kirkuk) if they stand in our way."


A while back a journalist (it could have been Tom) told me that the US Command in Baghdad disputes my assertion made in an earlier post that the attempt to form mixed units of the ethno-religious communities had largely failed and that the great majority of units were "pure" whatevers.  Well, here you have it.  We are training the armed forces of the future "clutch" of political entities that will occupy the territory of former Mesopotamia.  Why doesn’t the Command in Baghdad see this?  Well… People see what they want to see..  There are also specific career disincentives sometimes from seeing things too clearly, or, at least, talking about them.

"Kirkuk is Kurdish!"  "Danzig is German!"  Sure and "Ireland is One!"  I’ll buy that last one.  Irredentism based on what an outsider like me would see as egregious nationalist myth-making is a killer.  It always has been.  It is now.

"What about the Turks?"  This will be the cry.  Don’t be too sure that the Kurds and Turks are not cooking something as a surprise.

Right now I would guess the Kurds and Shia are finding out if their previous cooperation can survive electoral victory for the shia Alliance.  If it develops that the Alliance comes close to an majority without the Kurds, and could perhaps form a government with some small parties, then the temptation will be there to do so.  Suicidal?  Sure, but any old ME hand will tell you the story of the trip across the river by a turtle and a scorpion.  "Rational Actor Model?"  Hah.

Pat Lang


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12 Responses to “Old Wine in New Bottles”

  1. Patrick Henry says:

    Thank Pat..Thats a good read..and clearly shows the reality of the current situation in iraq..Very..very Delicate..Indeed..

  2. Patrick says:

    Don’t be too sure that the Kurds and Turks are not cooking something as a surprise.
    Well, I am sure that it is possible…war betweeen them perhaps?
    Or war together against Iran with the urging, mediation and support of the US and Israel? Or, hmmm, a border treaty again at urging of US and with repatriation of Turk Kurds?
    Everyone from time to time writes mysterious and knowing one-liners, but one like that ought really to have you asking questions.

  3. Happy Jack says:

    “Kirkuk will be ours.”
    By “ours”, does he mean KDP or PUK?

  4. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Doubt if the KDP means to give them much. pl

  5. avedis says:

    I am entertaining the notion that perhaps the most realistic best possible and longest lasting solution to the ME situation would be a return to something resembling the Ottoman Empire.
    There are certain advantages to that scenario; just one of which is that it would be muslims ruling muslims (despite the differences between Turks and Arabs and Persians) instead of American Zionist “crusaders”.
    Perhaps, at least, Turkish rule of Iraq would not be so bad?

  6. RJJ says:

    An analogous entertaining notion might be:
    Mexico, like most of Latin America, is Roman Catholic and has a large indigenous population. Would a Mexican satrap[y] be the answer to our difficulties with Colombia and Venezuela?

  7. ikonoklast says:

    “Don’t be too sure that the Kurds and Turks are not cooking something as a surprise.”
    How about Turkey cuts a sweetheart oil deal with an independent Kurdistan in return for military support, maybe sends or allows its own Kurds over the border (plenty of time later to deal with that nasty ethnic problem). With the oil the Turks get leverage with a US they resent and an EU that treats them like inferiors. They recover some nationalist pride, the Kurds get security.
    (My very uninformed armchair geopolitics …)

  8. W. Patrick Lang says:

    sounds about right. pl

  9. J Thomas says:

    The turkish government is limited by turkish public opinion. They can’t do things that the public (or the rank-and-file in the army) would object to too strongly. I don’t know what the turkish public would put up with, but I think the arguments that the turks would invade are based largely on opinions about that.
    If the turks could truly improve conditions for their own kurds it would help get them into the EU. Would it hurt them? In theory they might be no worse off than canada is with quebec continually thinking about seceding. But in practice?
    The kurds don’t have any good choices for local allies. The turks are probably the best of a bad lot. Could they actually bring themselves to put aside their problems with turkish history?
    The conventional wisdom is that the turks and kurds are implacable enemies and the turks will not tolerate a kurdish nation at all. Every now and then we find out the CW is wrong about something. Since it isn’t all that unusual for politicians to find they misjudged what their own publics would tolerate, it shouldn’t be surprising when foreigners get it wrong.

  10. avedis says:

    RJJ, not sure the Mexican analogy is really all that good of a fit.
    However, overlooking the substantial differences to address your question – yes.
    Maybe the Mexican satrapy would be a good solution provided that the Mexicans had a military capacity to keep a lid on an oil rich Latin American that was on the verge of disolving into anarchy and chaos with a decided anti-American flavor. And provided that the Mexican Satrapy was willing and able to deal with the US in something resembling a normal business relationship regarding the oil reserves.
    (automated robots posting comments?!?! Sounds like you’ve been having trouble with Bush supporters on this site)

  11. RJJ says:

    Before the war started “if the scitte hits the fan, they can always send in the Turks to restore order” was considered graveyard humor.
    I was responding to the idea of “muslims ruling muslims” as some sort of improvement. You must not know any Baptists.

  12. phinky says:

    I’d bet the deal between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds is Turkey recognizes an independent Kurdistan on the condition that Kurdistan defines its borders as the former northern part of Iraq and Kurdistan stays out of the affairs of Turkish Kurdistan. The Turkish Kurds can move to Kurdistan in the former Iraq, but cannot move back to Turkey. Ethnic Turks living in Kurdistan can relocate to Turkey. The Kurds get aid and assistance in getting rid of Ansar al-Islam (who are closely tied with the Sunni Arabs, especially al-Zarqawi) and the Kongra Gel.
    BTW, Turkey and Greece did this in the last century, but it involved the forced relocation of Christians to Greece and Muslims to Turkey.
    Did you also notice that the Kurds made a deal with Norway concerning Mullah Krekar?

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