Kurds plan to invade South
By Tom Lasseter
Argus" -- -- 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
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
"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
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
"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
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,"
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
It housed the headquarters of the 4th Brigade of the Iraqi army's
"We cannot openly say they are Peshmerga," Ahmed said. "We will take
you to see the Peshmerga, but they will be wearing Iraqi army
Ahmed's boss, Khasrow Kuran, grinned and chimed in: "We cannot say
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
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."
© 2005 Times Argus
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