TAKYA, Iraq—A flame from a kerosene heater flickered in the mountain breeze and illuminated the hardened faces of Kurdish militiamen who are the only security force for this northern Iraqi village.
Huddling together for warmth in a stark outpost last week, these members of the peshmerga couldn't imagine why their quiet existence in a remote village is causing so much fuss in Baghdad, more than 250 miles south. The men fought bloody battles against Saddam Hussein's former regime, were the only indigenous force helping the U.S.-led coalition during the war and are heroes to the besieged Kurds they protected.
Now they're fighting against pressure from Baghdad to disband or come under outside control if they're to remain the faces of law and order in an autonomous Kurdish state.
"We don't need extra military forces. We have enough men to protect all of Kurdistan and even further if we need to," said Ahmed Abdullah, a 32-year-old fighter attached to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main political factions in northern Iraq.
"We can't even consider disbanding," he said. "The peshmerga will stay."
The U.S.-led coalition and its handpicked Iraqi Governing Council, however, have other ideas. American administrators in Baghdad repeatedly have said paramilitary forces have no place in the new Iraq. After contentious debate, the council decided to allow peshmerga to keep their weapons—but only as part of a National Guard-style force.
The compromise, part of an interim constitution, didn't sit well with longtime peshmerga. One key concern is that other, far less U.S.-friendly militias will similarly demand to remain intact. Last week, militia members attached to a controversial Shiite Muslim cleric marched through Kirkuk in what many considered a warning to the mostly Kurdish town 180 miles north of Baghdad.
"We have made clear in discussions with the Kurdish leaders and other political leaders that we believe there's no place in an independent, stable Iraq for armed forces that are not under the control of the command structure of the central government," L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. envoy in Iraq, told journalists on Feb. 19. "Kurdish leaders have understood and agreed with that."
But Kurdish leaders continued to push the issue, which helped stall the drafting of an interim constitution. Other Kurdish questions also weighed heavily in sessions that stretched into early morning hours recently as council members debated whether Kurdish should be an official language of Iraq, what level of autonomy Kurds should retain and how the peshmerga will be integrated into a national security force that reports to the central government.
Mahmoud Othman, a council member and leader of the Kurdish National Struggle, said he considers the peshmerga a freestanding army, not a militia.
"Almost half of them have been killed and those remaining have always helped the coalition," Othman said. "You can't tell them, `Go away, that's it, your job is done.' How could the coalition so quickly forget them?"
"Peshmerga" translates as "those who face death"—a label taken seriously by Kurdish fighters whose stories of armed struggle date back more than 50 years. Today, about 60,000 peshmerga remain, funded by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Suicide attacks on both parties' offices Feb. 1 in the Kurdish city of Irbil killed more than 100 people and only fueled demands to preserve the peshmerga. In large, cosmopolitan northern cities, many fighters have traded their traditional baggy pants and Kalashnikovs for police uniforms and AK-47 assault rifles.
"In the last four or five years, we have strongly been acting to keep the militia out of the towns," said Kasim Jemal, deputy director of the KDP office in Sulaimaniyah. "But they remain important to people in the countryside. Some deal has to be made for those people who put their lives on the line for Kurdistan."
On a dusty road filled with fruit stands and donkey carts, Takya villagers said they would resist any attempts to change the peshmerga. Women and children waved to the gun-toting men who walked the streets of the village market.
"Sure, there are probably stronger and better forces out there—but not for Kurdistan," said Osmin Osmin, a 38-year-old shop owner. "We are living in a jungle, so we need a lion. For us, the peshmerga are the lion. Without them, the wolves will come back."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): peshmerga