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."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-KURDS
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051227 USIRAQ KURDS