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Kurdish militia units will be used to boost Iraq's security

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a move that could help improve security in Baghdad, one of the best organized militias—Kurdish peshmerga units—is preparing to help bolster Iraq's fledgling police and army, the new president of the Iraqi Governing Council said.

"We are planning with the coalition forces to distribute peshmerga forces among the border guards, the police forces, and training them to merge with the new Iraqi army," said Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and one of nine rotating council presidents who took up leadership of the council this week.

Talabani's comments come as security measures and patrols have been increased in the capital following a string of increasingly sophisticated and deadly attacks on American and coalition forces. Mortar rounds are regularly fired into the so-called Green Zone, where coalition officials live and work, and Iraqi police and U.S. soldiers have been unable to stem the attacks.

The Bush administration is attempting to speed up efforts to put an Iraqi face on security organizations, although it isn't clear how coalition officials would incorporate the peshmerga or any other Iraqi militia members.

"Some members of the Governing Council who have forces loyal to them said, well, rather than incorporate them directly now, could we come up with some other mechanism, and we said, fine, as long as members of the security forces are seen to work for the people as a whole," said coalition spokesman Charles Heatly on Thursday.

Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator in Iraq, has said he is open to creating "new law enforcement elements" in limited numbers so long as they are carefully screened, integrated into the command structure of the emerging Iraqi government and committed to serve all Iraqis. Militia members also would be required to join as individuals, rather than as part of a group.

The conditions are designed to prevent divided loyalties among militia members more accustomed to representing political or religious parties, of which there are many in Iraq.

But the merging of militia members into an Iraqi army or police force remains controversial because militia leaders are believed to have their own agendas and because many unemployed former army members believe they deserve priority placement in newly emerging security organizations.

"Most of the peshmerga cannot even speak Arabic," said Sadoun al Dulame, director of the independent, privately funded Iraq Center for Research & Strategic Studies in Baghdad.

"The Kurdish and Islamist militia both are just created for opposition rule, not state rule. The Americans could handle the security better than the militia," said Dulame, though he doesn't think U.S. forces are doing a particularly good job.

Rabia Mohammed al Habib, the emir, or prince, of the Rabia tribe, said it would be a mistake for the Americans to dictate the look and shape of the Iraqi army, even in consultation with the Governing Council, because the council is dominated by former exiles who were not elected.

"The peshmerga are coming here to participate in the protecting Iraq, but the Iraqis themselves who are in their country are out of a job. You think this is proper?" Mohammed said. "A lot of the (former) Army, they have no jobs, nothing."

Iraqis won't respect militia members in the army or on the police force, and they will fight them, Mohammed said.

"They will fight them because this decision is not done by the people of Iraq. There is no difference between the Kurds and the Arabs, mind you. There were a lot of Kurds in the Army. But as long as this decision is done by Bremer or any foreigner, it will not be accepted by the Iraqi people."

Talabani did not release details on how the peshmerga would be incorporated into existing security forces, but said there was no room for militias loyal to single political parties or religious groups. By entering Iraq's police and army, Kurdish forces would lose their autonomy, since Kurdistan had been independent of Iraqi rule before the war.

Coalition forces have opposed using the militias to help establish peace and stability in postwar Iraq. They allowed the peshmerga to keep their weapons after their assistance during the war but ordered other groups to disarm, including fighters for the Iraqi National Congress and the Badr Brigade, the militia for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest political party representing Iraq's Shia majority.

Peshmerga have started showing up on Baghdad streets, but they don't appear to be part of any larger unit. "We are here to protect the president," said a 25-year-old peshmerga soldier who gave only his first name, Azad. He said they arrived in Baghdad four days ago.

Col. William Darley, a U.S. military spokesman, didn't have details on how the militia would be incorporated but said the issue "would attract a lot of interest." A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the Iraqi police, wasn't available for comment.

Sheikh Ibrahim Mahmoudi, a member of the advisory council for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said he was unsure whether the Badr forces would participate in a new military organization.

"If Badr forces participate, it will be according to the Iraqi people's orders and not any orders from foreign leaders," Mahmoudi said. "We have our own ideas and plans for improving security, and if they don't listen to us, we won't participate."

Talabani said peshmerga forces from his party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party number more than 80,000.

"Some of them will be border guards, about 10,000 of them. Some of them will be local police forces, then some of them will be used as the officers, police soldiers and in the Iraqi Army," Talabani said. "It is up to the coalition to decide. If they want 50,000, 20,000, 30,000, we are ready to help."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq-militias