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Iraqi defense officials deny influence of Kurdish militia leaders

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The Iraqi defense ministry, reacting to a Knight Ridder report this week, said Thursday that Kurdish troops in the Iraqi army take their orders from the central government in Baghdad, not from Kurdish militia leaders.

Knight Ridder this week reported on interviews with Iraqi soldiers and officers in northern Iraq who said that they were ready, if necessary, to follow the commands of Kurdish militia leaders to secure the borders of an independent Kurdistan.

On Wednesday, staff members of the Iraqi army's chief of staff, Gen. Babaker al-Zebari, asked a Knight Ridder reporter for the names of every Iraqi soldier and Kurdish political official who was interviewed for the story or facilitated the reporter's visits to Iraqi military bases. Al-Zebari is a Kurd. The reporter refused.

On Thursday, al-Zebari's office released a statement saying that the quotes in the story weren't representative of the defense ministry and charging that they "are false and created by followers of the ex-regime to frustrate the Iraqi brave army's will."

It wasn't clear whether the ministry was accusing Kurdish soldiers—almost all staunch opponents of the former regime of Saddam Hussein—or the Knight Ridder reporter of ties to the former regime.

Such accusations are serious in a nation where militia death squads have been accused of murdering former regime officials and sympathizers.

"Al-Zebari expressed astonishment for such statements at a time the elected Iraqi government has achieved important steps in building up a united Iraqi Army working under the leadership of both ministries of Defense and the Central Iraqi Government," the statement said.

The challenge of creating a national army in a country torn by sectarian divisions is a serious obstacle to hopes of reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

The nation's Shiite Arab and Kurdish political parties both have large militias and have pursued a two-pronged strategy of sending some of their fighters to join the Iraqi security forces while maintaining armed militias in their provinces.

Both the Shiites, some 60 percent of the population, and the Kurds, about 20 percent, have spoken frequently of splitting Iraq into semi-autonomous regions that would report to the government in Baghdad but run many of their own day-to-day governmental affairs.

Kurdish leaders have made it clear that they would like the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to be a part of their region and at some point in the future would like to break away from Iraq and claim independence.

In October, a Knight Ridder reporter embedded with a Shiite Muslim-dominated Iraqi army brigade in Baghdad in which members spoke openly of wanting to kill members of the nation's minority Sunni Muslim sect.

The commander of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which controls Baghdad, later said that "the most zealous" of those soldiers had been fired.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.