BAGHDAD, Iraq—By allowing Iraq's new military to be organized largely along ethnic and religious lines, the United States may inadvertently be deepening the divisions among the country's Kurdish north, Shiite Muslim south and Sunni Muslim Arab west and leaving the sects to fight over the heart of the country.
The creation of a national army to help unify and pacify Iraq is key to U.S. plans to begin significant withdrawals of American troops from Iraq in 2006, and President Bush and other top officials frequently cite the growing number of trained Iraqi troops as evidence of progress.
Iraqi officials and political leaders, however, said the dominance of Shiite and Kurdish militia members in many Iraqi army units had given Sunni insurgents a broader base of support and turned more Sunnis against the U.S. effort in Iraq.
The Sunnis "see them (insurgent fighters) as the only shield that can save them from what they think are official, militia-linked security forces," said Saleem Abdul Kareem, a political analyst at Karbala University in southern Iraq.
Thiab Abdul Hadi, a city council member in the western Sunni city of Fallujah, said that sentiment was held by most people in his town.
"It is our duty to resist the (American) occupation because this occupier helped the militias enter our country," Hadi said. "The resistance is fighting the Americans because they back these militias."
The polarization of the Iraqi army began during the summer of 2003, when American officials in Baghdad disbanded it and left more than 200,000 troops, many of them Sunnis, out of work.
The Sunnis, who'd dominated the officer corps under Saddam Hussein's Baath party, were replaced largely by Shiites and Kurds, many of them former members of religious or ethnic militias. Some militia units were transplanted nearly wholesale into the new army.
The perception that different army units are tools of Shiite or Kurdish ambitions has been reinforced during the past two years as U.S. troops conducting offensives in western Iraq and in Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad teamed up with Iraqi soldiers and Interior Ministry police commandos who were mostly Shiites or Kurds.
American military commanders say the ranks of the Iraqi army are roughly representative of the national population—about 60 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni and 15 to 20 percent Kurdish—but the Iraqi army's top spokesman confirmed last week that a disproportionate number of the soldiers are Shiites.
"The majority of soldiers are from the south and they are Shiite," said Maj. Gen. Salih Sarhan, a Shiite himself, who added that intimidation from Abu Musab al Zarqawi, an ally of al-Qaida, and others has discouraged Sunnis from signing up. "In the areas where the majority of people are Sunni we would like to have them, but they don't want to join because of threats from terrorists like Zarqawi and the Baathists."
Nearly all the new army's recruits have come from southern Shiite cities such as Basra and Nasiriyah where unemployment is high, Sarhan said.
Those cities, and many others like them, are home to thousands of Shiites who are loyal to militias such as the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of Iraq's leading Shiite political parties. To make matters worse, Badr and other Shiite and Kurdish militias have been supported by Iran, the archenemy of Iraq's Sunnis.
Badr also has infiltrated the intelligence sections of the Interior Ministry and many of its police commando units in Baghdad, where Sunni groups have documented dozens of cases in which uniformed men have raided Sunni neighborhoods and detained men who've later been found dead.
Earlier in December, a senior U.S. military officer in Baghdad said dismantling the militias wouldn't be easy and that doing it would be up to the Iraqi government.
"The question is how do they disband this organization," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "There's the exact same danger with precipitously disbanding them like we did the Iraqi army ... where will they all go? What will they do when you take their jobs from them?"
For now, the Shiites and Kurds dominate the nation's army.
In the south, the army's 8th and 10th divisions are almost entirely Shiite, Sarhan said. In the northern Kurdish areas, the 2nd and 4th divisions are overwhelmingly Kurdish. The 3rd Division is also in the north, and its units in Kurdish territory are mostly Kurds, though Iraqi commanders said the units in Sunni Arab areas had larger percentages of Arabs.
Sarhan said the two army divisions in Baghdad were more evenly split. But when a Knight Ridder reporter visited a brigade of one of those divisions earlier this year, the soldiers were almost all Shiites, and many of them spoke of exacting violent revenge on the Sunni population.
Similar ethnic and religious polarization virtually destroyed Lebanon's armed forces more than two decades ago, and it isn't just Sunnis who are worried about the divide in Iraq's armed forces.
Watching an Iraqi army patrol pass his cell phone shop recently in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Kadhemiya, Shifa Hamad shook his head. Several of the trucks had Shiite religious stickers on their windshields.
"I don't want sectarianism in our army; this will lead us to a crossroads and, God forbid, there could be civil war," said Hamad, who's also a Shiite. "If the government continues to do this, the division will continue and the north and the south could break away from the country."
During a Knight Ridder interview with the Iraqi general who commands the army's 4th Division in the northern city of Mosul, U.S. Col. Mike Cloy sat on a sofa and, lighting a Romeo and Juliet cigar, listened to the conversation. Cloy was visiting the general as part of his duties with the American military assistance team assigned to the 4th Division.
Looking over at Cloy, Maj. Gen. Jamal Khalid, a Kurd, chose his words carefully. The general said exactly what Cloy wanted to hear.
"We do not keep militias inside the Iraqi army," Khalid said. "We as the army take nobody's side. We take the government's side."
Asked if he had any worries about the presence of Kurdish militiamen in the Iraqi army, Cloy said, "I have no concerns in that regard."
"You don't ever hear any of that discussion amongst the ranks," said Cloy, who's from Columbia, S.C. "I am impressed with the focus the leadership and the soldiers have ... they are not, from what I can tell, concerned with the larger politics."
Afterward, Cloy met with several of Khalid's brigade commanders.
On the ride out of Mosul in a convoy of sport utility vehicles, one of them, Brig. Gen. Abdullah Ramadan, laughed when he was asked about the presence of the Kurdish militia—the Peshmerga—in the Iraqi army.
"I am a Kurd and I have a long history with the Peshmerga," said Ramadan, who commands an army brigade in the northern city of Irbil, where he was formerly the deputy commander of a Peshmerga brigade. "My loyalty is to the ... Peshmerga."
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.