BAGHDAD — The Iraqi army’s 16th Brigade was once a hopeful symbol of cooperation between Iraq’s rival ethnic groups. Roughly half Arab and half Kurdish, the brigade had provided security since 2008 for an ethnically mixed population in one of the most volatile parts of the country.
Now the brigade has split in two. Amid rising ethnic and sectarian pressure, the Kurdish half of the brigade has stopped taking orders from Baghdad, and Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government intends to formally incorporate more than 1,200 troops — and the sensitive territory they control — under the authority of its own security forces.
“We have nothing to do with the Iraqi army anymore,” said brigade spokesman Rekawt Mohammed. “The brigade doesn’t have any Arabs anymore.”
The defection mirrors the widening divisions in Iraqi society, which have become increasingly deadly. The United Nations reported that 1,045 people were killed in Iraq in May, the highest monthly death toll since 2008.
Most of that violence has sprung from tensions between the country’s Shiite majority and a Sunni minority that has vocally protested its political marginalization. Yet this intra-Arab discord has also dramatically affected the ethnic rivalry playing out in Iraq’s disputed territories — a swath of oil-rich land running across northern Iraq where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens have made competing claims of ownership.
Northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region has many trappings of an independent state, including control of its own borders, oil sector and security forces. The formal resolution of its boundary with the rest of Iraq has been mired in political dysfunction, however, so Kurds and Arabs have instead engaged in what a U.S. Embassy official termed “an on-the-ground form of negotiation that’s really risky.” An embassy spokesman said American officials are working to mediate the situation, though their capacity to referee such conflicts has dwindled since the withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of 2011.
The ethnically mixed town of Tuz Khurmatu, where the 16th Brigade is stationed, has already been a flash point of violence. Last November, a gun battle between federal Iraqi forces and Kurdish soldiers, known as pesh merga, sparked a national crisis, as the two rival armies deployed thousands of troops to the de facto “line of control” between the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq. The armies remained in a standoff for months.
That line began to shift in late April, as the Sunni protest movement turned into a violent cycle of demonstrations, government crackdowns and revenge attacks. Hundreds have died in the ensuing clashes, causing the Iraqi army to shift forces away from the Kurdish front. In some areas just south of Kirkuk, the army abandoned checkpoints and strategic positions at the entrance to the city, which the Kurds immediately occupied.
“If we had to fight for that much ground, we would have lost a thousand soldiers,” said a senior official in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Pesh Merga, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with the news media. “But because the Iraqi army ran away, we just drove there.”
The Iraqi army has also worried about desertions, as some soldiers began showing less loyalty to the chain of command than to their sense of tribal, ethnic or religious identity. Until recently, such desertions were relatively rare, but the emerging trend was worrying enough that the army began to remove heterogeneous units containing Sunnis or Kurds from key areas and replaced them with Shiite Arabs.
On May 7, the Iraqi army tried to replace the 16th Brigade’s commander, a Kurd named Baktiar Mohammed Sidiq, with a Shiite Arab and issued orders for the brigade to leave Tuz Khurmatu, according to several officers in the brigade. Sidiq refused to step down and ordered his men to maintain their position. Soon after, the Defense Ministry cut the renegade soldiers’ salaries and supply lines.
“The land is more important to us than salaries,” said brigade spokesman Mohammed.
Members of the brigade and Kurdish military officials confirmed that the pesh merga has been providing the 16th Brigade with fuel and other supplies since June 1 and that the Kurdistan Regional Government has offered to pay the soldiers, though no salaries have been given yet.
“They will become absorbed into the pesh merga and likely stay where they are,” said the senior Ministry of Pesh Merga official.
An Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman did not answer requests for an interview.
The defection not only redraws the map of Kurdish territorial control but also could complicate a recent effort to repair the relationship between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani.
The two men met for the first time in nearly three years on Sunday in the Kurdish capital, Irbil, and pledged renewed dialogue on several issues, including military tensions in the disputed territories.
“We will put all of the obstacles down on paper and we’ll work them out one by one,” Maliki said.
Yet there is every sign that they are also continuing their alternate form of negotiation on the ground. On June 5, Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir al-Zaidi, who reports directly to Maliki, deployed several units to Tuz Khurmatu, leading to a tense standoff with the 16th Brigade, according to several officers in the brigade. The Kurds held their ground, and eventually their former Iraqi army colleagues withdrew.
“They have ordered us to leave the area, but we haven’t and we won’t, for the sake of Kurdish identity,” brigade spokesman Mohammed said. “We want Kurdish ownership here.”