Use of Kurdish Troops In Baghdad Debated

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Kurdish makeup of two of the three Iraqi army brigades due to be sent to Baghdad under President Bush's new strategic plan is drawing concern from Iraqi and U.S. experts.

Questions have been raised about whether the Kurds would fight Sunni insurgents in Baghdad at a time when some Sunni clerics and organizations have spoken out against aiding U.S. troops and the Iraqi government. But there is also concern that the soldiers would be heavy-handed if sent into heavily Shiite areas.

Recognized as being among the better-trained fighters in Iraq, the two brigades were formed out of Kurdistan's pesh merga militia. They received training from the U.S. military and were integrated into the Iraqi army. Some battalions were used successfully in the Mosul area in November 2004. Others fought in Fallujah, and some Kurds are part of the mixed Iraqi special operations forces brigade that has seen action in Baghdad.

Sunni Muslim in religion, the Kurds consider themselves ethnically distinct from Arabs, a group that includes most Shiite and Sunni Iraqis. While many of their officers speak some Arabic, most of the troops do not. Their government flies the Kurdish, not Iraqi, flag and desires independence.

North of Baghdad, in oil-rich Kirkuk, pesh merga troops have been fighting for more than a year against Shiite militiamen linked to Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Sadr's group is supporting Shiites being forced from the city by Kurds interested in their autonomous region annexing Kirkuk.

A former senior CIA operations officer who is familiar with Iraq said yesterday that sending the units into Baghdad "will not make many friends for the Kurds, depending on where they go." But, said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "if you are going in to clear a majority-Sunni area, better to use Kurdish rather than Shia troops. . . . They are obviously better than Iraqi police and more professional."

Last week, Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker and a prominent member of the Iraqi Kurdish Coalition, declared his opposition to Kurds going into Baghdad.

"There are fears that a fight like this, pitting Kurds against the Arabs, is bound to add an ethnic touch to the conflict," Othman told the Iraqi newspaper Az-Zaman. "I am against the move . . . and there are many in the Iraqi parliament who are against it, too."

But the deployment holds appeal for the Kurdistan Regional Government, because in return, the Baghdad government would be ready to provide it an additional share of the national budget, a Kurdish official told the New Anatolian, a Kurdish newspaper, last week.

A senior U.S. military officer familiar with Iraq, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Kurdish troops' "salaries, equipment and operating expenses are paid for by the Iraqi MOD [Ministry of Defense], so that's probably just the usual attempt to bargain for a little extra."

Former U.S. ambassador Peter W. Galbraith, who has helped Kurdish officials in the post-Saddam Hussein period, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Thursday that the Kurdish fighters "are ultimately loyal not to the national chain of command or the nominal chain of command, but to their political party leaders" -- in this case, to the regional government.

At a hearing Friday of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the deployment of the Kurds in Baghdad could bring "balance in that they are not either for Sunnis or for Shia but for Iraq." But Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) countered, "I think they are for the Kurds."

Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has studied the Iraq war, described Bush's new strategy yesterday as "an experiment based on high risks," only one of which is the use of the Kurds.

"They were brought in because other Iraqi army units are too Shiite," he said, "and so are the lesser of two evils."

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