Iraq: see no evil, hear no evil

Despite the country’s ethnic tensions, the American military has come to rely on battalions of Kurdish soldiers in the Iraqi army

ADNAN R. KHAN December 5 2005

Iraq: see no evil, hear no evil

Despite the country’s ethnic tensions, the American military has come to rely on battalions of Kurdish soldiers in the Iraqi army

ADNAN R. KHAN December 5 2005

Iraq: see no evil, hear no evil

Despite the country’s ethnic tensions, the American military has come to rely on battalions of Kurdish soldiers in the Iraqi army


“You are the light and salvation of Kurdistan, the hope of the Kurdish people.” So goes the marching song at the Faish Habur military training base in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region. For the 300 or so Kurdish soldiers kicking up dirt on the parade grounds, the words are more than a simple metronomic guideline for keeping in step—the sentiment is the reason they joined the army in the first place. Although this is an Iraqi army training

‘The Kurds are here to fight and are damn good at it.

We don’t have to worry about infiltrators or men who are a risk for desertion.’

facility, you will never see an Iraqi flag flying here. And the song, written to honour the memories of fallen peshmerga—“those who face death,” Kurdistan’s legendary freedom fighters—says nothing about a federal Iraq.

This is one of the realities of modern Iraq: it is a divided nation on the brink of civil war. What holds it together is a foreign occupying force whose presence is, paradoxically, fracturing it even more. Facing a growing insurrection, American forces are solidifying whatever friendships they have. Hence Faish Habur, which is a U.S.-administered facility. At its front gate, though, are three flags: one Kurdish, another for the KDP (representing the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which administers this area of Kurdistan), and one American. And the battalions based here are 100 per cent Kurdish, and meant to be deployed to fight the insurgency, because the Kurds are a friendly asset making up a substantial part of the Iraqi army, and one the American military has repeatedly used. “The U.S. doesn’t have a lot of friends in Iraq,” says David L. Phillips, former senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventative Action at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “It’s being forced to use whatever allies it can find.”

There have been dubious alliances. During the first siege of Falluja in April 2004, after

the bodies of four U.S. contract workers were burned and strung up on a bridge, the Americans turned to an ex-Baathist general and his battalion of former Saddam loyalists, all SunniArab Muslims, to quell the persistent violence in the city. More recently, U.S. military advisers have set up a commando unit, attached to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, hand-picked from former Republican Guards, and again all Sunni Arabs led by another former general from Saddam’s army. But the lesson learned from the fiasco in Falluja (the Iraqi battalion lasted only days before it joined the insurgency), and more subtly from the brutality of the commandos, is that the Kurds—themselves independence-minded—are the only group the Americans can trust fully.

“They are our No. l ally in Iraq,” says a U.S. officer from a military transition team (MiTT) at a forward operating base in Tal Afar, a city of approximately 300,000 in northwest Iraq, 420 km from Baghdad. (American-led MiTTs are scattered throughout Iraq’s fledgling army, providing on-the-ground logistics support and training to Iraqi units.) Speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, the officer admitted Americans are depending more and more on the Kurds to take over the fight against the Sunni-led insurgency. “It’s common sense. With Kurds, we don’t have to worry about infiltrators or men who are only here for the

money and are a risk for desertion. The Kurds are here to fight. And they’re damn good at it.” With domestic support for the Bush administration and the war effort in free fall, and the American death count steadily rising, nothing would be more welcome than an opportunity to lower troop levels in Iraq. A lot depends on the effectiveness of the Iraqi army, which has been put to the test in recent months. Iraqi soldiers have performed reasonably well, according to many of the U.S. troops who support them, although the glowing praise is reserved for the army’s Kurdish elements. “We don’t even bother with our own guards,” says another officer with a MiTT attached to a small Kurdish Iraqi army unit near the al-Sarai neighbourhood of Tal Afar, near the Syrian border. “The Kurds provide us with all the security we need.”

Al-Sarai was considered the most dangerous neighbourhood in Tal Afar before operations began there in early May of this year. “Kurds were the first to sweep through the area,” says Maj. Jameel, commander of the Iraq army unit. “It was a battalion from the First Division. When people talk about this division, they refer to it as the Kurdish division of the Iraqi army. We basically control Tal Afar.” The major, a Kurd whose men now occupy a former Baath party office in the city’s southern suburbs, says the ties between the Kurds and Americans are so close now that he feels more like part of the American army.

This intimate relationship has been a source of some tension for Arab recruits. “I’ve talked to the Americans about this,” says one Arab officer based at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Tal Afar. Agreeing to speak on condition of anonymity, he says there is growing frustration among the Arabs in the Iraqi army, but admits the Americans are not interested in changing the situation. “Unfortunately, the

tactic is working. The Kurds have been brutally efficient in bringing peace to Tal Afar and Mosul. But there will be consequences.” Already, fissures are forming. One evening at a forward operating base in al-Sarai, a fight breaks out between a Kurdish and an Arab soldier. It lasts only seconds, but the ensuing polarization along ethnic lines is telling: the battalion at the base breaks off into two camps, Arab and Kurd, staring threateningly at each other. An American member of the on-base MiTT intervenes to defuse the situation. “I could see this coming,” he says later, asking that his name not be published. “It’s been building for some time now. The Kurds dominate the upper echelons of the military— and the Arabs don’t like it.” One Arab soldier, who had been explaining the situation to the Americans, puts it bluntly: “The Kurds treat us with disrespect. They give us the harshest punishments. I know dozens of Arab soldiers who went home for leave and never returned. I’m considering doing the same.”

Col. Shirzad Hassan, the commander of the battalion and a Kurd, later tries to minimize the incident. “All families have fights,” he says rather unconvincingly. Others are more blunt. “Kurdish fighters cannot serve with Arabs,” says Lieut. Colonel Aris, a Kurdish commander at Faish Habur. “After all

that’s happened, it is impossible for us to live with them. The best solution for Iraq right now is to divide—isolation from each other is the only way to a peaceful Iraq.”

But isolation is not an option for the Americans, who have been pushing for an ethnically integrated country. “Anyone who describes themselves as primarily loyal to a sectarian or ethnic group is a potentially disruptive force,” says Col. Paul Yinling at Camp Sykes, the main U.S. military installation in the Tal Afar region, 10 km south of the city. He denies that the military is favouring any one group. “We simply don’t think in terms of identifying a particular ethnic or sectarian group as an ally. For us, our purpose is to bolster the capability and the credibility of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces.” But other U.S. soldiers are more candid. “It’s a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil situation,” says one MiTT officer in Tal Afar, referring to the U.S. reliance on Kurdish fighters. “We know it’s happening and we’ve seen the tension it causes, but control over that is a few paygrades higher than us.”

Not only have the Kurds shown remarkable competence in securing their own region in the north of Iraq, but, since November 2004, they have played a key role in virtually all U.S.-led offensives. According to military sources in Kurdistan, at least one peshmerga battalion was deployed in the second Falluja offensive at the request of the Americans. During the height of that operation a year ago, many insurgents fled to Mosul in northern Iraq, 400 km north of Baghdad, plunging that city into chaos. “The Americans then requested 8,000 fighters to help bring peace to Mosul,” says Sheikh Alu, the commander

Tension ‘has been building,’ says a U.S. officer. ‘The Kurds dominate the upper echelons of the military, and the Arabs don’t like it.’

of peshmerga forces in Duhok, a Kurdish stronghold 65 km north of Mosul.

From his palatial headquarters, locally nicknamed the “White House,” Alu commands a small army of at least 10,000 peshmerga fighters, though he will not admit to the exact number. These are what he calls “pure peshmerga,” neither beholden to American military commanders nor the Iraqi Ministry of Defence in Baghdad. “They do what we tell them,” says Alu, who prefers his nom-deguerre over his real name, which he refuses to give. Even Kurdish units in the Iraqi army, he insists, take their final orders from the Kurdish leadership. “Besides,” he adds, “the senior officers in Baghdad are all Kurds. The Ministry of Defence is run by Kurds.”

With tacit U.S approval, Kurdish fighters have fanned out over much of northern Iraq, setting up camps on the road from Duhok to Mosul and farther west to Tal Afar. Peshmerga now control the Mosul dam, 40 km north of the city on the Tigris

River, a strategic energy installation in this energy-starved country. “We have proven our worth to the Americans,” says Col. Izzat Taieb, the commander of a small band of peshmerga guarding the road at the dam. “The Americans trust us.” The colonel is not simply boasting: during the summer of2004, this thoroughfare was one of the most dangerous in Iraq, a route to be avoided at all costs, and one where Kurds were being summarily executed almost daily by Sunni Arab insurgents. Today, the route is dotted with peshmerga outposts, and Kurds and foreigners can cruise through the mostly arid landscape with little concern for personal safety.

Mosul, a city of 665,000 that many Kurds claim as part of Kurdistan, is now largely controlled by Kurdish units of the Iraqi army. At their main base on the southern outskirts of the city, Gen. Mothafer Derki, commander of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Division, which he claims is 100 per cent Kurdish, credits his people for bringing Mosul under control. “When we arrived, things were very difficult in Mosul,”

he says. “Security was zero; the coalition forces could not go out as they are able to do now. Since we arrived on Nov. 11,2004,75 per cent of the work has been done.”

Emboldened by their successes in Mosul and western Iraq, the Kurds are pushing for an even larger military role. During an October interview with Fox News, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, demanded the Americans turn over more security responsibilities to the Iraqi army. Derki agrees, citing Kurdish dominance in the Ministry of Defence and among the rank-and-file soldiers as a sign that the army is ready to bring order back to the country. “We have secured Mosul,” he says. “Security did not come here from Baghdad, the Kurds have brought it themselves. The same will happen from Erbil to Kirkuk and then again from Sulaimany to Baquba. That is our plan, to move step by step to where the disease exists, and cure it.”

Unfortunately, the disease is much more virulent than the general may be willing to admit. “The new Iraqi constitution allows regions to maintain their own security forces,” Phillips says. “It institutionalizes militias.” If civil war does break out on a large scale, he warns, Iraq’s national army could fragment, with ethnically divided units moving to pro-

‘After all that’s happened, it is impossible for us to live with Arabs,’ says a Kurdish commander. ‘The best solution for Iraq is to divide.’

tect their own interests. In that case, the Kurds may have played their hand perfectly. For now, they are helping the Americans in the fight against the insurgency—and profiting from the experience. Should the fragile federation that is Iraq splinter, their region will be, militarily, the most powerful—and independent. It may be that is the prize that some Kurdish leaders are already reaching out their hands to claim. M