Amalgamation of the armed forces was one of the last steps of the unification of the two rival administrations in Iraqi Kurdistan, and by far the most difficult, only 12 years after the end of the civil war that raged between Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) from 1994 to 1998 and claimed thousands of victims.
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The first step was achieved in april 2009 with the unification of the Ministry of Peshmergas (the Kurdish fighters, or litterally « those who face death »). Sheikh Jaffar Sheikh Mustafa (PUK) was appointed Minister of Peshmergas, while Major Jemal (KDP) became Chief of Staff, and Jaber al Yawal (PUK) Secretary General of the Ministry.
The second step came in December 2009 with the formation of four unified brigades of 3005 Kurdistan guards, each composed of peshmergas and officers from both parties. The officers—about 200 for each brigade—come from the ranks of the Kurdish forces and from two military colleges in Zakho and Qala Tchwalan which recruit cadets aged between 18 and 24 who then graduate as second lieutenants after 20 months’ intensive training. There are no longer women recruits in the military colleges. « We suggested we could recruit a few, but the answer from Bagdad was that there was « no need for women » in the units ». The four unified brigades are now located in Erbil, Kirkouk, Germian and Mossoul, where, as he put it, they « protect the border with the Iraqi government»
The third step—the formation of six new unified brigades, which will protect the international borders with Turkey and Iran—is still in progress. But in the military college of Qala Tchwalan, near Souleimania, and in the training camp of Bani Slawa, near Erbil, progress continues as training and development schedules are implemented. Out of the 200.000 peshmergas currently on the pay roll of the two parties, it is agreed that only half will be retained in the « Kurdistan guards », with the other 100.000 pensioned off.
Small groups of 15 to 50 officers, from majors to brigadiers, follow a 12-week training, before being sent back to their brigades. Simple peshmergas are following a training schedule of several weeks’ duration to become instructors in their battalions. Some courses are led by American instructors, such as Bill Luntsford, from Kansas city, who teaches after-action review processes, leadership values and ethics: « I teach them what is a lawful order… and an unlawful order », Bill Luntsford said. We were not told on which criteria these soldiers were selected, but we could check in one class that there was roughly the same number of peshmergas coming from KDP and PUK. Interestinly enough, the colonel who was escorting us in the training camp objected to our initiative to identify the political stripe of individual peshmergas, saying « we are unifiyng them, this party identification belongs to the past »…
The Commander in Chief of the unified brigades is Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan region ; in the past the PUK peshmergas were under the command of Jalal Talabani. The officers commanding the divisions and the brigades are appointed by a high committee of 10 members under the Minister of Peshmergas. Commenting about the unification of the fighters, an officer remarked : « At the top, we are working together smoothly… further down the ranks, it will take more time ».
Another factor hampering unification and one much less publicised than the controversy about Kirkouk and Article 140 of the Constitution, or the debate about the oil contracts signed by the Kurdish government with foreign companies, is the fact that the new force of Kurdistan Guards represents a bone of contention between Baghdad and Erbil.
Claiming that the Kurdish forces are, exactly like the Iraqi army in the central and southern parts of the country, participating to the defence of Iraq—in other words, doing the same « sovereign duty »—the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) wants Baghdad to pay the bill for the training and the maintenance of the force. Baghdad’s response is that this financial support is already included in the 17% share of the Iraqi budget the Kurds get from Baghdad. And, Baghdad insists, Kurdistan does not need a force of 200.000 peshmergas – or even100.000 ; 50.000 is perfectly adequate. « We should be getting between $2 billion and $2,5 billion from Bagdad for our Kurdistan Guards, » says Jaber al Yawal. « We have received nothing in the way of financial support for the force since 2.007. Meanwhile, we train and equip our unified Kurdistan Guards with the mere $700 million we get from the KRG ».
Paradoxically, at the same time they are building their own armed forces, the Kurds are participating in the rebirth of the Iraqi army, now known as the new Iraqi army. Some officers graduating from the two military colleges located in Kurdistan—at Qala Tchwalan and Zakho—are assigned to the new Iraqi army, like the officers graduating from the two military colleges located in the Arab region of Iraq—at Nasiriya and Baghdad. But the Kurds are watching the formation of this new Iraqi Army with increasing concern. According to the constitution, they say, the number of Kurdish soldiers and officers should be about 20%, in proportion to the demographic structure of Iraq. But in fact they only account for 8% — and there are only 12% Sunni Arab, against 80% Shia troops.
Kurdish soldiers and officers are concentrated in 5 divisions assigned on the «border-line » between the Kurdish region and the Arab region. Out of 15 divisions of the new Iraqi army, only two are commanded by a Kurdish officer. And none of the area commands which regroup two or three divisions is commanded by a Kurdish officer. In the Ministry of Defence, in Baghdad, there are less than 20 Kurdish officers. The chief of staff, General Babeker, a Kurd, is powerless. And the Minister, General Abdel Kader al Obeidi, is an ex-Baathist, «like 90% of the officers of the new Iraqi army », claims Colonel Bakhtyar Mohammed Saddik Barzinji, deputy commander of the Military College of Qala Tchwalan, who notes that General Abdel Kader al Obeidi was close to Adnan Khairallah, the late Saddam Hussein’s cousin and brother-in-law.
Although some Kurdish officers, like General Sartip, commander of Qala Tchwalan Military College, claim the New Iraqi army is « different and democratic », most Kurdish officers disagree and say that « Arab chauvinism is still commanding », and the « New Iraqi army is like the old Baath army ». « There is a strong fear », says Jaber al Yawal, « that after the departure of US troops these officers will get together and mount a coup ». « And », adds Sheikh Jaffar, the KRG Minister of Peskmergas, « if the Americans withdraw before the problems between the Kurds and the Arabs are solved, and if they do not stay in Kurdistan, definitely there will be a war between Kurds and Arabs ».
The Middle East magazine, February 2011