Another Explosive Situation in Iraq

In Iraq, Kurdish militia has the run of oil-rich Kirkuk
By Tom Lasseter
McClatchy Newspapers

KIRKUK, Iraq – Lt. Hiwa Raouf Abdul is not supposed to be in Kirkuk. The oil-rich city, which many fear is teetering on the brink of civil war, is off-limits to Kurdish Peshmerga militia members.

And yet, on Tuesday, the slender, 26-year-old Peshmerga officer breezed through one checkpoint after the next on his way into Kirkuk, exchanging waves and salutes with Iraqi army soldiers and policemen as he rode with a truckload of Peshmerga gunmen.

Abdul is stationed in the nearby Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, where the Peshmerga enforce strict security through a series of checkpoints, and his visit to Kirkuk came only because his commanders asked him to escort a reporter there.

But the ease with which a pickup truck carrying seven Peshmerga members, most of them wielding AK-47s, passed into Kirkuk says volumes about the challenge of pacifying flashpoint towns like Kirkuk and, ultimately, Iraq.

When he passed by the Iraqi army checkpoint on the edge of Kirkuk, Abdul looked at the soldiers saluting him and said, “They get their orders from the Iraqi army, but their loyalty is to the Kurds, to us.”

As with Shiite militias in Baghdad, the line between militia members and Iraqi security troops in Kirkuk is so thin that it at times doesn’t exist. And U.S. plans to build Iraq’s security forces – a process that has cost more than $15 billion nationwide – seem to have strengthened militias instead of discouraging them.

The issue of loyalty with Iraqi security forces is proving to be the Achilles’ heel of American plans to stabilize the war-torn nation. Without neutral Iraqi soldiers and police, an American withdrawal would almost certainly lead to greater sectarian bloodshed than Iraq is currently experiencing.

In June 2004, the American Coalition Provisional Authority issued an order outlawing militias and calling for their members to integrate into Iraq’s security forces. An exemption was made for the Peshmerga, provided that they remained in Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq, and not move to outside areas like Kirkuk.

Armed groups across Iraq reacted to the 2004 measure by enlisting in the army and police and maintaining large contingents of stand-alone militia groups, making them significantly more powerful.

Kirkuk is a tinderbox of sects vying for control of an area with billions of dollars worth of oil, but the Iraqi army isn’t a neutral presence, and many of its soldiers make no secret that their loyalty is to the Kurdish nation.

“I joined to defend my city and my people, who are Peshmerga,” said Iraqi Army Pvt. Kamaran Ahmed, a 31-year-old Kurd from Kirkuk. “From the time of the first prophet God sent to Earth, Kirkuk has been a part of Kurdistan and it will return to Kurdistan.”

Ahmed continued: “If it is not returned to Kurdistan, things will get very bad.”

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