As Baghdad and Kurds Square up for War

The US handover of the Iraqi province of Anbar, for four years the bloodiest flashpoint province of Iraq, finds an Iraqi army divided into two adversarial sections.

For the first time in the US military’s five-year presence in Iraq, the two most supportive Iraqi elements, the Kurds and the Shiites, are deep in preparations to fight each other.

This bubbling conflict does not affect security in Anbar, because the province’s real masters are not the Baghdad government but the indigenous Sunni tribal leaders, whom the Americans organized into Awakening Councils and armed for battle against al Qaeda and insurgents.

While their loyalty to the central government and its Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, may be less than absolute, these local rulers are prepared for now to maintain the semblance of obedience to central authority and preserve law and order.

That is just as well, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources, because if Maliki were to be confronted with an emergency requiring the dispatch of more troops to Anbar, he would come up short.

The Kurdish army, Peshmerga, numbers 106,000 troops; the 60,000 attached to the Iraqi government forces form the bulk of the 2nd and 3rd Divisions, which the US army trained, equipped and prepared to take over from its departing forces as the backbone of Iraq’s fighting strength.

As matters stand today, these Kurdish troops are ready to turn their guns against government soldiers, or desert with their arms and rejoin the Peshmerga, independent Kurdistan’s military, which is commanded by its president Masoud Barzani.

Barzani’s henchmen have signaled the Americans that their bases in Kurdistan and along the Kurdish-Iranian border will no longer be welcome.

Our sources disclose that messages relayed to Washington and the US military command in Baghdad warned them not to count on the Kurds being frightened to take on Maliki’s armies.


Kurds will turn to Iran if the US does not back their independence


And if the United States persists in supporting the Baghdad government and its steps against the Kurds, Washington can forget about building three big air bases in Kurdistan, in readiness for the final withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

So disenchanted are the Kurds with their long-standing American ally that Fuad Salih, the governor of the northern town of Halabja, chose the Iranian news agency Fars for an outspoken statement on Aug. 26:

Speaking on behalf of the independent Kurdish government of Irbil, he said: “We will not allow a military airport to be constructed in our city.” He added: “Halabja is a war-torn Kurdish city and is a victim of the war. How can we allow it to become a victim of war again?”

Governor Salih said: “America is providing the budget needed for constructing this airport but we hereby strongly deny the fact that this airport is a military airport. This is because we will never allow the Americans to do such a thing and such a measure is not in our list of priorities.”

He added: “Even if we are paid to construct this airport, the money will not be given to us by the Americans directly. We will receive the money from the Kurdistan regional government.”

This was the first hint from the Kurdish region that its rulers are capable of turning to Iran and not averse to freezing the construction of US bases in Kurdistan.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources note that Kurdish-Shiite frictions have been building up for years: The Kurds resent Shiite domination of central government and army and their deepening ties with Tehran, while the Shiites cast a beady eye on the independence-minded Kurdistan regional government.


Government troops give way to superior Kurdish might


These animosities boiled over in early August, when Gen. Tariq Abd al Wahab Jassem, the commander of Iraqi forces fighting al Qaeda in restive Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, ordered Col. Nizzam Kirkawi (from Kirkuk), commander of Kurdish Brigades 34 and 4 to pull his troops out of the troubled province.

Coll. Kirkawi refused, saying he only obeyed orders to retreat from President Barzani.

On Aug. 10, a written ultimatum for the Kurdish colonel to pull his forces to a line north of Diyala came down from the commander of Iraq’s ground forces, Gen. Ali Ridan.

The Kurdish officer flouted this order too.

His stubbornness was not without cause: The Kurds believe that once their forces move out of Diyala, the road will be clear for government units to enter Khanaqin, an ethnically mixed town of Arabs and Kurds in the northeast of the province, which commands the high road from Baghdad to the oil city of Kirkuk.

A few days later, the Kurds effectively blocked the road to Kirkuk against government forces by transferring two Peshmerga brigades to points of vantage commanding the route.

On Aug. 31, the situation deteriorated further when Ibrahim Bajelani, a Kurdish official who heads the provincial council in Diyala, stated in Khanaqin:

“The Iraqi army still wants to enter Khanaqin and the Peshmerga is present, Everyone is on edge. If the Iraqi army tries to enter without prior agreement, we can’t be held responsible for the consequences.”

Wednesday, Sept. 3, the standoff was temporarily resolved when Kurdish and Arab politicians agreed to withdraw both the Iraq army and Peshmerga from Khanaqin.

It was not clear if the Iraqi army had already entered the town or was just massed outside. This accord was a face-saver for prime minister Maliki, who knew his troops were no match for Kurdish might and determination in a frontal clash.


60,000 Kurdish troops would desert Iraqi army


In effect, the Kurds won the day and stayed at points which gave them control of the city.

Still, even after this impasse was overcome, the Iraqi prime minister shows no sign of falling back. He told his advisers this week: “We have every constitutional right to send the army into Kurdistan.”

The Kurds are spoiling for this fight and ratcheting up their demands:

1. The Kurdish government in Irbil has decided that should the Kirkuk Council formally request annexation to Kurdistan, the Kurdish regional government will send the Peshmerga to secure the merger.

If the Iraqi prime minister consigns his army to prevent this step, the Shiites and Kurds will be at war.

2. Kirkuk is not the only city claimed by the Kurds. They are also demanding political and military control of Khanaqin, Tel Afar, northwest of Mosul near the Syrian border and Jebel Sinjar, west of Mosul, the latter two as springboards to eastern Syria.

They remind the Baghdad government of a promise to cede to the Kurdish government control of the mainly Kurdish-populated eastern bank of the Tigris River running through Mosul.

The Kurds and the Shiite-ruled government of Iraq appear to be bent on a collision course. The Americans are stuck between them.

The Peshmerga maintains some 40,000 troops in the three provinces of independent Kurdistan, Duhok, Irbil and Suleimaniyeh. If war broke out, the 60,000 Kurds serving in the Iraqi army would desert and return home to fight the government’s forces.

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