Though battle-hardened, Iraq's Kurdish militia struggles for role
A key question is whether the pesh merga, who have defended key cities, will disband under last year's accord.
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"From the very beginning of forming the New Iraqi Army, they have had problems building these new units," says Kosrat Rasul, a pesh merga commander who is now a top PUK leader. "The Americans should bring the Iraqi leaders and put them in the forefront, put more Iraqi commanders in charge of the forces."Skip to next paragraph
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But putting Kurdish officers in charge, no matter how experienced, could also increase ethnic friction. "What worries me are the consequences within Iraq," says an Iraqi political analyst who is close to the Kurdish leadership. "I think it's in the interests of Iraq to integrate the pesh merga into the Iraqi Army. But the ... way it's being done, with the Kurds in the forefront, is dangerous."
In interview after interview, Kurdish leaders declare their eagerness to keep fighting - not just in Kurdistan, but throughout Iraq. "The pesh merga is not a militia, it's a legitimate fighting force," says Dana Ahmed Majid, head of security for the PUK, hammering his fist in the air for emphasis. "How can the terrorists be able to operate throughout Iraq, and we, as Iraqis, not have the right to defend all of Iraq?"
Pesh merga commanders say that they are waiting for the central Iraqi government to ask them, publicly and unequivocally, to fight outside Kurdistan. "If the Americans and the Iraqi government ask us to deploy pesh merga, we are ready to do that," says Gen. Mustapha Said Qadir, the PUK's top pesh merga commander. "We are ready to deploy them even in Baghdad."
Others caution that the militia will not be as effective outside its own turf. Mosul is not within the Kurdish region, but it is almost half Kurdish, and even Kurds who don't live there know the city well. "Don't think that because the pesh merga succeeded in Mosul, they know Anbar," says Asasard. "I don't think they would be successful in Fallujah or Ramadi. Personally, I have never seen Samarra or Ramadi or Fallujah - but I have seen Mosul."
Some leaders think the best solution would be to use pesh merga only in Baghdad, a heterogeneous city of 5 million, about 20 percent of whom are Kurdish. "We are part of the government that rules in Baghdad, and it's the focal point of the economy, so the pesh merga should take part in defending it," says Rasul. "But in other provinces, they should provide their own security."
An embarrassing incident last December underscored the difficulty of using pesh merga outside Kurdistan. Many Iraqi politicians, both Arab and Kurdish, use the fiercely loyal fighters for their personal security details. At Baghdad International Airport, a lunchtime argument turned into a full-blown melee after Arab and Kurdish guards for several top politicians started hurling ethnic slurs at each other.
The pesh merga's successes in Mosul and Tal Afar have only increased Arab resentment. "The Arabs are just recruits brought hastily - they flee because they do not believe in what they are doing," says the Arab analyst, who asked not to be named. "So the perception that the Arabs are getting - and not just Sunni Arabs - is that it's not an Iraqi Army fighting terrorists, but Kurds fighting against Arabs."