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Iraq border concerns spur effort to integrate Kurdish and Iraqi Army forces

Kurdish forces are receiving instruction at the Iraqi Army’s training center in what officials call a breakthrough aimed at easing tensions and securing Iraq's vulnerable border with Iran.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / August 23, 2010

Kurdish Peshmerga cadets attend a 28-day course at an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk ,150 miles north of Baghdad August 10. The Iraqi army is training more than 100 Peshmerga cadets, the armed forces of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters

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Kirkuk, Iraq

In this disputed city, Kurdish forces are being trained by Iraqi Army instructors in what officials call a breakthrough aimed at easing tensions between the two sides and securing Iraq’s vulnerable border with Iran.

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The program at the training center on the Kirkuk military base is part of a painstakingly arranged plan by US commanders here to integrate elements of the Kurdish pesh merga – fighters who battled Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government forces – into the central government’s Iraqi Army.

Border security has taken on heightened importance with the prospect of the US completely withdrawing by the end of next year and increasing acknowledgment that the current Iraqi Army would have a hard time defending the country on its own.

“The Iraqis realize they have to get the Iraqi Army focused on defending the sovereignty of Iraq,” says Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, the commanding general in charge of training and advising Iraqi security forces. “There is a realization that we have to move on and start doing this and get as far down the road as we can in the next 16 months,” he says in an interview with the Monitor.

Iraq, carved out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire by the victors of World War II, borders six countries – Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran.

But it’s Iran, with more than 900 miles of border and a bitter and complicated history with Iraq, that is most worrisome.

“It is a serious concern that this country will try to expand, encroach, unless you have a viable security force to fill that vacuum,” says a senior Iraqi Foreign Ministry official. “We have to fill it, not them.”

Meddling from Iran?

Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s was sparked partly by border issues. US and Iraqi officials say the country, which was home to many of Iraq’s Shiite leaders in exile during Hussein’s regime, meddles in Iraq in a variety of ways, most of them covert.

“There is concern about Iraqi sovereignty,” says General Barbero. “When you have a neighbor that’s trying to exert its influence from here, the way Iran is, it resonates.”

Hundreds of members of the pesh merga Regional Guard deployed along the border are rotating through the training center in Kirkuk to give them the same skills as Iraqi government forces.

Rifle instruction

In the searing heat on a recent August day, soldiers from a unit near Suleimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan sat on bleachers watching an Iraqi Army instructor demonstrate the proper method for dismantling rifles – his commands translated from Arabic to Kurdish.

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