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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.

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“According to the law, the regional guard’s duty is protecting the Kurdish region as part of Iraq,” said Gen. Babaker Zebari, the Iraqi Army chief of staff who recently created a furor when he said publicly that the Army would not be ready to defend its borders for another decade. “There must be coordination between the Kurdish government and the Ministry of Defense, and between the Kurdish police and the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad.”

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Iraq this month received the first of 140 M1A1 Abrams tanks it has purchased from the US, but its fledgling Army will still lack the manpower or capability to defend either its borders or its air space for years. Much of Iraq’s northern border is along the Kurdish territory, which has been autonomous since it broke away from Hussein’s regime after the 1991 Gulf War. Whether the country holds together is the biggest question of the 2003 postwar era.

“They are one force under one authority, in one state, they legally carry weapons, and they are all part of the Iraqi defense system,” Zebari told a group of reporters in Kirkuk. “There is no discord between the [Kurdish] Regional Guard and the Iraqi Army. If there are political problems, that is another matter.”

At the training center, the pesh merga seem leaner and harder-looking than the Iraqi Army soldiers. Because of mutual suspicion between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite Arab-led government and the Kurdish leadership, they’ve been largely left out of the billions of dollars devoted to rebuilding the Iraqi Army.

Integration reduces flashpoints

The integration that US Gen. Raymond Odierno has made a priority in his time here is aimed at building a country as well as an Army – reducing potential flashpoints between Kurdish and Iraqi troops that could threaten security and forging stronger official ties between the Iraqi government and that of the autonomous Kurdish region.

In an interview with the Monitor in July, General Odierno said he had reached an agreement with Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdish leaders to work toward integrating four pesh merga brigades into the Iraqi Army in disputed areas, a development he described as "a huge step forward."

The training of Kurdish soldiers and police by the Iraqi Defense and Interior ministries is part of the beginning of that integration.

“It’s not going to be easy – there’s nothing easy in Iraq – there are some bumps we have to work through, there’s some scar tissue we have to work through, but we’ll get there,” says Barbero, the commanding general in charge of training and advising Iraqi security forces.

The US is providing vehicles and communications equipment to the Kurdish border force. But so far, it's not offering arms – a move sought by Kurdish leaders as necessary to border security but strongly resisted by the Iraqi government.

The Kurds point to 2003, when the US relied on pesh merga troops they brought into Baghdad to help maintain security after American occupation authorities disbanded the Iraqi Army.

“Are we Iraqis or not? Are we part of this country or not?” asks Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Saleh in an interview. “Can a national Iraqi military be truly national without the Kurds? We are alarmed at the prospect of an Iraqi military armed with Abrams tanks and F-16s while the Kurds are kept out of it. We should accept that we are all partners in this country and we should all be committed to its defense.”