As Iraq's fledgling security forces prepare to take over the country's defense, a crucial question is emerging: what will happen to Iraq's 80,000 or so pesh merga, the battle- hardened Kurdish militia?
Under an agreement hammered out last June, the pesh merga - meaning "those who face death" - and other militias are supposed to be disbanded and absorbed into Iraq's various security forces. But in turbulent northern Iraqi towns like Mosul, Kirkuk, and Tal Afar, the legendary mountain warriors have continued to fight - not as members of the Iraqi Army or national guard, but as pesh merga under the command of Kurdish political parties.
"Officially, there is no pesh merga, only the Iraqi Army," says Fareed Asasard, director of the Kurdistan Strategic Studies Center. "But still, you can see that the pesh merga remain. Maybe in some countries they have succeeded in changing militias into an army, but here, we continue to have pesh merga."
The pesh merga's role in defending key cities like Mosul, and the growing influence of Iraq's Kurdish minority, have revived the delicate question of how - and where - to use the storied guerrillas. In recent battles, they proved to be an invaluable counterinsurgency force, capturing many insurgents and defending strategic locations. But whether they remain in Kurdistan, or deploy throughout Iraq, their future promises to be a politically explosive issue that could heighten ethnic tensions.
Iraq has two main Kurdish parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. Since 1991, each party has controlled an area of northern Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region. The two parties fought a four-year civil war in the mid-1990s, during which the KDP invited Saddam Hussein's troops into the region to drive back PUK forces. The two parties have agreed to unify the Kurdish region under a single government, but each maintains its own band of armed pesh merga with separate command structures.
A key question is whether the pesh merga will have to disband, under the June agreement. If they don't, that could cause tensions with other forces like the Shiite Badr Brigade, the private army of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
But some Kurdish officials have maintained that the agreement does not apply to them. With Iraq's two main Kurdish parties gaining clout, it's increasingly likely that the Kurdish parties will want to keep some of their pesh merga intact.
The question is where. One option is to keep the pesh merga where they have always been: strictly to defend Kurdistan. But as the Kurds gain stature within Iraq, the Turkish government is cranking up its alarms against Kurdish independence. A powerful autonomous region on Turkey's borders, with its own fighting force, would be hard for Ankara to stomach.
Another option is to disperse the pesh merga commanders throughout Iraq's Army. That way, the Iraqi Army gains a trained and loyal fighting force, skilled in counterinsurgency and guerrilla tactics. Not all of Iraq's pesh merga are well-trained. But those who attended the Qala Cholan officer school, founded after the 1991 Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein, form an experienced officer corps that Iraq's beleaguered forces need.
"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."
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."