Kurdish troops prepare for deployment in Baghdad

A Kurdish battalion is in preparation for deployment to Baghdad as part of the Iraqi government's security operation, in coordination with President Bush's troop surge strategy, to quell sectarian violence in the Iraqi capital.

The Associated Press reports that the 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 4th Divison has begun marching from its base in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah to western Baghdad. There, it will receive further training from US troops before deployment, said the brigade's commander, Brig. Gen. Anwar Golani.

It will not be the first time that the 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 4th Division has served in volatile areas. It also spent seven months helping to fight Sunni insurgents in the towns of Balad and Duluiyah, some 45 miles north of Baghdad, Golani said, adding that 14 of his troops were killed and 55 were wounded while there. ...

Golani said many of his soldiers were formerly part of Kurdish militias known as peshmergas that fought Saddam Hussein's regime for decades, making them experienced fighters. He said they had been integrated into the Iraqi army.

"We did benefit a lot from our previous experience," Golani said. "We have experience in how to repulse attacks."

AP writes that the battalion and another Kurdish brigade, currently training in the northern city of Irbil, are expected to be part of neighborhood-to-neighborhood search operations targeting both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias like Moqtada al-Sadr's Madhi Army. The start date of those operations have not yet been announced.

Though the Kurds are "recognized as being among the better-trained fighters in Iraq," their deployment into the sectarian conflict in Baghdad is a tricky proposition, reports The Washington Post. While Sunni Muslim in religion, the Kurds are an ethnic group distinct from the Arabs that make up the Sunni and Shiite blocs in Iraq. The Kurdish troops do not speak Arabic, and their regional government, which flies the Kurdish flag, seeks independence from Iraq.

A former senior CIA operations officer who is familiar with Iraq said yesterday that sending the units into Baghdad "will not make many friends for the Kurds, depending on where they go." But, said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "if you are going in to clear a majority-Sunni area, better to use Kurdish rather than Shia troops.... They are obviously better than Iraqi police and more professional."

The Nation reports that some Kurds still worry that getting Kurdish troops involved with Arab conflicts will only make matters worse. Salam al-Midi, a Kurd and former US military translator, said that the use of peshmerga in the city of Mosul, where Kurds and Arabs have long fought for political dominance, has only increased tensions there.

"They don't know the language, the Arabic language, it's hard. It's one of the major difficulties they will face," Midi said. "Second, they are Kurds. Comparing Kurds and Arabs is like comparing apples and oranges. They cannot work together. For sure, terrorist organizations are going to react, and their reactions are going to be bad. And at the same time the Kurdish side will want to take revenge on the Arabs, the Iraqi people."

The Los Angeles Times cites similar concerns not only among Kurds living in Baghdad, but also the city's Sunnis and Shiites.

"I advise the Kurdish people to apply pressure on their leaders to prevent this step," said Mohammed Daini, a lawmaker with a major Sunni bloc. Kurdish forces, he said, "will face firm resistance from both the Sunnis and the Shiites."

Sheik Abdul Razzaq Naddawi, an aide to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, agreed that Kurdish troops would not be welcome.

"The Kurds, frankly speaking, consider themselves superior to other Iraqis," he said. "Would they allow troops from the middle or the south to arrive in Kurdistan?" he asked. "Their borders are closed, and they are practically independent."

Because of that "independence," The Washington Post reports, some US officials also have reservations about the use of Kurdish troops in Baghdad.

Former U.S. ambassador Peter W. Galbraith, who has helped Kurdish officials in the post-Saddam Hussein period, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Thursday that the Kurdish fighters "are ultimately loyal not to the national chain of command or the nominal chain of command, but to their political party leaders" -- in this case, to the regional government.

At a hearing Friday of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the deployment of the Kurds in Baghdad could bring "balance in that they are not either for Sunnis or for Shia but for Iraq." But Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) countered, "I think they are for the Kurds."

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argues however that the Kurds' drive for independence is one of the motivations behind President Bush's call for a troop surge in Iraq to ensure the nation's stability, reports the Turkish Daily News. Were Iraq to fragment, she says, an independent Kurdish state might cause upheaval in neighboring Turkey, which has its own problems with Kurds seeking independence.

"Do you want to drive Turkey again to be concerned about a Kurdish north, one that would most certainly have to make different decisions than the Kurds have courageously made decisions now to be a part of a unified Iraq?" she asked the dissenting lawmakers.

"As Iraq falls apart, they're (Kurds) going to have to make different decisions, and that's going to be a problem with Turkey," Rice said. "Is that the Iraq you want to create?"

But some critics say that sending Kurdish troops to Baghdad may in fact help create the fractured Iraq that Ms. Rice fears. Independent journalist and military historian Gwynne Dyer writes in a commentary for The Brooks Bulletin of Canada that "If the Kurdish brigades that are being brought south to Baghdad are sent into battle against the [Mahdi] Army, it could trigger yet another civil war in Iraq, this time along the ragged ethnic frontier in the north between Arabs and Kurds." And an editorial in Vermont's Rutland Herald says that pitting "Iraq's Kurds against the restive Sunni and Shiite Arabs, on behalf of a Shiite-dominated government, promises to complicate already complex sectarian divisions within the country."

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