Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Iraqi Arabs and Kurds Pursue a Common Ground
Military Commanders Are Finding Ways Cooperate to Help Counter Threat of Violence, as They Rethink Roles as Soldiers By GINA CHON The Wall Street Journal KIRKUK, Iraq -- Arab and Kurdish military commanders here are making efforts at cooperation despite their bitter political differences -- a surprising development that offers some hope that one of Iraq's most difficult ethnic divides may be narrowing. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Terry Cook, left, discusses security issues with peshmerga commander Brig. Gen. Sherko Fatah Namik at his headquarters in Kirkuk. Above hangs a portrait of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. Kurdish and Arab politicians in Iraq have clashed over contested land, petroleum legislation and a draft constitution that the Kurdish semiautonomous enclave is pushing. Most recently, the two sides squabbled for weeks in Parliament over an election law governing next year's parliamentary polls. Lawmakers finally passed the legislation on Sunday. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has said Arab-Kurd tensions are the country's biggest security threat. But over the past six months, in parts of Iraq's north, American commanders have brokered a quiet, if uneasy, détente between the two sides' military forces. Officers from Iraq's mostly Arab national army have started working with counterparts from the Kurdish regional government's armed militia, the peshmerga. American military officers in Kirkuk have persuaded Arab and Kurdish commanders to cooperate partly by emphasizing what it means to be a professional soldier, which is not being involved in politics. They tell them that the problems between Kurdish and Arab politicians in Baghdad, and between the Kurdish regional and Iraqi governments, need to be solved by the politicians -- that their job as soldiers is to take care of security. When the Iraqi army's 12th Division, led by a former commander under Saddam Hussein, showed up in Kirkuk last year, Kurdish peshmerga commander Brig. Gen. Sherko Fatah Namik was ready for a fight. "If the Iraqi army comes here, I will kill them all," Gen. Namik told his American counterparts then. These days, at twice-monthly meetings on a U.S. outpost, Gen. Namik's men, Iraqi army officers and U.S. officials coordinate security and talk out problems, participants from both sides say. Gen. Namik isn't immune to the political debate. He often tells American commanders there needs to be a referendum on the status of Kirkuk, which he says will prove the city belongs to the Kurdish region. How voting will be held in Kirkuk, which is claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, had been the key hurdle holding up the election law. Kurdish lawmaker Abdul-Bari Zebari, left, greets his Turkmen counterpart, Abbas Hasan al-Bayati, in Baghdad on Thursday. Still, Gen. Namik and Maj. Gen. Abdul Ameer of the Iraqi army -- the former commander under the Hussein regime -- have hammered out a joint-patrol plan for Kirkuk province, in which the U.S. military may play referee, though many Arab and Turkmen tribal and local government leaders oppose the plan. Such patrols for disputed Arab-Kurd areas were floated earlier this year by Gen. Odierno. Cooperation between the two militaries is incremental but it has eased friction among security-service officials on both sides. There has been a surge in big bombing attacks across the region this year, even as overall violence in much of the rest of Iraq has eased. The peshmerga's contribution in northern Kirkuk province leaves Gen. Ameer free to focus on tamping down violence in the province's south. Gen. Ameer initially opposed the peshmerga's presence in Kirkuk, saying they belonged in the Kurdish region, until he began meeting with Kurdish commanders, with the help of the U.S. military. U.S. commanders also have proposed joint patrols in Gaware, an ethnically mixed rural area in Iraq's northern Ninewa province. Currently, peshmerga and Iraqi security forces staff their own checkpoints along a key route there, operated separately on opposite sides of the road. They don't coordinate their patrols, leaving big swaths of territory unguarded, U.S. commanders say. The cooperation hasn't been easy, requiring U.S. troops to play arbitrator, grievance counselor and devil's advocate. Recently, American officers worked to rein in the Kurdish intelligence agency, known as the Asayeesh. U.S. commanders told the Kurds the agency can't conduct offensive operations. That's the job of the Iraqi army or police, they argued. Both sides say the new relationship would have been impossible without a strong push from the Americans. That has raised worry about whether it will endure once U.S. forces start to draw down as planned next year. Gen. Namik joined the peshmerga in 1985, at age 16, to fight Mr. Hussein's oppressive regime. A year later, the central government launched a campaign of oppression in the north, killing at least 150,000 Kurds and displacing hundreds of thousands. After Baghdad's military defeat in the Gulf War, the Kurdish region was given semiautonomy in 1991. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Gen. Namik joined American forces as they entered Kirkuk that April. He has been based in the province since. In 2008, Baghdad sent in the Iraqi 12th Army division, headed by Gen. Ameer. After several near-clashes, the U.S. military convinced peshmerga and Iraqi army commanders to sit down together at a lunch in March. The Iraqi army and local police, which are ethnically mixed but led by a Kurd, started to coordinate raids against insurgents in May. In June, representatives from the Kurdish and Iraqi security forces began working together at a U.S. base in Kirkuk, exchanging intelligence and coordinating security efforts. "Gen. Ameer and I are friends," Gen. Namik says. "I've told him the Kirkuk issue is bigger than us and can't be solved by us. We're soldiers and we have to take care of security for all Iraqis." Gen. Ameer said communication has been key to understanding each other because their efforts are now coordinated. Iraqi Ministry of Defense spokesman Mohammed al-Askari says the government supports cooperation between the Iraqi army and the peshmerga. Joint patrols involving the Iraqi army, peshmerga and U.S. forces in disputed areas of northern Iraq may start before the end of this year.