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Baghdad Wary of Kurdish Deployment

The presence of Kurdish troops in Baghdad raises hopes of stability but also fears of Kurd-Shia confrontations.
By Basim al-Sharaa
The deployment of Kurdish brigades in Baghdad neighbourhoods controlled by followers of firebrand Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr has prompted hopes that the forces will bring peace, as well as fears that the move will stoke ethnic and sectarian tensions.

Around 3,000 Kurdish soldiers are deploying in Baghdad as part of the new security plan, which got under way this week. It's the first time Kurdish troops have been sent to the city in such numbers.

On Friday, February 16, full-scale battle broke out in the southern city of Basra between British forces and the Mahdi Army militia, which is loyal to al-Sadr, raising the possibility that such all-out fighting may soon be seen in Baghdad.

For the past four years, relations between Kurds and al-Sadr followers have been sensitive at best. This is partly because the Sadr movement opposes federalism and article 140 of the Iraqi constitution calling for normalisation in the ethnically mixed and oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Normalisation refers to returning Kirkuk to its state before the Saddam regime, which imported Arabs and expelled Kurds. Many Sadrists believe the policy is being used to drive out Arabs and Turkomen.

Mahdi Army commander Abu Ammar al-Sujad said he was concerned that deployment of Kurdish troops in the city might cause problems "because of the hate the Kurdish leaders have for the Sadr movement and its followers".

"I still remember that in the Najaf offensive [of April 2004] ... most of the Iraqi army snipers were Peshmargas [Kurdish Fighters]," he said.

The Iraqi army and US forces launched a huge offensive on the holy Shia city of Najaf in 2004, vowing to destroy the Mahdi Army.


In January 2007, a Sadrist movement delegation visited the capital of the Kurdish region of Erbil for the first time. Kurdish officials say the purpose of the visit was to clear-up misunderstandings on federalism and Kirkuk.

While there was no official change as a result of the meeting, observers say it was an important sign that both sides are intent on diffusing tensions.

Others insist the Kurdish troops will be a positive force.

Abdul-khaliq Zangana from the Kurdish Alliance bloc in the Iraqi parliament says he is shocked by the way media portrayed the Kurdish deployment. Journalists have been largely pessimistic about the move, saying it will lead to greater violence.

Zangana is at pains to point out that the Kurdish forces are loyal to the Iraqi army.

"The Kurdish troops are a part of the Iraqi army and they are under the command of the Supreme Commander of the Iraqi Armed Forces, the prime minister Nouri al-Maliki," he said.

The Kurdish units will not take sides in the sectarian violence and only fight factions and help restore stability, he says.

Mohammad al-Sa'di, a Mahdi Army commander in the al-Huria neighbourhood of west Baghdad, rules out a confrontation between the Kurdish troops and the Shia forces, adding that the two sides have not clashed militarily in the past.

Sa'di warns against using Kurdish soldiers to crack down on the Mahdi Army, saying such a move would only increase ethnic tensions.

Sa'di also says the Mahdi Army has received instructions from al-Sadr himself not to confront Iraqi and American forces "whatever the situation".

However, the Mahdi Army will fight the Kurds if they take sides in the ongoing sectarian struggle, he says. Most Kurdish troops are Sunni.

"We will force them to leave ( the al-Sadr stronghold Sadr City) as soon as possible" if that happens, he said.


Being drawn into ongoing ethnic and sectarian strife is one of the Kurds' biggest fears.

"The troops might become a part of the sectarian violence that is occurring between Sunnis and Shias," said Mahmood Osman, another Kurdish Alliance deputy. "This would complicate the security problem even more."

Osman called on the Kurdish leadership to reconsider its decision to send troops to Baghdad, describing the deployment as "dangerous and disastrous".

In an effort to explain the Kurdish forces' mission, the Iraqi government's spokesman Ali al-Dabagh says it is a standard procedure to use Iraqi troops under the ministry of defence's command.

"Those Kurdish soldiers have voluntarily joined the Iraqi army and the Iraqi government has the right to send them anywhere," he said.


The Iraqi ministry of defence refused to confirm or deny that Kurdish troops would be asked to take on the Mahdi Army.

"The military plan is top secret and neither the Iraqi government nor the military commanders will reveal it," said Mohammad al-Asskary, a ministry spokesman.

The public is as divided as the politicians.

Ahmad Sadiq, 35, an employee in the ministry of health from Sadr City, says the Kurdish soldiers will help restore peace and stability to the capital.

"Their presence will fill in the gap in some of the areas where there is not a big enough Iraqi Army presence. The deployment of the Kurdish troops in the areas controlled by the Mahdi Army will help to free up Iraqi army units to crack down on Sunni insurgents in other hot areas," he said.

"Most government forces can't operate effectively in Mahdi Army controlled areas because they are accused of favouring the Mahdi Army. But the Kurdish troops will play a neutral role."

In contrast, many in the Kurdish community in Baghdad are shocked by the news. Adnan Mohammad, 40, a Kurdish resident of Baghdad, says he is very concerned.

"The participation of the Kurdish troops will have a big negative impact on our security, especially if these troops take on the Mahdi Army," said Mohammad, adding that the Mahdi Army might retaliate and make Kurds the newest victims of ongoing sectarian and ethic violence.

Hashim Hassan, an analyst at the University of Baghdad, meanwhile, questions the effectiveness of the Kurdish troops.

"The expertise that the Kurdish troops have gained from fighting militants in the Kurdish region will be useless in Baghdad," said Hassan.

The American and Iraqi forces have already failed to defeat the militias and insurgents, he pointed out. Besides, many Kurdish soldiers do not speak Arabic and don't understand Arabic culture very well, which may well make it hard to quell the violence in volatile neighbourhoods, says Hassan.

"This is a war of intelligence not troop numbers," he said.

Basim al-Sharaa is an IWPR contributor in Baghdad.

This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).