Kurdish leaders have inserted more than 10,000 of their militia members into Iraqi army divisions in northern Iraq to lay the groundwork to swarm south, seize the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and possibly half of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, and secure the borders of an independent Kurdistan.
Five days of interviews with Kurdish leaders and troops in the region suggest that U.S. plans to bring unity to Iraq before withdrawing American troops by training and equipping a national army aren’t gaining traction. Instead, some troops that are formally under U.S. and Iraqi national command are preparing to protect territory and ethnic and religious interests in the event of Iraq’s fragmentation, which many of them think is inevitable.
The soldiers said that while they wore Iraqi army uniforms they still considered themselves members of the Peshmerga – the Kurdish militia – and were awaiting orders from Kurdish leaders to break ranks. Many said they wouldn’t hesitate to kill their Iraqi army comrades, especially Arabs, if a fight for an independent Kurdistan erupted.
Their strategy mirrors that of Shiite Muslim parties in southern Iraq, which have stocked Iraqi army and police units with members of their own militias and have maintained a separate militia presence throughout Iraq’s central and southern provinces. The militias now are illegal under Iraqi law but operate openly in many areas. Peshmerga leaders said in interviews that they expected the Shiites to create a semi-autonomous and then independent state in the south as they would do in the north.
“Kirkuk is Kurdistan; it does not belong to the Arabs,” Hamid Afandi, the minister of Peshmerga for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two major Kurdish groups, said in an interview at his office in the Kurdish city of Irbil. “If we can resolve this by talking, fine, but if not, then we will resolve it by fighting.”
In addition to putting former Peshmerga in the Iraqi army, the Kurds have deployed small Peshmerga units in buildings and compounds throughout northern Iraq, according to militia leaders. While it’s hard to calculate the number of these active Peshmerga fighters, interviews with militia members suggest that it’s well in excess of 10,000.
Afandi said his group had sent at least 10,000 Peshmerga to the Iraqi army in northern Iraq, a figure substantiated in interviews with officers in two Iraqi army divisions in the region.
“All of them belong to the central government, but inside they are Kurds … all Peshmerga are under the orders of our leadership,” Afandi said.