February 18, 2004
By Michael Howard in Sulaimaniya
Kurdish leaders in the northern autonomous area are refusing to disband their military forces, the peshmerga, and are pushing for a veto over any deployment of the Iraqi army in their region.
Kurdish officials are proposing that the 50,000-60,000 fighters controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic party, both of which have a seat on the Iraqi governing council, should be transformed into a regional self-defence force similar to the US national guard.
The proposal comes amid alarm in the Kurdish areas at the suicide bombings in Irbil, and the violence in neighbouring Sunni Arab areas. It also highlights the problems faced by US and British administrators trying to find common ground among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups.
Mustafa Sayid Qadir, the deputy commander of the PUK's peshmerga, said: "After the Irbil attacks, security has become our number one concern. Our history has taught us the risks of leaving ourselves defenceless."
The new force would be recruited, trained and commanded locally. It would not be deployed outside the Kurdistan federal region, the boundary of which still has to be decided, without the approval of the Kurdish parliament.
Kurds want a provision for the new force in the interim constitution which must be finalised by the end of the month. They are also insisting on the inclusion of a federal state under which they will retain many of the powers of self-rule they have had for the past 13 years.
Their plans for more autonomy are opposed by Sunni and Shia Arab leaders as well as by Turkey, Iran and Syria, which believe any advance by Iraq's Kurds will agitate their own Kurdish populations.
The Kurds' stance has also unsettled US and British officials, who have said they want to dismantle Iraq's various militias. Paul Bremer, the American chief administrator, and Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Tony Blair's special envoy to Iraq, flew to the town of Salaheddin on Sunday to persuade Kurdish leaders to tone down their demands.
Iraq's major militias are attached to Kurdish and Shia parties. Both were excluded from power by the Sunni Arab elite, who now fear retribution. Kurds say that the new force, and their desired federal state, would be multi-ethnic and multireligious.
"The national guard would be representative of all the peoples of the Kurdistan region including Kurds, Turkomans, Christians, and Arabs," said Barham Salih, the Kurdish prime minister.
If the Kurds are allowed to retain the peshmerga, it could cause other armed groups, few of them as pro-American, to demand the same treatment.
The Shia Badr brigade, thought to number about 10,000, is the best organised after the Kurds. Though opposed to US forces, it has not confronted them. More worrying for the US and Britain is the Al Mahdi army, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric and vehement opponent of the western presence in Iraq.
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