Known for their fierce resistance to the Saddam Hussein government, leaders of the Kurdish region's peshmerga military say their forces are now ready to join the Iraqi National Army. But working alongside Iraqi Arabs, the Kurds former foes, may take some adjustment.
A drill sergeant barks orders at a group of new recruits learning how to march at a military base outside the city of Irbil. This is the home of a division of the Iraqi National Army, a force of about 1,100 soldiers and officers made up entirely of Kurds.
Even though these men are training to be part of Iraq's National Army, the officers and soldiers here still think of themselves as peshmerga, the term for the Kurdish regional military that resisted the Saddam Hussein regime. It is a group proud of its history, the word, peshmerga, means those who face death.
The forces here have received training from the U.S. military, which also provided material support, such as weapons. Captain Sabir Ahmed says the U.S. training is designed to teach the young recruits special techniques to combat the problems now facing Iraq.
He says, "The Americans teach us how to run checkpoints and search cars, and, one thing that's very important, how to carry out attacks to clear terrorists from a house."
Officials here say there are about 600 Kurdish troops fighting as part of the National Army in predominantly Arab areas in northern Iraq. But so far, the bulk of the 60,000 peshmerga fighters in the Kurdish region have not been permitted to operate beyond the region's borders. That is despite the peshmergas' enthusiasm for the idea of taking on the insurgency.
"I told them that we are ready to go to inside of Mosul, for example, or Kirkuk. We can clear it from the terrorists," says Hamid Effendi, the minister of Peshmerga, based in Irbil.
Mr. Effendi says both Iraqi and U.S. leaders have wanted to avoid perpetuating the perception of ethnic division that a unit of Kurdish military fighting in Arab territory or against Arab insurgents might suggest.
"They say to us that, 'it is better for you to defend on Kurdistan, to stay in Kurdistan only, because there are differences between two nations Kurds and Arabs. If we try to go inside Mosul, maybe some of them say that the Kurds want to attack Arabs. But it's not right. We want to defend Arabs," he said.
An ethnic minority, for years Iraqi Kurds were on the receiving end of some of the worst oppression by the Saddam Hussein regime. Fearing the Kurds were growing too powerful, Saddam launched what is known as the Anfal campaign against them in 1988 resulting in the deaths of more than 175,000 people.
Rights groups say tens-of-thousands more died in a brutal crackdown by Saddam following the 1991 Gulf War.
After that, however, the United States imposed a strict no-fly zone over the three provinces that make up the Kurdish region. As a result, the Kurds enjoyed virtual self-rule for the 12 years between that war and the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.
Asos Hardi, the editor of the Kurdish weekly newspaper, Hawlati, says it will take time before the Kurdish people get used to the idea of forging alliances with former enemies.
"During the whole past history, the Iraqi army was a force to attack our country, to attack our society, our culture, our land. If this will change, and the new army will be the army of protecting this land, I dont think there will be a problem for the peshmerga to be part of this army," said Mr. Hardi. "But, of course, its not a simple and easy process."
Some Kurdish leaders remain wary about fully integrating the peshmerga into Iraq's National Army. Adnan Mufti, a senior official with the party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, says, even as part of that army, Kurdish military units need to remain in Kurdish regions.
"We are still afraid that there will be a change in Baghdad and another dictatorship, or another decision there asking for the removal of the rights of Kurds," explained Mr. Mufti. "We need peshmerga there, until we see Iraq and Kurdistan with full democracy. … Without it, we are asking that peshmerga must still [be] in Kurdistan, as a part of our Iraqi army and defend our people."
Many soldiers and officers on the base say they have had little face-to-face contact with their new allies, the Arab forces that make up the bulk of the Iraqi National Army. Most, however, say that, if ordered, they would gladly fight alongside them against the insurgents in any part of Iraq. They seem to think that, if Iraqi Kurds and Arabs share new battlefield ties, it may, perhaps, ease the weight of history.