|Known for their fierce resistance to the Saddam Hussein government, leaders of the Kurdish region's "peshmerga" militia say their forces are now ready to join the Iraqi National Army. But working alongside the Arabs, the Kurds' former foe, may take some time to getting used to. VOA's Patricia Nunan visited a military base outside the city of Arbil, in the Kurdish-controlled part of northern Iraq.|
Young recruits for Iraq's National Army, learning some of the basics. They're not like many of the others who make up the new national force, because these men are Kurds -- an ethnic minority from Northern Iraq. And many of them still of think of themselves first as "peshmerga" -- the name for the Kurdish militias that spent decades fighting the Saddam Hussein regime.
Their value as a fighting force is in little dispute. The peshmerga were considered a key ally by Washington in the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. And the relationship hasn't ended there. Kurdish officials say many of the more than 1100 troops on this base have received weapons from the United States.
What they consider invaluable, however, says Captain Sabir Ahmed, is the American training they have received – designed to counter problems facing the Iraq of today. "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 some 600 Kurdish troops fighting alongside U.S. and Iraqi forces in Arab regions in Northern Iraq. But the bulk of the 60,000 Peshmerga fighters have not been permitted to operate beyond the three provinces that make up the Kurdish region.
And that's despite the Peshmerga's enthusiasm for the idea of taking on the insurgency.
Hamid Effendi is the Minister of Peshmerga, based in the city of Arbil. "I told them that we are ready to go to inside of Mosul for example, or Kirkuk. We can clear it from the terrorists."
Mr. Effendi says both Iraqi and U.S. leaders have wanted to avoid perpetuating the perception of ethnic division in Iraq 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,” explains Mr. Effendi. “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."
The Kurdish identity seems forged from the region's hauntingly beautiful landscape and its people's survival of the some of the worst oppression by the Saddam Hussein regime. Hundreds of thousands were killed and millions displaced in brutal crackdowns designed to prevent the Kurds from becoming too powerful.
That ended in 1991 when the U.S. imposed a strict "no fly zone" over the Kurdish region. As a result, the Kurds enjoyed virtual self-rule for the 12 years between that war and the fall of Saddam in 2003.
That history has left some Kurdish leaders wary of giving up complete control of the peshmerga. Adnan Mufti is with the political party the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
"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. We need peshmerga there, until we see Iraq and Kurdistan with full democracy."
As a recent training exercise suggests, for many in the Kurdish region, there may be no such thing as being too careful. Like the peshmerga, they say they are committed to being part of the new Iraq, but only if their rights are guaranteed.