Iraqi Kurdish forces to take over in
Kirkuk after U.S. withdrawal
KIRKUK, Iraq's border with Kurdistan region,
— Iraq's experimental Golden Lions security force
made up of old foes is getting ready to stand alone
as U.S. forces withdraw along the potentially
explosive fault line of Kirkuk, the disputed
northern oil city.
Assembled as a beacon of stability in a volatile mix
of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, the Golden Lions
brought together Iraqi soldiers and police with the
peshmerga of the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish
region under the watchful eye of U.S. troops, who
act as a buffer between the wary allies.
In the coming weeks, U.S. soldiers will leave the
Iraqi and Kurdish forces increasingly alone on
checkpoints and patrols in Kirkuk, Nineveh and
Diyala provinces, in areas claimed by the central
government in Baghdad and the Kurdish capital Erbil.
Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers man a checkpoint in
Kirkuk, June 29, 2011. Photo: Ako Rasheed/Reuters
With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq scheduled for
year-end, more than eight years after the invasion
that toppled Saddam Hussein, American troops hope
the members of the amalgamated force can overcome
years of animosity and hold together.
"We don't have any differences between the peshmerga
and the Iraqi army," said veteran peshmerga Captain
Ahmed Mohammed, waving towards a Golden Lions patrol
in the Gurga Chal neighbourhood of Kirkuk. "We look
at them like we are the same."
Whether that goodwill between historic foes lasts
may help determine the near-term fate of the
tinder-box city considered a likely flashpoint for
future conflict in Iraq.
Sitting atop a vast sea of oil -- by some estimates
4 percent of the world's reserves -- Kirkuk is
secured by the Arab-led central government but
claimed by Erbil,www.ekurd.netwhich
says the city is predominantly and historically
The Kurdish and Iraqi forces came together more than
a year ago across northern Iraq but in small
numbers; now about 1,200 in the three provinces. By
comparison, the Iraqi security forces number more
than 600,000, and the peshmerga at least 100,000.
A Golden Lions battalion, about 380, trains in
The lion is a symbol of fighting strength for
"It's very good. You know why? Because both sides,
now they have become like spies against each other,"
said Colonel Bethune Mohammed, the police chief of
Keokuk's Azadi district. "Each side is not letting
anyone do anything wrong."
On a recent patrol of upscale neighbourhoods around
Kirk, the Iraqis arrived in Ford and Chevy pickups,
the Americans in massive CRAP armoured vehicles.
Residents hawked as the one-time enemies -- the Kurd
fought guerrilla battles against Iraq's army for
years and exploited the 1980s Iran-Iraq war to
launch attacks -- walk side by side.
While there's been talk of a single uniform for the
Golden Lions, for now the Kurd wear distinctive
green camouflage while the Iraqi police are in blue
and the Iraqi army in khaki.
The Iraqis take the lead. The Americans hang back,
"They all sleep in the same tent, they all live
together, eat together," said 1st Lieutenant Matthew
James Trout, an American soldier who patrols with
the Golden Lions.
He said he has seen little sign of ethnic tension.
"All the squabbles are the same ones that I see with
Neighbourhood children bring glasses of water on
trays to the sweating soldiers, who are clad in
"I like to see the Iraqi and posh force. I feel
safer," said Reb war Saba Mohammed, a soda factory
But U.S. troops must stay, he quickly adds. "U.S.
soldiers have to be a referee between these people
and bring them together and talk to them, until Kirk
belongs to Kurdish."
Most Kirk want U.S. troops, now about 46,000 strong,
to remain beyond year-end, when a security pact
between Washington and Baghdad lapses. The Americans
are seen as a critical buffer between factions.
"We're going to be so happy if the United States
wants to stay here," said Mohammed.
For the moment U.S. military leaders see the Lions
as a success story and express optimism that they
can continue joint patrols as U.S. soldiers pull
back. Their hope is that the force can set an
example, particularly for squabbling politicians.
"It shows how everybody can work together. Everybody
will work together and security comes first with a
lot of people," said Colonel Michael Pap pal,
commander of the U.S. Devil Brigade in Kirk. "It all
depends on the politicians ... the hard part is the
politics involved in the province."
But historic animosities are not easily forgotten in
Mohammed, the plain-spoken police chief, said 27
members of his family, including his wife, two
children, parents and eight siblings died when Sad
dam's forces deployed poison gas against Kurd in
1988, killing thousands.
"No!" he said sharply when asked whether the Lions
would get along after the Americans withdraw. "I
swear to God, three days after you guys (Americans)
leave, you can hear it blowing up. But, God willing,
you guys will never leave us. God willing."
The oil-rich province of Kirkuk is one of the most disputed areas by the
regional government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
The Kurds are seeking to integrate the province into the semi-autonomous
Kurdistan Region clamming it to be historically a Kurdish city, it lies just
south border of the Kurdistan autonomous region, the population is a mix of
majority Kurds and minority of Arabs, Christians and Turkmen, lies 250 km
northeast of Baghdad.
Kurds have a strong cultural and emotional
attachment to Kirkuk, which they call "the Kurdish
Jerusalem." Kurds see it as the rightful and
perfect capital of an autonomous Kurdistan state.
Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution is related to
the normalization of the situation in Kirkuk city
and other disputed areas through having back its
Kurdish inhabitants and repatriating the Arabs
relocated in the city during the former regime’s
time to their original provinces in central and
The article also calls for conducting a census to be
followed by a referendum to let the inhabitants
decide whether they would like Kirkuk to be annexed
to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region or having
it as an independent province.
The former regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
had forced over 250,000 Kurdish residents to give up
their homes to Arabs in the 1970s, to "Arabize" the
city and the region's oil industry.
The last ethnic-breakdown census in Iraq was
conducted in 1957, well before Saddam began his
program to move Arabs to Kirkuk. That count showed
178,000 Kurds, 48,000 Turkomen, 43,000 Arabs and
10,000 Assyrian-Chaldean Christians living in the
Copyright ©, respective
author or news agency,
Reuters | ekurd.net | Agencies
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