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 Post-US, a military unit staffed by former enemies raises hopes for Kirkuk

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Post-US, a military unit staffed by former enemies raises hopes for Kirkuk  19.8.2011  
By Baram Subhi

August 19, 2011

KIRKUK, Iraq's border with Kurdistan region, — As US forces slowly begin to withdraw from Iraq, there are fears that ethnic and sectarian conflicts will arise again. In Kirkuk, a long conflicted state, they’re pinning hopes on a unit called the Golden Lions.

The Golden Lions unit is composed of almost 400 members from three different security forces operating in Kirkuk: the Iraqi army, the local police forces and the Iraqi Kurdish military force known as the Peshmerga. The tripartite force, which eventually hopes to increase its number to 1,000, was the idea of Ray Odierno, former commander of US forces in Iraq, who hoped a joint force like this one might help put an end to ethnic clashes in the area.

Kirkuk has been the scene for many of these types of clashes as the oil-rich state, producing up to one million barrels of oil per day, is disputed territory. Its ownership is contested by the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish administration in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan.               

The “Golden Lion” a mixed squad of Arab and Kurds put together to secure disputed areas where people of different ethnicities. March 8, 2011 Photo US Army.
Iraqi Kurds see the area as their own and in fact, many Kurds used to live there – a census from 1957 records the population as at least a third Kurdish. However former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime practiced a concerted policy of what has been described as Arabisation of oil rich areas in the north. This saw hundreds of thousands of Kurdish families deported and ethnic Arab families brought in to take their place. The tug of war over Kirkuk’s geography has continued even after the 2003 US-led invasion that saw Hussein’s regime toppled – and analysts believe that if a civil war was to start in Iraq, then this northern state might well be one of the flashpoints.

Now that the US soldiers, who once formed a sort of buffer between the Arabs and the Kurds, are leaving, the idea is that the Golden Lions, most of whom completed their training with US troops at the end of June this year, help ameliorate their withdrawal.

The lion is an Iraqi symbol of fighting strength and although the three different forces will continue to wear their own uniforms – the Peshmerga wear khaki, the police wear blue and the Iraqi military wear tan - they will all have an armband that shows their membership of the Golden Lions.

In early 2010, the unit undertook raids targeting insurgents’ hideouts and was also deployed at several checkpoints in Kirkuk under supervision of US forces. As of August 2011, the US forces have taken a back seat and withdrawn from the security checkpoints. Before they did so though, they requested that Kirkuk’s checkpoints be handed over to the Golden Lions in order to ensure ongoing cooperation between the three different security forces.

“It shows that a joint action is possible,” Colonel Michael Pappal, the US military commander in Kirkuk, said. Lieutenant James Maceo, who trained the Golden Lions, boasts that the troops sleep in the same tents together and live and eat together as well. Maceo said he had not noticed any hostilities between the different groups.

The Kurdish commander of the Golden Lions, Colonel Salahuddin Sabir, told Niqash that there were still many issues to be overcome. “Among these is the lack of adequate experience, the limited number of troops and the absence of logistical support and necessary supplies such as cars and fuel,” said Sabir, who was currently negotiating with local authorities to ensure funding. “The number of the troops is too low to undertake responsibility for [Kirkuk’s] checkpoints as well as for the military patrols that are needed to maintain order.”

Captain Mohammed Ahmad, a Golden Lion member, a Kurd and former member of the Peshmerga, said that despite the troubled history in the area, there were no ethnic conflicts within the unit. “We treat Iraqi soldiers the same way we treat our Peshmerga men,” said Ahmad, who had lost seven of his family in Iraqi campaigns against the Kurdish in the 1980s.

“But,” he admitted, “it is difficult to forget historical animosities in Iraq.” And he added that he wasn’t so sure about the ability of the Golden Lions to survive after the US withdrawal.

The chairman of the Kirkuk council, Hasim Touran, has expressed similar fears: “The absence of a common political vision for the management of Kirkuk’s security raises fear among all concerned parties.”

In an attempt to at least partially dispel those fears, a new counter terrorism centre was inaugurated in Kirkuk in early August. The centre would be staffed by Iraqi police and army as well as Kurdish forces: in this case,www.ekurd.netit would be Iraqi Kurdistan’s Asayish force, who are a sort of intelligence agency where the Kurdish Peshmerga, who take part in the Golden Lions, are more like a general military force. Again, it would be another attempt to manage Kirkuk’s security situation after the US withdrawal.

Meanwhile politician Hussein Saleh al-Jibouri, believes that the counter-terrorism centre and the Golden Lions style of military unit can only be temporary solutions. Al-Jibouri, a strong opponent of the extension of US troops’ stay in Iraq, believes the best thing to do would be to form a balanced security force made up of Kirkuk’s people, and supervised by the Iraqi federal government. Whether his Iraqi Kurdish compatriots agree with him, is another question altogether.

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