Kurds leery of plan to increase forces

Troops to counter Sunni-Shiite conflict in Baghdad

January 14, 2007|By Louise Roug | Louise Roug,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Already a dangerous battleground for an array of forces, Baghdad could soon be flooded with another volatile element: thousands of Kurds from northern Iraq.

As part of President Bush's new strategy for Iraq, 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqi troops will deploy to Baghdad from elsewhere in the country in the coming weeks, according to American and Iraqi officials. As many as 3,600 of them could be Kurds. It would be the first time such a large number of Kurdish forces have been sent to the capital.

The impending deployment has raised fears among Kurds, most of whom live in a well-protected autonomous enclave, that they are being dragged more directly into Iraq's bloody and complex sectarian conflict.

Most of the fighting in Iraq takes place between Sunnis and Shiites, but Kurds fear that could change if they're seen as players in the country's main struggle.

"I don't think it's wise," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker in Baghdad. "This is a Sunni-Shiite conflict."

Kurdish troops are not acquainted with Baghdad, many speak neither Arabic nor English, and their participation could create an even deeper conflict between Kurds and Arabs, he said.

While large numbers of Kurds mix with Arabs in the Kirkuk and Mosul areas of northern Iraq, and a small number live in the capital, Sunni and Shiite politicians also question the wisdom of bringing Kurdish soldiers into the conflict.

"I advise the Kurdish people to apply pressure on their leaders to prevent this step," said Mohammed al-Dayni, a lawmaker from a main Sunni bloc. Kurdish forces, he said, "will face firm resistance from both the Sunnis and the Shiites."

Sheik Abdul-Razzaq Naddawi, an aide to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, agreed that Kurdish troops would not be welcome.

"The Kurds, frankly speaking, consider themselves superior to other Iraqis," he said. "Would they allow troops from the middle or the south to arrive in Kurdistan?" he asked. "Their borders are closed, and they are practically independent."

The idea of using Kurdish troops to quell violence in Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad originated in backroom talks among the country's main power brokers. With a historical chance to live their dream of autonomy, Kurdish lawmakers were extremely reluctant to take part in the plan. But Iraqi officials as well as U.S. military and political officials argued that nonparticipation by the Kurds would show their lack of commitment to the nation.

Word of the planned deployment took ordinary Kurds by surprise. In their small but prospering northern enclave, they shook their heads at the prospect of getting involved in a conflict that has bedeviled the most powerful army on Earth.

"If America and the Arabs aren't able to stop Sunnis and Shiites from killing each other indiscriminately, then what use will it be to send in our forces?" one Kurd asked in an online forum.

"We do not need to have our young man getting killed in a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites," another posting read. "They are both our enemies."

The Iraqi government has planned for a 50 percent troop increase in Baghdad, adding the equivalent of an entire division. U.S. and Iraqi officials say two and perhaps three predominantly Kurdish brigades will participate.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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