BAGHDAD (Reuters) - When U.S. and Iraqi forces step up an offensive against militants in Baghdad, 4,000 Kurdish soldiers will be there on the frontlines, taking part in their first major operation under Iraq’s new army.
Those soldiers, drawn largely from Kurdish Peshmerga militias in the northern autonomous region of Kurdistan, will have to navigate a different language, a largely foreign city and perhaps a hostile population.
But they will bring with them a reputation for discipline and in Iraq’s bitterly split Shi‘ite and Sunni Arab sectarian divide -- could be seen as neutral, even if some Kurdish soldiers have mixed feelings about their deployment.
“Their professionalism will guarantee a measure of success,” said Baghdad resident Ahmed Ubaid, a 38-year-old Sunni.
The Baghdad offensive, announced by Shi‘ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki last month, is seen as a last-ditch effort to halt Iraq’s plunge into all-out sectarian civil war between politically dominant Shi‘ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
Some U.S. and Iraqi officials say militias and insurgents have infiltrated the ranks of Iraq’s Arab security forces, sparking questions about their commitment to battle militants from their own communities.
Of three small Kurdish brigades totaling 4,000 soldiers being sent to Baghdad, one, the 3rd Brigade, has arrived. Its commander, General Anwar Dowlani, said he was awaiting orders.
“We don’t know where we will deploy, but it will be in areas where we will preserve security and terminate terrorism,” Dowlani told Reuters.
The peshmergas -- “those who are ready to die” in Kurdish -- gained valuable experience in guerrilla tactics when they fought Saddam Hussein’s nationalist army in the 1970s and 80s.
About a fifth of Iraq’s population, most Kurds live in the northern mountains, which has been a haven from attacks plaguing other areas of Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Long set on independence, Kurds say they will now be content with sweeping autonomy secured from Saddam with U.S. help in 1991.
Some Kurdish soldiers assigned to Baghdad had misgivings about taking part in a battle that could define Iraq’s future.
“I am very resentful. ... I am afraid the Kurds will be dragged into this sectarian war,” said Faris Fattah, an officer in the 3rd Brigade, speaking in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya last month before deploying to Baghdad.
Another soldier, Lieutenant Ismail Ghattour, said that while he was afraid of dying in Baghdad, he had a duty to perform.
“I want to show all those who doubt the loyalty of the Kurdish people in Iraq,” he said.
The Kurdish brigades will join tens of thousands of American troops and Iraqi Arab soldiers and police in trying to restore order to Baghdad, where suicide bombings, mortar attacks and death squads kill hundreds every week.
Because most speak Kurdish and not Arabic, U.S. officers say they will operate with translators.
“The problem is they don’t know Baghdad as well as the local units do, so it’s going to take a few days to get their feet on the ground,” Colonel Stu Pollock, senior advisor to the 6th Iraqi Army Division in Baghdad, told reporters this week.
Herish Habib, a senior Baghdad official from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish parties, said language would not be a problem. “Some soldiers know Arabic and can translate for the rest,” Habib said.
The notion of Kurdish military involvement in Baghdad has previously drawn criticism from Iraq’s Sunni Arabs.
Arabs accuse Kurdish peshmerga militias of driving them from oil-rich Kirkuk, just outside Kurdistan, ahead of a local referendum due there in 2007 to decide the city’s identity.
This time, Sunni Arabs, perhaps more worried about Shi‘ite militias, have largely been quiet on the issue.
Shi‘ites on the other hand, have found common ground with Kurds on some political issues, such as framing a constitution that Sunni Arabs say is detrimental to them because it does not provide equal distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth.
Additional reporting by Sherko Raouf in Sulaimaniya, Dean Yates and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk