In Kirkuk, Iraqis, Kurds work toward common security goal
Stars and Stripes August 3, 2009
KIRKUK, Iraq — Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have taken steps to overcome their people’s historic enmity and work together in the Kirkuk area, but it’s a delicate situation, a U.S. military commander says.
“Even minor misunderstandings could spiral into armed conflict unless we keep the lines of communication open,” said Col. Ryan Gonsalves, head of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. “It’s up to us to do as much as we can to avoid some type of incident that sparks violence.”
While Iraqi and Kurdish security forces are now talking to each other, they have not developed a partnership yet, Gonsalves said.
“That’s next,” he said.
The Iraqi army’s 12th Division operates south of Kirkuk city, and the Peshmerga, north of it. The local Peshmerga commander said he has orders to stop the Iraqi army if it tries to go north, said Maj. Christopher Norrie, operations officer for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.
The Peshmerga commander said Kurds have fought and died around Kirkuk for years, and if he allowed the Iraqi army to take Kurd territory, his family would be shamed for generations, Norrie said.
Tensions between the two sides started to rise last October when the 12th Iraqi Army Division commander, Maj. Gen. Abdul Ameer, positioned his troops on what the Kurds considered their territory, Norrie said.
In January, Iraqi troops were turned back by locals when they went to a Kurdish village north of the city, named Altun Kapri, to protect a polling site for the nationwide provincial council elections, he said.
In a separate incident later on, Ameer got word that Kurdish forces were on the move in the disputed territories, and he was prepared to respond, Norrie said. Fortunately, the information turned out to be a rumor, he said.
In the wake of the incident, Gonsalves invited Ameer, the Iraqi police and Kurdish security forces to a lunch so they could discuss their operations.
At first, Ameer refused, but when Gonsalves suggested that the lunch would be purely a social occasion, he agreed.
Within five minutes, Ameer started talking to his Kurdish counterparts about where his forces were arrayed, and now both sides have similar meetings every two weeks, Gonsalves said.
Eventually, Ameer re-positioned his forces to deal with insurgents to the south of Kirkuk city, Norrie said.
Kirkuk is just south of the “Green Line,” a boundary that has marked the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan since 1991 from the rest of Iraq.
A recent report from the International Crisis Group called the situation along the Green Line a “tense standoff” between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi army.
But this past week, officers from both sides gave no hint of trouble.
Ameer said he has no problems with Kurdish Peshmerga forces north of the city and the Iraqi army is not part of the political wrangling between Irbil and Baghdad.
In the Tactical Operations Center on the U.S. base outside Kirkuk, representatives from the Iraqi police and Peshmerga work together to trade information.
It’s another way of defusing tensions between both sides. The Iraqi police doesn’t like working with the Peshmerga, but they have no choice, said Iraqi police Lt. Col. Mahmoud Ali Hussein, a liaison officer at the center. They are honest and provide good information, he said through a translator.
Peshmerga 1st Lt. Sabah Galib Ali, who also spoke through a translator, said it has proved easy to work with the Iraqi police.
He said Peshmerga and Iraqi army officials have agreed not to enter the city of Kirkuk, leaving it to the Iraqi police.
Despite the political turmoil, Kirkuk residents live peacefully, said Maj. Gen. Jamal Baqir, the police chief for the city and greater province of Kirkuk. The Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens have been interrelated for 80 to 100 years, said the chief, who goes by “Gen. Jamal.”
Jamal, a Kurd and member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said he’s not interested in politics or sectarianism, noting that his most trusted officer is an Arab and he promotes and punishes officers based on their performance, not ethnicity.
“Our duty is to provide the security for Kirkuk,” he said.