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friend or foe? baghdad and erbil’s ‘arms race’

Hoshnag Ose
A recent stoush between Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish forces near the Syrian border is a symptom of the “arms race” between the two. They act more like armies from opposing nations, than two arms of a…
30.08.2012

Apparently the Iraqi army and the Iraqi Kurdish military were only one command away from armed conflict in recent weeks. According to statements made by some officials in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, weapons were ready to be fired in the tense Iraqi-Syria border areas.

The tensions arose after July 27, when the Iraqi government ordered Iraqi army brigades to deploy in areas normally under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish troops, known as the Peshmerga, on the borders between Iraq and Syria, and more specifically in the Zamar area in the state of Ninawa. The reason: to protect border areas. However the Peshmerga did not allow the Iraqi army to complete its mission.

This was because Iraqi troops were sent into these areas without, according to the commander of Peshmerga, prior arrangement. The areas, around the city of Dohuk and, in particular, in the Zamar area, are part of what are known in Iraq as “disputed territories” – that is, where there is land that Iraqi Kurdistan says belongs to Iraqi Kurdistan but which Baghdad says belongs to Iraq.

At the time, locals fled and the two sets of troops faced off, apparently ready to fire upon one another. Since then though tensions have eased after meetings were held between the two forces. And in early August military leader and the official spokesman for the Peshmerga, Jabbar Yawar, confirmed that an agreement had been reached and that the majority of the points had been acted upon.

Yawar said that part of this plan allowed Iraqi military to remain in areas formerly under sole control of the Kurdish forces in order to assist in guarding the Syrian borders. However the agreement also stipulated that additional troops recently brought into the area should be withdrawn and that the main roads in the area be reopened. Finally, all of the forces in the area would be withdrawn once there was an end to the Syrian crisis in sight.

As a result, Erbil and Baghdad were able to defuse this security crisis; this was a positive step and ensured that the country did not slip down a further dangerous and slippery slope toward violence and conflict. But interestingly the terms of the agreement are more like the truce between the armies of two neighbouring nations, rather than the two different military organizations working for the same country.

It may even be fair to say that the two military forces act that way. In fact, some of their recent behaviour suggests that the Iraqi military and the Iraqi Kurdish military have been in a kind of arms race, with these kinds of tensions escalating for some time now.

The Iraqi Kurdish actually have – or perhaps, had - a lot to do with the Iraqi national army. After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iraqi army, once loyal only to former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, was dissolved. When it was seen as necessary to re-establish the Iraqi army, this was done by both Arab and Iraqi Kurdish officers. Notable among these was Babaker Shawkat Zebari, who remains the current Chief of Staff of the Iraqi army – although some critics have dismissed Zebari’s role as that of a figurehead, rather than any genuine Iraqi Kurdish input in the national armed forces.

The most recent round of wrangling between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan began in 2007. Baghdad insisted that the number of Peshmerga forces be reduced to 30,000. However the Iraqi Kurdish insisted it needed to be raised to 75,000 because of the mountainous and tricky terrain on the Iraqi Kurdish, international borders.

According to the media in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Peshmerga troops on the payroll currently number around 100,000. There are also 90,000 retired soldiers who also receive pensions. It had been agreed that some of the Peshmerga should be annexed to the Iraqi army in order to reduce that figure to 75,000. However this is still far from the desired figure of around 30,000 troops. Baghdad has also refused to allocate any further funding for the Peshmerga and has also insisted on the closure of two military academies in Iraqi Kurdistan.

As for actual hardware, the Iraqi Kurdish have bought over 20 Apache helicopters from the US while Baghdad has plans to purchase F16 fighter planes from the US, due to be delivered there in 2014.

Meanwhile Baghdad continues to say that any kind of “army” in Iraqi Kurdistan, that is specifically at the service of Iraqi Kurdistan, would be “unconstitutional”.