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divided we stand
the kurdish deserters and the iraqi army’s ‘militia mentality’

Shalaw Mohammed
Hundreds of Kurdish soldiers recently deserted from the Iraqi army. Were they responding to government injustice - or getting on side with others of their own ethnicity? And what does this mean for the Iraqi army?…
4.07.2013  |  Kirkuk
An Iraqi Kurdish flag flies atop a tank in Kirkuk. Pic: Getty
An Iraqi Kurdish flag flies atop a tank in Kirkuk. Pic: Getty

The hundreds of Iraqi Kurdish soldiers who deserted the Iraqi army recently indicate once again the depth of ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq’s armed forces. According to information obtained by NIQASH, dozens of Iraqi Kurdish soldiers deserted when the Iraqi Ministry of Defence ordered members of the Iraqi army’s 16th Brigade and 12 Iraqi Kurdish officers to move from the disputed town of Tuz Khormato in the Salahaddin province – currently declared a disaster zone after multiple bomb blasts - to other duties a little further south, and mostly to the town of Sulaiman Bek, where Sunni-Arab protestors had become violent; in fact, gunmen took control of the town for several days.

“Our mission is to serve in the disputed areas,” Captain Recot Mohammed, the spokesperson for the 16th Brigade, told NIQASH. “So when we were given the order to move from Tuz Khormato without any apparent justification, we threatened to desert.”

And it’s not just the Iraqi Kurdish who have problems with these kinds of orders. “There are signs that the Iraqi army can no longer cope with a crisis in which it is confronting large fractions of the Iraqi population,” wrote a European peace-activist think tank with a special focus on Iraq, the Brussels Tribunal, in a roundup of events after anti-government protestors were killed by the Iraqi army earlier this year. “Many soldiers prefer to desert the army rather than shoot at protesters. Most deserters are Sunni, but some are Shia who don’t want to fight in strange places for something they don’t believe in.”

The recent history of the Iraqi army involves plenty of sectarian and ethnic tension. At one stage during the reign of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the army here was one million strong and the fourth largest army in the world, according to some sources. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq by US-led forces, the standing Iraqi army was dismantled and a new army formed. The new army was composed of 17 brigades, each with four divisions. Attempts were made to form brigades across ethnic and sectarian divides. Additionally military service became voluntary.

However many say the current formation of the army doesn’t allow it be independent. Because they suggest, the various political forces in charge were only interested in increasing numbers of their own followers within the military. Military staff became more loyal to their political leaders than to the military itself. And the recent round of anti-government protests, which seemed to reach a peak when hundreds of protestors were attacked by Iraqi military in Hawija, also reflected this. Soldiers deserted rather than fire on protestors. Some were Sunni Muslim, the same sect as man of the protestors. But many were not – and included the Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite Muslims.

This was not the first time that Kurdish soldiers have deserted the Iraqi army for these kinds of reasons. The controversial Tigris Operations Command in Kirkuk issued arrest warrants for around 200 Kurdish soldiers and officers earlier this year because they refused to follow orders. The men, members of the 12th Brigade in Kirkuk and the 5th Brigade in Diyala which were supposed to form the Tigris Operations Command, deserted when their ranks were changed and they were ordered to deploy to other areas, including Baghdad and Basra. Instead they went back to the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

“General Abdul Amir al-Zaydi [who commands the Tigris force] issued an arrest warrant because we refused to be transferred to Iraq’s southern forces,” one of the officers from the 12th Brigade who deserted and who now lives in Sulaymaniyah, told NIQASH.

“Every year there’s a huge budget allocated to the Ministries of Defence, the Interior and the intelligence services,” Kurdish MP Shwan Mohammed Taha says. “But no united Iraqi national force exists. And that’s because of the Prime Minister [Nouri al-Maliki] who did not deal with officers and soldiers who are not part of his sect correctly.”

The army has not been able to overcome the “militias mentality”, many analysts say. “The Iraqi army is riven by sectarian differences,” Hakim Hamdi Kuli, a legal expert and former judge, told NIQASH. “It has not been able to become a regular army and there is always a concern when using the army in internal conflicts.”

“I believe that the Iraqi army needs an independent and professional commander who deals with the army based on military rules and who won’t tolerate any kind of mutiny on ethnic or sectarian basis,” Kuli concludes. “And that commander should also have the right to issue warrants and to hold officers and soldiers who mutiny accountable. Military men don’t have the right to turn against their own army.”