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The Peshmerga
Militia or Regular Army?

Dana Asaad
The journey of the Peshmerga, who began life as a rebel group pursued through mountain hills before emerging today as legitimate troops with full authority over the northern cities of Iraq, raises a number of…
21.05.2008  |  Erbil

The question raising most debate among political factions is whether the Peshmerga should be considered ‘government troops,’ carrying the legitimacy of the state, or a ‘militia’ that should abide by the provisions of the constitution prohibiting the existence of any armed institutions that do not fall within the framework of the Iraqi state.

Officially founded in the 1960s, Peshmerga forces have existed more loosely since the early 1920s, representing the military wing of Kurdish political parties under various names.

Following the 1991 uprising, and with the withdrawal of Iraqi forces, the Peshmerga gained control of Kurdistan. And despite the emergence of multiple armed groups across Iraq following the collapse of the one-party system in April 2003, the Peshmerga occupy a special status. Today it enjoys a legal legitimacy within the Kurdistan region, and with the completion of legal procedures in Baghdad it could become a regular army with approximately 100,000 Kurdish fighters, in addition to 90,000 former fighters.

Nobody knows for sure the areas that are under the control of the Peshmerga. In addition to Kurdistan, Peshmerga forces are deployed in all administratively disputed areas, such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and parts of Ninawah province (such as Makhmour, Sheikhan and Sinjar), and several areas in Diyala province. They also maintain a public presence in many key security institutions in the capital city of Baghdad including the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior.

But today this influence is provoking a reconsideration of the role of the Peshmerga.

In May 2008 deputies in Mosul warned against a Peshmerga presence in certain areas of Mosul city. They claimed that Peshmerga troops represent regular forces only within the Kurdistan region and that beyond these borders it is a militia that should be dissolved as people "do not want it to be present.” This opinion seems logical to many political parties, including the Sadrist stream, which demanded the dissolution of the Peshmerga in return for accepting the dissolution of the Mahdi Army.

Kurdish leaders believe that the Peshmerga "cannot be compared to other militias that have emerged after 2003," says Jabbar Yawar, spokesman for the Peshmerga border guards.

Kurdish leaders argue that order 91 issued in 2004 by Paul Bremer, the American civil governor of Iraq, regarding the dissolution of militias did not contain provisions for the dissolution of the Peshmerga because it is a regular force. This argument was further strengthened when the Iraqi parliament approved budgets in 2007 and 2008 that included special provisions for the Peshmerga.

The Peshmerga now possesses many strong elements and it is clear that the experiences accumulated over the years have protected it from being marginalized or dissolved. These experiences have contributed to establishing the Peshmerga as an important element in maintaining the stability of Iraq. During the 2003 U.S. military operations in Iraq, Peshmerga forces were the strongest allies of U.S. forces, effectively supporting them until the fall of the former regime. When the Peshmerga was transformed into the regular army of Kurdistan Regional Government, it became known as the “Regions Borders Guards” with security tasks inside and outside the region. It does not seem that the U. S, at least at this phase, would risk losing the Peshmerga influence in Iraq to meet the demands of more mistrusted forces.

The Kurds themselves, despite their many reservations on the ‘Peshmerga Ministry’ do not believe that there is a better alternative to these forces which have brought security to their region. It is true that different Peshmerga forces fought bloody battles against each other in the 1990s as a result of the political conflict between the two major Kurdish political parties. Yet Kurdistan has to date been unable to find an alternative formula to safeguard regional security. From time to time voices criticize the ‘Peshmerga Ministry’ because it suffers from multiple loyalties to the two major two parties and because the process of integrating the factions is not yet a reality. Nevertheless, this criticism remains contained within the limits of the central role the Peshmerga play in maintaining regional security.

Dissolving the Peshmerga forces is not among the political issues under discussion by the Iraqi government or the Kurds despite the demands made by other militias that they be treated in a similar manner to the Kurdish troops. Topics currently negotiated during frequent meetings between the Iraqi government headed by Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish leaders, focus not on the existence of the Peshmerga forces but rather on the number of these forces that should receive financial assistance from the central state budget. Kurdish leaders say that the number of troops is 190,000 fighters, while al-Maliki’s government says that the number is exaggerated. In light of political deals Iraqi leaders have become accustomed to concluding, observers say the two parties believe the point is only a minor detail that will be easily overcome to reach a suitable solution.