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It’s Complicated:
A Common Enemy Unites Iraqi Forces – But What Happens When That’s Gone?

Histyar Qader
The Iraqi army and the Iraqi Kurdish military are fighting the Islamic State together. But how long can this honeymoon period last?
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with Iraqi Kurdish commanders this month. (Source: Govt. pages) (photo: صفحة العبادي على الفيسبوك)
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with Iraqi Kurdish commanders this month. (Source: Govt. pages) (photo: صفحة العبادي على الفيسبوك)

When the military operation to try and push the extremist group known as the Islamic State out of Mosul began, Iraq’ s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, released a statement. It spoke about how the regular Iraqi army would be working together with the Iraqi Kurdish military, normally headquartered in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, to achieve aims in Mosul.

“It is the first time that federal forces fight with the Peshmerga [as the Kurdish military are known] in 25 years,” the politician’s statement said.

And according to most accounts, it’s going swimmingly. “Compared to areas where the Iraqi army is fighting alone, in the areas where we have had cooperation between the army and the Iraqi Kurdish military, the troops have been more successful in advancing on Mosul,” boasted Saman Talabani, the Iraqi Kurdish colonel tasked with coordinating the two forces. “We have a number of tasks assigned to each force and we support one another on the battlefield. We always tell the other when we are going to attack.”

91st regiment: We consider ourselves part of the Iraqi army and we take our orders from the army.

“In fact this kind of cooperation has inspired the men from both forces,” Talabani told NIQASH. “The IS group was not expecting this.”

The Iraqi army and the Iraqi Kurdish military coordinate in three main places, in the Khazar area, around the Mosul dam and in the Makhmour area. Where the two forces fight alongside one another, the Iraqi army soldiers have even been able to enter battle fronts from terrain normally controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish military. Usually Iraqi army troops would not be allowed into these areas – at the very least it would have had serious political ramifications as the Iraqi Kurdish guard their areas of influence closely.

That is because the history between the two is bloodstained – the Iraqi Kurdish military used to fight the Iraqi army as the country’s Kurdish minority struggled for rights and their own land. And there have also been conflicts over the past few years, over control of certain territory, especially around the city of Kirkuk.

There is even a mostly-Kurdish regiment, part of the Iraqi army’s 15th brigade, that has been fighting in the Makhmour area. The 2,500-strong unit used to be called the Erbil regiment, because that’s where most of the soldiers are from. Now it is regiment 91. It is thought to be the first time that a military unit where the majority of the soldiers are Kurdish, participates in battle under the supervision of the Iraqi federal government.

“We consider ourselves part of the Iraqi army and we take our orders from the army,” says Amin Shikhani, the spokesperson for the regiment. “Since the fighting for Mosul started, around 40 of our men have been killed.”

“The Peshmerga have achieved some very important victories together with the Iraqi army,” Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul, the spokesperson for the Iraqi forces, told NIQASH, confirming that this kind of cooperation had not happened in 25 years. “Now the blood of the two forces has mixed together. This is a very strong message: Iraqis are united.”

Before the fight for Mosul started in October there had been an agreement between the two forces as to which areas the Iraqi Kurdish military would be fighting in and where they would stop. Obviously the issue of the country’s disputed territories – that is, land that the Baghdad says belongs to Iraqi proper but which the Kurdish claim belongs to their region – remain hot topics. The Iraqi Kurdish military have now taken control of some of those areas. What happens in the future will need to be negotiated.

“That is why it is important that coordination and communication continues after the IS group have been pushed out of Mosul,” Rasoul says.

The coordination is managed in a joint operations room and there is another centre of operations in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil.

This coordination should continue, says Ahmad al-Sharifi, a political scientist and security strategist. “The former regime [under Saddam Hussein] ruined the country’s social structure,” he argues, saying this togetherness is only happening because the troops are far from political interference.

Whether this show of unity can continue is another question altogether. The relationship is complicated. There’s no guarantee that objectives might change and the two might be forced to face off against one another. Additionally the Iraqi government is not paying the salaries of the Iraqi Kurdish soldiers, the Iraqi Kurdish authorities are – but they get their money from Baghdad, part of the federal budget, and it has not necessarily always arrived on time, if at all. This is, the Kurdish complain, despite the fact that the Kurdish soldiers are part of the country’s fighting forces. So divided loyalties may return when the common enemy is vanquished.

As Talabani cautioned, somewhat ominously: “Those who act as friends will be treated as friends [by the Kurdish soldiers]. But if something unexpected happens, we are ready to respond to that too.” 

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