MESOP EDITORIAL : Is the Peshmerga a challenge to the Iraqi army?

VAN WILGENBURG BLOG – 25-11-2012 – The Kurdish Armed Forces (KAF) are presented as a threat to the stability in Iraq by a recent Reuters report. According to Qubad Talabani, son of the Iraqi president, and the KRG representative to the U.S., the report includes: ‘More like gross factual errors, including the failure to mention decades of ethnic cleansing of Kurds from Kirkuk’.

A senior Iraqi defence official told Reuters that the Kurdish Regional Border Guard (Peshmerga) present a formidable challenge to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). It’s true the Kurdish parties control the security inside Kirkuk city, but it’s doubtful the Peshmerga can stand up to the ISF in the future.

    “They were sending a message to the central government, saying ‘we can enter Kirkuk any time and you cannot stop us,'” a senior Iraqi Defense Ministry official told Reuters.

    The official said the KRG would not invade Kirkuk after the U.S. leaves but would seek to displace Arabs. He said the Kurd population had soared from 150,000 to 350,000 since 2003.

    The peshmerga, however, represent a formidable challenge to the Iraqi army. The Kurds have 100,000 troops, better weaponry and experienced leaders, the official said.  “After 2003, they captured the former Iraqi army tanks. About 4,000 tanks left by the former Iraqi army in the streets and cities disappeared, and our investigations indicate that the Kurds have most of them and Iran got the rest,” he said.  The peshmerga deployment served notice that without the neutral buffer of U.S. forces, the Kurdish region might “feel compelled to use military muscle to defend its interests,” said Wayne White, an analyst with the Middle East Institute – Reuters

According to a RAND report released in 2010 the Iraqi army can contain the Peshmerga forces in 2010 and can contain and defeat them in 2015. RAND notes:

    Kurds could use the Peshmerga to try to secure what they see as their rightful and self-sufficient Kurdistan, or if they feel isolated by the GoI and threatened by the ISF. This is what happened on 25 February, when the Iraqi Kurdish parties allegedly felt threatened by Arab political parties or insurgents inside Kirkuk. Other analysts and Iraqi politicians suggest Kurdish parties used unrest in Kirkuk to deflect attention away from the Suleymaniyah protests (against the ruling Kurdish parties) and to unite the Kurds inside the Kurdistan region against a threat from ‘former Baathists’ or ‘chauvinists’.

But the RAND report also notes that:

    The ISF should soon be able to keep the Peshmerga from seizing contested territory by force, with the possible exception of areas where Kurds are in the majority and could facilitate Peshmerga operations. The ISF will be unable to defeat the Peshmerga on Kurdish soil for years to come.

USIP’s Sean Kane adds that:

    For their part, Kurds believe that, having built, trained, and armed Iraq’s now 650,000-person security forces while failing to resolve the issue of the disputed territories politically, the United States has laid the groundwork for resurgent Baghdad to forcefully roll back hard-won Kurdish autonomy after the scheduled 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal. Kurdish officials are particularly concerned that the Iraqi army’s purchase of 140 M1 Abrams tanks and armed scout helicopters, as well as requests to purchase 18 F-16s and 24 Boeing AH-6 Apache helicopter gunships, could tip the political-military balance of power between Baghdad and Erbil. They argue that the peshmerga—the Kurdish regional guard—should be given a share of the heavy weaponry being purchased.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki announced Saturday that Iraq plans to buy 36 U.S. fighter jets, signaling his intent to seek a long-term American military training presence in the country. This shows that in the future the ISF will be much stronger than the Kurdish Armed Forces (KAF).

Iraqi Security Forces

The ISF (650,000) consist of the army, air force, and navy (under the MoD) and the IPS, FP, border police, and FPS (under the MoI). Furthermore there are the irregular Sahwa forces (Sunni defence militias) payed by Baghdad. The Counterterrorism Bureau (CTB) reports directly to the prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Furthermore Maliki controls now both the ministries of Defense, Interior and National Security as a result of disagreements about which political party should control them. Members of the Iraqiyya list like Maysoun Al Damlouji and Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi accused Maliki of monopolizing the security forces. The Iraqi army have T-72 tanks, a small airforce, artillery, etc. In the future they will have 140 M1 Abrams tanks and armed scout helicopters, F-16s and Boeing AH-6 Apaches (Sources: RAND/ICG 2011/Aswat al-Iraq/USIP).

Kurdish Security Forces

The Kurds control around 75,000 to 100,000 Peshmerga forces. There are also Kurdish security forces inside the Iraqi army, counter terrorist units and police. Officially the General Command of [Kurdistan] Region’s Protection Forces include Kurdistan peshmergas, police and Asayish that were established according to an order from the Region’s presidency in January 2007. The Kurdish security forces are divided by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] and the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP]. The KDP controls the gendarmerie-like paramilitary forces of the Zerevani (23,000 forces), an intelligence agency called Azhansi Parastni Asaishi Haremi Kurdistan (Kurdistan region security protection agency), and the Hezakani Asaishi Parti. While the PUK controls Hezakani Asaishi Yaketi and their intelligence agency, Dazgay Zanyari. Futhermore the PUK have it’s own Counterterrorist Group headed by Lahur Talabani. The Peshmerga forces have artillery, anti-tank units, infantry forces with old tanks (mostly T55s which are non-operational), but no operational air forces apart from some choppers (Sources: Jamestown, ICG, Livin magazine, book by Chapman about Peshmerga forces).