MOSUL, Iraq — Combined Security Units in northern Iraq were set up earlier this year to try to bring Iraqis together.
But in some cases the units are showing just how far apart the country’s communities really are, and how the north could be the next setting for civil conflict, or even war, in Iraq.
Called the “Golden Lions,” the joint force manning the 26 checkpoints and conducting patrols bring Iraqi police and army and Kurdish peshmerga together under American oversight in areas where the three Iraqi security forces used to face off.
In the wake of a dust-up between the Sunni Arab governor of Ninewa Province and the Kurdistan regional government, one of the governor’s aides, Salah Abbas, was shot in the chest at Checkpoint 3, northeast of Mosul, on the day of Iraq’s parliamentary elections, March 7.
The incident occurred after a scuffle between Abbas’ Iraqi police escort and the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga.
“They came through checkpoint without badges,” said Peshmerga 1st Lt. Aziz Khan Mahmood and Iraqi Army Warrant Officer Abd Khahar Noha at the checkpoint a few days later. “They disrespected us, and the civilian [Abbas] pulled a pistol. The peshmerga and Iraqi army worked against the Iraqi police to defend ourselves. “
It’s important to note that both Mahmood and Noha are Kurds. Abbas is a Sunni Arab.
Ninewa Province is the most violent of the four provinces in northern Iraq that are included in the DIBS, short for Disputed Internal Boundaries. Perhaps more appropriately, the International Crisis Group calls the rough east-to-west line of disputed areas the “trigger line.”
On one side of the line are Iraqi Kurds, on the other side mostly Iraqi Sunni Arabs. Because of ethnic cleansing under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Kurds were moved out of some areas and Arabs were moved in. Since the fall of Saddam, Kurds have moved back. Now, Arabs and Kurds lay claim to the same territory and the rich oil deposits that lie underneath.
Atheel al-Nejeifi , the Sunni Arab governor of Ninewa, detests the fact that some of his province is considered off-limits because it’s occupied by Kurdish peshmerga. He told Azzaman newspaper in January that Ninewa should not relinquish “an inch of land” to Iraqi Kurds. The peshmerga pushed into the areas, south of their autonomous region in the north, and established their checkpoints during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Baghdad-controlled Iraqi army troops have nearly gone to war with the Kurdish peshmerga during the last two years on several occasions, according to U.S. military and embassy officials. Kurds don’t allow the Iraqi army into areas they control. They’re not allowed to cross certain boundaries in northern Iraq, south of Kurdistan. Arabs who live north of the line resent going through Kurdish checkpoints.
“There are some problems from Arab people at the checkpoint,” said Lt. Amin Rashid Daher, a peshmerga officer at Checkpoint 4. “They try to go through without stopping. The Arab drivers make it complicated, so we get the Americans to mediate because we don’t want a problem. They are not Arab or Kurd so they can solve the issue easily.”
Honest brokers is how the Americans want to present themselves in this low-level conflict that threatens to explode into civil war should either side make any aggressive maneuvers to change the status quo.
“The point is to allow them to come together to form relationships,” said Lt. Col. Richard Coffman, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1-64 Armor, the unit tasked with overseeing several checkpoints around Mosul.
But the combined security patrols and checkpoints are also controversial. Arabs say they legitimize the presence of the peshmerga security force in areas where Arabs say they shouldn’t be.
In the city of multi-ethnic, oil rich and contested city of Kirkuk during the elections, American-led combined security patrols were used for the first time inside the city to calm tensions between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. But right after the elections ended, the U.S. and Iraqi commanders in charge of the operation decided the combined patrols were rubbing members of all communities the wrong way.
“They just don’t want to upset anybody or anyone with the balance,” said Capt. Nick Loudon of the 1-30th Battalion’s Alpha Company, the unit responsible for the combined security units in Kirkuk. “So the Kurds don’t want to see Iraqi army, none of Arabs want to see peshmerga. So until everybody starts viewing this as a separate unbiased force, we’re probably gonna stay away from city as much as possible.”
On a patrol with a joint security unit, the Iraqi police and army and American soldiers worked with the peshmerga to patrol in Arab and Kurdish towns outside Kirkuk.
“Most of the time we get positive feedback from people in villages that they’re pleased to see all three forces working together,” said platoon leader Lt. Ben Robinson. All the soldiers and police officers eat, sleep and work on the same American base on the outskirts of Kirkuk. Loudon says team-building excercises helped bring them together.
But just how difficult the task ahead is in northern Iraq was evident on the joint patrol in Kirkuk. Lt. Robinson’s mission was to talk to the local mayor of one village about American aid projects. But the village was split into two — one side Turkman and the other side Kurdish. The Turkmen side had one mayor, the Kurdish side two — one for each of the major Kurdish political parties. On the way back to the unit’s base, an Iraqi policeman who didn’t want his name used explained the fault lines in northern Iraq.
“The people in the village, they work together, know each other, they get along,” he said. “But when the election comes, they vote along ethnic lines. People are voting along ethnic lines because they want someone from their ethnicity to represent them in parliament in Baghdad. People vote for someone from same tribe, same ethnicity, hoping that they will do something for him.”
Those ethnic divisions are all too visible at some of the checkpoints as well. At Checkpoint 4 outside Mosul, a peshmerga flag flew above a small peshmerga checkpoint adjacent to the combined security checkpoint. Despite a ban on all flags at the combined checkpoints, the Americans were powerless to take the flag down. It made the combined checkpoint appear as if it too was part of the peshmerga position — and negating the whole point of the joint security checkpoints to present a neutral, unified face to local people traveling through them.
American officials have made it clear that the northern disputed boundaries remain a tinderbox of possible conflict. One U.S. diplomat said that leaving the disputed areas unresolved would be a “prescription for future instability" and a "very important piece of unfinished business that needs to be finished here.”
U.S. commanders hope to draw down U.S. forces in northern Iraq from 22,000 to 9,000 this fall. U.S. military officials and diplomats hope the remaining troops will give the U.S., the U.N., the Baghdad government and the Kurdistan government some breathing room to hammer out an agreement over the status of northern Iraq.