Five days of interviews with Kurdish leaders and troops in the region suggest that U.S. plans to bring unity to Iraq before withdrawing American troops by training and equipping a national army aren't gaining traction. Instead, some troops that are formally under U.S. and Iraqi national command are preparing to protect territory and ethnic and religious interests in the event of Iraq's fragmentation, which many of them think is inevitable.
The soldiers said that while they wore Iraqi army uniforms they still considered themselves members of the Peshmerga -- the Kurdish militia -- and were awaiting orders from Kurdish leaders to break ranks. Many said they wouldn't hesitate to kill their Iraqi army comrades, especially Arabs, if a fight for an independent Kurdistan erupted.
"It doesn't matter if we have to fight the Arabs in our own battalion," said Gabriel Mohammed, a Kurdish soldier in the Iraqi army who was escorting a Knight Ridder reporter through Kirkuk. "Kirkuk will be ours."
The Kurds have readied their troops not only because they have long yearned to establish an independent state, but also because their leaders expect Iraq to disintegrate, senior leaders in the Peshmerga told Knight Ridder.
The Kurds are mostly secular Sunni Muslims and belong to two distinct ethnic groups that date their animosity to the seventh century. Their members predominantly share a belief in Islam but speak different languages, trace their origins to different geographic locations and have different customs.
Kurds have inhabited northeastern Iraq, northwestern Iran and parts of present-day Turkey, Syria and Armenia for centuries. They lived largely autonomously until the seventh century, when Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula conquered them. The Kurds maintained their separate identity, however, despite subsequent conquests by Mongols in the 13th to 15th centuries and by the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.
The Kurdish strategy mirrors that of Shiite Muslim parties in southern Iraq, which have stocked Iraqi army and police units with members of their own militias and have maintained a separate militia presence throughout Iraq's central and southern provinces.
The militias now are illegal under Iraqi law but operate openly in many areas. Peshmerga leaders said in interviews that they expected the Shiites to create a semi-autonomous and then independent state in the south, as they would do in the north.
The Bush administration -- and Iraq's neighbors -- oppose the nation's fragmentation, fearing that it could lead to regional collapse. To keep Iraq together, the United States plans to withdraw significant numbers of American troops in 2006 will depend on turning U.S.-trained Kurdish and Shiite militiamen into a national army.
The interviews with Kurdish troops, however, suggested that as the American military transfers more bases and areas of control to Iraqi units, it may be handing the nation to militias that are bent more on advancing ethnic and religious interests than on defeating the insurgency and preserving national unity.