In Twist Of History, Kurds Patrol Baghdad

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
April 24, 2007
By Edward Wong
BAGHDAD, April 23 — The Shiite mother and her son opened their door for the soldiers on night patrol.
In walked the Americans, each brandishing an M-16 assault rifle. Next came the men wearing tan uniforms and carrying Kalashnikovs. They spoke Arabic with accents as thick as crude oil.
“Are there problems in the neighborhood?” said their leader, Capt. Sardar Hamasala. “We’re here for your safety. Let us know if there are sectarian problems or other kinds of problems — Sunnis threatening Shia, Shia threatening Sunnis.”
The black-robed mother and her son said they were glad to see the soldiers, and shook their hands before the men stepped back into the cool night air of western Baghdad.
“There was a time when we couldn’t go from house to house like this among the Arabs just because we’re Kurds,” Captain Hamasala said. “Now we’re trying to make things easier for them. We’re proud of that.”
Kurdish soldiers from the rugged north are the latest armed group to be introduced into Baghdad’s boiling sectarian stew. Like the Americans, they are a slender peacekeeping force standing between the warring Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs in a city of more than six million. American commanders consider them a critical part of the new Baghdad security plan because of their fighting prowess and neutrality in the conflict between the Arab sects. About 2,100 have been brought into the capital in recent months.
The deployment of Kurdish forces carries risks. Some Kurdish politicians have criticized sending Kurds to Baghdad for fear their presence will exacerbate tensions between Kurds and Arabs. Many Kurds also harbor intense hostility toward Arabs because of decades of violence in Iraq between the two ethnicities, so there is the chance that Kurdish soldiers could treat Arabs harshly.
But so far, American officers working with the Kurds have praised their professionalism, and several Arab families in neighborhoods patrolled by Kurds said in interviews that they hoped the Kurds would help stem the sectarian violence.
This is possibly the first time since the days of Saladin, the revered 12th-century Kurdish warrior-king, that Kurdish forces have been given the task of controlling swaths of Baghdad. They have been ordered to secure the streets for their historic enemies, the Arabs.
The Kurds have complicated attitudes toward their mission. “God sent Muhammad as a prophet to these people, and he couldn’t solve their problems,” Captain Hamasala said. “How are we supposed to help them?”
He later added: “Here, they still talk about what happened 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. That’s the way the Arabs think.”
There have already been some clashes between the Kurds and Arab militants. The captain’s unit and American soldiers came under withering gunfire one night when they went into two mosques to detain hundreds of men and boys. Another Kurdish unit battled members of the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite militia, at a checkpoint in western Baghdad this month, leaving one civilian dead and one wounded. That unit has been trying to secure several blocks in the Amel neighborhood to encourage displaced Sunni Arab families to return.
Some of the Kurds here — as well as their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers — fought for independence from Arab Iraq as militiamen called pesh merga, or “those who face death.”
Saddam Hussein retaliated, killing at least 80,000 Kurds and razing villages in the so-called Anfal campaign in 1988. But the Kurds won autonomy after the American military set up a no-flight zone over Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991 to prevent incursions by the Iraqi Army.
“I’m proud of being an officer in an army that just years ago was killing my people and torturing my family,” said Lt. Karwan Abdul Hadi as he led a night patrol on a hunt for a suspected Shiite militant. “It’s very important to make the point that we’re not like the Arabs. We don’t look for revenge. We don’t have a black heart.”
The lieutenant noted that the Kurdish militias fought their own civil war from 1993 to 1998, a conflict that left thousands dead.
“But it wasn’t like this,” he said.
The lieutenant’s superior, Captain Hamasala, 30, commands the headquarters company of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade of the 4th Iraqi Army Division, the first Kurdish unit to enter Baghdad as part of the buildup to the new security plan. The company lives on an old air base in the Ali Salah neighborhood of western Baghdad. Arab soldiers from another division sleep in nearby barracks, as do American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne.
The Kurds go out on patrol with the Americans and shun the Arabs.
“The Americans are our friends in Iraq, not the Arabs,” Captain Hamasala said as he and 10 other Kurds left the base one night with an American foot patrol.
Another officer, Lt. Serwan Dawa Rashid, said one afternoon at a traffic checkpoint: “I consider the relationship between us and the United States to be like that between Tel Aviv and the U.S.”
The Kurds moved into the area in January. The Americans came a few weeks later. They oversee the neighborhoods of Ali Salah, Salaam and Topchi, which are dominated by Shiite militiamen who have evicted dozens of Sunni Arab families. The most challenging task is to keep the militias from running off the few remaining Sunni Arab households.
Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but generally have little religious zeal. They drink hard and dance harder and rarely pray five times a day.
Arabs see them as a neutral force, the Americans say.
“The reason why people are willing to trust the 1-3-4 is because they’re Kurdish,” said Capt. Benjamin Morales, 28, commander of Company B of the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, the partner unit of Captain Hamasala’s company. “They don’t care about Sunni or Shia.”
There is little doubt as to where the loyalties of the Kurds lie. The company is from eastern Kurdistan, which has been ruled for decades by the party of Jalal Talabani, now the president of Iraq. Each room in the Kurdish barracks has a poster of Mr. Talabani’s roly-poly face.
Every Iraqi Army unit brought into Baghdad for the security plan is expected to remain here for three months. Captain Hamasala said he was not keen to be here, far from the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.
But orders are orders.
When word came of the deployment, “our families were shocked,” the captain said. “They call us every day, and we lie to them. We tell them we stay inside the base. One day, my mother called when we were out on patrol in a market. There were cars, people, noise in the background. I wanted to end the call. I knew she’d suspect something was up.”
The American officer who serves as a liaison to Captain Hamasala’s company said the Kurds had never turned down a mission.
“They’re the best soldiers I’ve worked with on the Iraqi Army side in three deployments in Iraq,” said the officer, Capt. Ross Kinkead.
Some of those they have come to protect have begun to place their trust in the Kurds, despite their historic differences.
One afternoon, the Kurds responded to a distress call from a widowed Sunni Arab woman, Suaada Saadoun, whose family was being harassed by Shiite men trying to evict her.
“Having Kurds here is a good thing,” said Qais Nasser, 52, a Sunni Arab ex-policeman living across the street. “But a more important thing is for it to continue. We don’t want them to be here for just a few months, then leave when things get quiet.”
Even if the Kurds stay, there are no guarantees. Ms. Saadoun was shot dead the next morning while walking in the local market, just a few blocks from a Kurdish checkpoint.
Warzer Jaff contributed reporting.