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The New York Times
December 19, 2002
Kurdish Fighters Don't Expect Call From U.S.
By C. J. CHIVERS
ALAK, Iraq, Dec. 16 — Many of the limitations of Kurdish opposition to Saddam Hussein were on display today in a lonely picket manned by Borhan Chato, a would-be guerrilla adjusting to life as a conventional soldier.
Mr. Chato occupied the last Kurdish position on front lines separating Mr. Hussein's Iraq from the independent Kurdish zone in the country's north. He was supposed to be with five other soldiers, but they had all gone home for lunch, leaving him alone to face platoons of Iraqi soldiers on the ridge overhead.
He had a rifle and five rusting magazines holding 150 cartridges. He had no helmet, no first-aid kit and no radio. His cartridge belt was stolen Iraqi equipment, bearing the distinctive eagle insignia of a nation he is sworn to fight. His mission, should he sense suspicious Iraqi movements, was to telephone his headquarters, a 30-minute drive away, to report something was amiss.
The Kurdish military is made of men like Mr. Chato, 21, who call themselves pesh merga, meaning "those who face death." Though they live off their lore as guerrillas who carried on the Kurdish struggle during decades when no one else could, their transition to standing army since the Kurds gained quasi-independence in 1991 has been difficult. They are hardly a modern force.
Now they approach a moment of reckoning. The pesh merga wonder: If war comes to Iraq, will they be called to fight with American soldiers, like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan?
Increasingly, Kurds are answering their own question. Their answer is no.
Perhaps, America will sponsor a proxy force, but with weapons inspections continuing to the south, it is too soon to tell. There is no doubt that the pesh merga are willing to fight. But when they look at their meager equipment and ammunition, and describe what they sense as a lack of American interest in a military courtship, these storied resistance fighters have begun talking about war in another way: as bystanders trying to divine a superpower's intent, and then carving out some independent supporting role. Talk of seizing cities has all but ceased.
"If America attacks Iraq, they will not need our help, because we are not so strong," said Hamid Afandi, minister of pesh merga for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the western part of the Kurdish zone.
Fairadoon Abdulkader, minister of the interior in an eastern zone controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, was equally blunt. "America does not want our help," he said. "It will be a technological war."
Political power in the Kurdish zone largely rests with the two parties. Each claims a full-time army of roughly 25,000 fighters, and a reserve unit of the same size.
The armies are a source of regional pride. It has been a feat to assemble them directly under the nose of Mr. Hussein and in a land squeezed by sanctions. But mere numbers, even if not exaggerated, are deceptive. Kurds know that they lack the weapons, ammunition and training to be an offensive threat.
It is an assessment shared by the West. In the limited comment to date about Kurdish military strength, American experts have been dismissive.
"Kurds can be effective mountain fighters in small, defensive engagements, but they so far have only developed symbolic military capabilities," Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July. "Now and indefinitely into the future, Iraqi military forces could rapidly re-enter the Kurdish security zone and defeat the Kurdish factions in settled areas in a matter of days."
There are many reasons for this vulnerability.
Problems begin with recruiting. In a region of about 4 million people, fit young volunteers are hard to find. On Saturday, six platoons of recruits underwent drills at an indoctrination camp on a mountain plateau at Raniya. They ranged from boys who had not yet shaved to men in the advanced grip of gray hair.
When calisthenics began after a 10-minute jog, one man appeared old enough to be nearing infirmity. He could hardly swing his arms.
This is only the beginning. Among veteran pesh merga, some of them hardened by multiple campaigns, the ranks are bedeviled by logistics, and fighters are under-equipped.
Kurdish units have rifles, light machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Only a few have heavy machine guns, and Kurdish officials say that for 50,000 troops there are only three aged tanks, a half-dozen armored vehicles and a small collection of multiple rocket launchers and artillery pieces. They have no airplanes or helicopters, only a handful of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and poor communications gear.
"We don't have much equipment," said Azad Miran, director of a military school of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. "All we have is people, and our high morale."
The pesh merga also have almost no ammunition reserves. Northern Iraq is essentially under double sanctions: first from the United Nations, which limits imports, but also from Syria, Turkey and Iran, all of which have their own uneasy Kurdish populations and worry over Kurdish military success in Iraq.
As a result, ammunition is almost impossible to obtain. Pesh merga munitions are either remnants of what was seized from Iraqi garrisons after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, or what they have bought from demoralized Iraqi soldiers or smugglers along the porous front. Kurds also complain that Turks have been putting pressure on Americans not to arm them, a worry confirmed by an American official.
"Basically, the Turks have been saying you can't trust the Kurds," the official said.
The ammunition shortage restricts training. In boot camp, each new pesh merga fires only 100 bullets, said Col. Muhammad Ali, commander of the Raniya camp. One hundred bullets is not nearly enough to train a competent marksman. It also limits combat operations. Pesh merga face Iraqi lines and simultaneously occupy a front near the Iranian border, a zone occupied by Ansar al-Islam, a Muslim group that has declared holy war against the secular Kurdish government.
"We do not have ammunition to fight two fronts," said Mamosta Hassan, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan general staff. This was made clear earlier this month, when Ansar militants overran two small hills as the pesh merga ran out of bullets. Kurdish officials say more than 70 pesh merga were killed.
That battle showed other limitations. A Kurdish official said the pesh merga had been warned of an impending assault but went to bed a little more than hour before Ansar attacked. It was a breakdown of discipline and a source of deep embarrassment, after Ansar posted Internet bulletins boasting of routing pesh merga and commandeering their equipment.
Such failures in leadership seem matched by lapses in planning. For instance, although the two parties say they can conduct joint operations, they have never held a joint training exercise and do not have a joint command staff. Moreover, members of many pesh merga units said they had stopped training for the year because it was too cold.
Another American official said the Kurds' political leadership had also been told to curb their military ambitions, especially plans for Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that ethnic Turkmen and Kurds alike claim. Earlier this fall, some Kurdish officers said publicly that they would capture Kirkuk. "We've basically said to them, this talk is not helpful," the official said.
All of these factors have pushed Kurds to talk of limited war aims. They still hope for direct American help against Ansar.
But as for fighting Iraq, Mr. Afandi, the minister of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, is pragmatic, and does not see his soldiers as an American proxy. He talks of deploying troops to the front in a war and then moving south slowly, to provide security in areas the Iraqi Army abandons. He said he would commit troops only if he sensed that the war was largely won and Mr. Hussein's ouster was certain.
Mustafa Said Kadir, deputy commander of forces of the Patriotic Union, said he knew that the Pentagon was massing troops and matériel in the region, but he has yet to meet an American soldier or official, and is now planning simple, independent assaults.
"If America wants to change the regime, and really will attack, we don't have any choice — we will make our own move," he said.
But even as he talks of offensive operations, he defines limits, saying he envisions his party's troops moving south, but on security missions or peacekeeping duty, and ultimately deferring to a new government in Baghdad. He avoids talk of occupation, as does the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
"If there will be no more Iraqi forces fighting and the regime will be changed for sure, we will try to be everywhere to keep order," Mr. Afandi said. "It would not be to occupy, but to keep security, to make peace."
The New York Times
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