With the U.S. failure, so far, to win Turkey’s approval to allow U.S. troops to open a northern front against Saddam Hussein’s regime, Kurdish forces in northern Iraq are readying for a battle role that could prove crucial to a U.S. attack on Baghdad without Turkey’s support.
In recent weeks, Kurdish “peshmerga” fighters have intensified their training in preparation for a U.S.-led war on Iraq. The peshmergas, battle-hardened by years of guerrilla warfare against the Iraqi army, are on a 48-hour readiness alert to launch a full attack on Saddam’s troops, commanders say.
The peshmergas, who claim 50,000 fighters among their ranks, would not be a direct substitute for a large-scale U.S. land invasion from Turkey. But failing the Turkish parliament’s approval of the Pentagon’s plan to deploy its 4th Infantry Division in Turkey, the Kurdish forces could complement the insertion of U.S. troops into northern Iraq on their way to Baghdad.
Hundreds of peshmergas, whose name means “those who face death,” recently trained at a secret location for street-to-street clashes with Iraqi soldiers. Although U.S. troops have trained for urban warfare, Pentagon strategists are loath to commit U.S. forces to street battles, where casualties are likely to be high.
No clear role has yet been defined for the peshmerga commanders. But since February, when Turkey’s parliament voted down a proposal to let tens of thousands of U.S. troops use bases in the country for an invasion of Iraq, there has been growing speculation that they could provide valuable assistance to U.S. forces on the northern front.
“Our forces have a lot of experience,” said Mustafa Qader, commander of the peshmergas. “We are familiar with the area. We are familiar with fighting the Iraqis. So we will have an effective role in the conflict.”
Although the United States has not formally requested help from the Kurds, Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said the the Kurds are ready to stand with the United States as “partners ... in fighting against tyranny and terrorism. [Washington] can cooperate with Kurdish peshmerga to achieve its goals of liberating Iraq and replacing the dictatorship with a democratic government.”
POSSIBLE PESHMERGA ROLES
Experts caution that peshmergas, deeply tribal and looking to exact revenge on the Iraqi army after years of oppression under Saddam, are not a Northern Alliance, the Afghan fighters who ousted the Taliban from Kabul in November 2001 with the help of a U.S. air campaign.
“If you’re looking at the peshmerga to take on any major, dug in or fortified Iraqi unit, that’s a little bit out of their league,” said Rick Francona, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who has extensive knowledge of the Kurdish military.
But Francona, who worked with the CIA to aid the Kurdish fighters in 1995-96, said the peshmergas could serve a key role in a U.S. invasion by protecting lines of communications, supply routes, and providing local security and language capabilities.
“For guerrilla warfare and special operations kind of thing, they could be melded in pretty good,” he said. If the Pentagon does not win Turkey’s support, the peshmergas “would probably be part of a ‘Plan B.’”
One other role for the peshmergas, local Kurdish commanders suggest, would be to take out Ansar al-Islam, a radical Islamic militia group based in northern Iraq. Last month, in a report to the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the group was providing a “safe haven” for members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network. In recent weeks, several skirmishes between Ansar al-Islam and peshmergas have been reported.
“We are ready to help the United States in any way,” said one Kurdish military leader on condition of anonymity.
The peshmergas may be willing to help, but their support for the U.S. invasion could prove complicated.
Although allied against Saddam, the peshmergas are divided in their loyalties to the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the major political groups that have split northern Iraq into competing spheres of influence.
The peshmergas are also desperately short of weapons, and only a fraction of the 50,000 members they claim are believed to be armed for a major battle.
“We have to get our weapons on the black market,” lamented the Kurdish military official. The United States, bowing to Turkey’s worries about its own restive Kurdish population, is wary of arming the peshmergas.
And some of the peshmergas’ success may owe more to the low morale of the Iraqi troops than their own battlefield prowess. In a major clash with Iraqi forces in 1995, large portions of an Iraqi division quickly surrendered to a small number of peshmergas. Saddam then sent reinforcements who handily pushed back the Kurds with a barrage of artillery shells and rockets.
This time, however, the peshmergas say disillusionment in the Iraqi armed forces will work in their favor.
“My forces always have a high level of morale,” said peshmerga commander Qader. “The Iraqi troops have hardly any morale at all. They no longer believe in the Iraqi government. They will not protect the Iraqi government. If there is another force that comes that they could join, they will join it and fight against the Iraqi government.”
The complementary role of the peshmergas will likely appeal to U.S. military commanders. If a cumbersome land invasion is not possible, a lighter force like the 101st Airborne Division could use a handful of small airstrips in northern Iraq first to secure the region, then to deploy toward key Saddam strongholds.
In the broad valley below Sulaimaniyah lies the Bakrajo airstrip, abandoned by the Iraqi military just ahead of the 1991 Gulf War.
In January, the Kurdish military cleaned years of sediment off the 8,000-foot runway and began widening the landing strip and a road leading to Bakrajo. U.S. special forces have taken soil samples around the field and checked whether the asphalt can withstand fully loaded U.S. military transport planes, and this week it was declared ready.,
In recent days, Kurdish peshmerga forces have taken up positions around the airfield, which is surrounded by fertile farmland.
Amid Turkey’s wavering support for U.S. troops based on its soil, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers indicated recently that the Pentagon is looking at “lots of options” in northern Iraq. “My guess: In the end, we will have U.S. forces in northern Iraq, one way or the other,” Myers said.
(MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in northern Iraq. NBC’s Fred Francis contributed to this report.)