1,000 Kurdish soldiers desert from Iraqi army

1,000 Kurdish soldiers desert from Iraqi army

KIRKUK - Agence France-Presse
1,000 Kurdish soldiers desert from Iraqi army

Iraqi troops stand at a makeshift camp near Kirkuk. 1,070 Kurdish members of the Iraqi army mutinied and declined to attend disciplinary re-training. REUTERS photo

More than 1,000 Kurdish career soldiers in Iraq’s army have deserted, while expressing the desire to become integrated into forces loyal to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in a heavy blow to the country’s stretched armed forces.

The move comes after the Kurdish troops disobeyed orders to take part in an operation ordered by the Shiite-led authorities against a mainly Sunni Arab town. If their request is fulfilled, such a mass defection would be a major loss to Iraq’s security forces as they grapple with a surge in violence that has sparked fears of renewed sectarian bloodshed.

Two officials said the 1,070 Kurdish members of the Iraqi army’s 16th Brigade mutinied when gunmen took control of a northern town in April, and subsequently declined to attend disciplinary re-training. The soldiers were no longer receiving salaries or rations from the Iraqi army, nor were they following any orders from federal forces, according to the mayor of the town where they are based.

His comments were echoed by the spokesman for the KRG ministry responsible for peshmarga forces, that is now part of Kurdistan’s security forces. But the officials differed as to whether the soldiers’ request to join the peshmarga had been met. The troops had been assigned to the ethnically mixed towns of Tuz Khurmatu and Sulaiman Bek, the latter of which briefly fell to gunmen in April. According to Tuz Khurmatu Mayor Shallal Abdul, they stood accused of refusing to follow orders as Sulaiman Bek, a mostly-Arab town, was overrun. As punishment, they were ordered to attend re-training. Three senior Kurdish officers were also replaced with Arabs, Abdul said.

No order from peshmarga yet

The troops did not follow orders to stay and defend the town against the Sunni Arab gunmen because they did not want to further raise tensions between Arabs and Kurds in a swathe of disputed territory claimed by both the central government and Kurdish authorities. “The forces ... are still deployed to their positions, but they are receiving their salaries and orders from the Peshmarga Ministry,” Abdul said.

The mass defection comes at a crucial time for Iraq’s security forces, which are dealing with a massive spike in violence, months of protests in Sunni Arab provinces, and fears of spillover from the conflict in neighboring Syria. Last month, more than 1,000 people were killed in violence, the highest toll since 2008.

Peshmarga Ministry spokesman Halkurd Mullah Ali confirmed that the soldiers were not carrying out Baghdad’s orders, and added that Kurdish authorities were providing rations because officials “sympathized with them.” But he denied that the soldiers were receiving either wages or orders from peshmarga. “We will discuss their situation with the joint committee [of the Baghdad government and the Kurdish regional administration],” he said. “If we do not reach an agreement with Baghdad about them, we are ready to integrate them into peshmarga forces.”