The Iraqi Actors in the North of Iraq

Back to the > Iraq Collection

Ibrahim Al-Marashi
March 27, 2003

The probability of the US leading an attack against Baghdad from the north of Iraq has increased with the seizure of the Harir airfield about 40 miles from the border of Iraqi-controlled territory; thus, one must have a clear understanding of what factions are operating in this area. Even if the Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, allow the US forces to operate from areas they nominally control, there are a myriad of armed tribal and Islamist militias in the north of Iraq, in addition to the PKK organization (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, renamed as KADEK-Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress in April 2002), which could pose a threat to US forces.

The United States fears that the Kurdish parties will gain control of the oil-rich Mosul and Kirkuk regions, which would prompt Turkey to intervene to prevent a powerful Kurdish entity from forming in the north of Iraq. While the American have stressed that they would secure the Mosul and Kirkuk oil fields, any past power-sharing agreement between the Kurds and the central authority in Baghdad has failed due to the issue of reallocation of the Kirkuk oil revenues to the north of Iraq. Based on this past precedent, it seems likely that any agreement between the Kurds and a post-Saddam government will hinge on the issue of Kirkuk.

The Kurdistan National Parliament was reestablished in October 2002; its common platform calls for an Iraq divided into Arab and Kurdish regions. The Parliament is based on a coalition consisting of the Kurdish Democratic Party (the KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (the PUK). The KDP, led by Massud Barzani, is based in the northern Iraqi cities of Irbil, Dohuk, and Zakho. It is estimated that the KDP can mobilize a fighting force of 15,000 fighters in a crisis. The KDP’s arsenal of small arms and light artillery has been augmented by recent US shipments of arms to this party.

The Iraqi Kurdish forces have been augmented by the defection of two powerful Kurdish tribes who had traditionally supported Saddam Hussein. The Surchi tribe, a long time rival of the KDP and ally of Saddam, recently joined the ranks of Barzani. Jowhad Herki, the head of the powerful Herki tribe has also defected from Saddam’s side and has pledged his loyalty to the Kurdish opposition.

Jalal Talabani’s PUK can also mobilize approximately 15,000 militia men during times of conflict. The PUK is centered in the area surrounding Sulaymaniyya. Like the KDP, the PUK is also equipped with small arms and light artillery, provided by the United States and Iran. It has also been reported that the latter has provided the PUK with some surface-to-surface missiles. The United States has provided arms to the Kurds on the condition that they return them once a conflict has ended. However, this situation is reminiscent of US proliferation of small arms among the Afghan mujahadin. The arms were never returned and only destabilized Afghanistan, a scenario likely to repeat itself in the north of Iraq.

There are left-wing Kurdish militias that operate in Iraq, such as the Kurdish Communists as well as the Kurdish Social Democrat Party, led by Muhammad Haji Mahmud. On the other end of the spectrum, there are two armed Islamist Kurdish militias that operate outside the authority of the KDP and PUK. The first is the almost defunct Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) based in Halabja. This organization has been supported by Saudi Arabia and Iran in the past and at most can muster up to 1,500 fighters.

Perhaps the most imminent threat to US forces in the north is the Kurdish organization known as Jund al-Islam (“the soldiers of Islam”), also known as Ansar al-Islam (“the supporters of Islam”). It is a militant Islamist group that emerged in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq in September 2001. It is ideologically aligned with the al-Qaeda network, and most likely has provided a safe-haven for this organization. The group formed from dissident, break-away factions from the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan. The group has fought the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan for control of Halabjah. The organization’s goal is a jihad against secular forces in the north of Iraq, with an ultimate objective of establishing a Kurdish Islamic state in the north of Iraq. However, its militia is estimated to have only 200 fighters at most. It will most likely conduct armed attacks against Americans, legitimate targets in their struggle.

Another Iraqi Shi’a opposition group, called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose armed wing known as the Badr Corps, also operates in the north of Iraq. It has two bases in the PUK zone in northern Iraq. Iran has provided the Badr Corps with armored, artillery, and anti-aircraft units. While SCIRI will most likely not pose a direct threat to US forces, if the Iranian government were to feel threatened by an American presence in the north of Iraq, it could use this militia as a proxy force to advance its interests.

The Turkmens (also seen as Turcomans) are Iraq’s third largest minority; they speak a language similar to Turkish and live in the northern Iraqi towns of Irbil and Kirkuk. Iraq has voiced concern over Turkish support for the Iraqi Turkmen Front, an opposition group which maintains offices in Ankara. The Iraqis have cracked down against this organization in the past and executed some of its members after the Iraqi intelligence forces conducted an incursion into Kurdish-controlled areas in the summer of 1996. Iraqi forces also placed explosives in their headquarters in August 1997. Regardless of the government in power in Iraq, both the Turkmens and Turkey will likely continue their relationship and will most likely be viewed by any central government in Baghdad as a Turkish fifth column. The Iraqi Turkmen Front maintains a small militia of 300 fighters.

In a post-Saddam Iraq, the United States will most likely maintain some presence in the north of Iraq. The question remains whether the fractious Kurdish parties will maintain a cohesive alliance once the conflict has ended, or will a power-grab ensue among the Kurdish factions with US forces caught in the crossfire?

Comments Are Closed