KIRKUK, Iraq — In this disputed city, Kurdish forces are being trained by Iraqi Army instructors in what officials call a breakthrough aimed at easing tensions between the two sides and securing Iraq's vulnerable border with Iran.
The program at the training center on the Kirkuk military base is part of a painstakingly arranged plan by U.S. commanders here to integrate elements of the Kurdish peshmerga - fighters who battled Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government forces - into the central government's Iraqi Army.
Border security has taken on heightened importance with the prospect of the U.S. completely withdrawing by the end of next year, and increasing acknowledgment that the current Iraqi Army would have a hard time defending the country on its own.
"The Iraqis realize they have to get the Iraqi Army focused on defending the sovereignty of Iraq," said Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, the commanding general in charge of training and advising Iraqi security forces. "There is a realization that we have to move on and start doing this and get as far down the road as we can in the next 16 months," he said in interview with the Monitor.
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Iraq, carved out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire by the victors of World War II, borders six countries - Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran.
But it's Iran, with more than 900 miles of border and a bitter and complicated history with Iraq, that is most worrisome.
"It is a serious concern that this country will try to expand, encroach, unless you have a viable security force to fill that vacuum," said a senior Iraqi Foreign Ministry official. "We have to fill it, not them."
MEDDLING FROM IRAN?
Iraq's eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s was sparked partly by border issues. U.S. and Iraqi officials say the country, which was home to many of Iraq's Shiite leaders in exile during Hussein's regime, meddles in Iraq in a variety of ways, most of them covert.
"There is concern about Iraqi sovereignty," said Barbero. "When you have a neighbor that's trying to exert its influence from here, the way Iran is, it resonates."
Hundreds of members of the peshmerga Regional Guard deployed along the border are rotating through the training center in Kirkuk to give them the same skills as Iraqi government forces.
In the searing heat on a recent August day, soldiers from a unit near Suleimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan sat on bleachers watching an Iraqi Army instructor demonstrate the proper method for dismantling rifles - his commands translated from Arabic to Kurdish.
"According to the law, the regional guard's duty is protecting the Kurdish region as part of Iraq," said Gen. Babaker Zebari, the Iraqi Army chief of staff who recently created a furor when he said publicly that the Army would not be ready to defend its borders for another decade. "There must be coordination between the Kurdish government and the Ministry of Defense, and between the Kurdish police and the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad."
Iraq this month received the first of 140 M1A1 Abrams tanks it has purchased from the U.S., but its fledgling Army will still lack the manpower or capability to defend either its borders or its air space for years. Much of Iraq's northern border is along the Kurdish territory, which has been autonomous since it broke away from Hussein's regime after the 1991 Gulf War. Whether the country holds together is the biggest question of the 2003 postwar era.
"They are one force under one authority, in one state, they legally carry weapons, and they are all part of the Iraqi defense system," Zebari told a group of reporters in Kirkuk. "There is no discord between the (Kurdish) Regional Guard and the Iraqi Army. If there are political problems, that is another matter."
At the training center, the peshmerga seem leaner and harder-looking than the Iraqi Army soldiers. Because of mutual suspicion between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite Arab-led government and the Kurdish leadership, they've been largely left out of the billions of dollars devoted to rebuilding the Iraqi Army.
INTEGRATION REDUCES FLASHPOINTS
The integration that U.S. Gen. Raymond Odierno has made a priority in his time here is aimed at building a country as well as an Army - reducing potential flashpoints between Kurdish and Iraqi troops that could threaten security and forging stronger official ties between the Iraqi government and that of the autonomous Kurdish region.
In an interview with the Monitor in July, Odierno said he had reached an agreement with Maliki and Kurdish leaders to work toward integrating four peshmerga brigades into the Iraqi Army in disputed areas, a development he described as "a huge step forward."
The training of Kurdish soldiers and police by the Iraqi Defense and Interior ministries is part of the beginning of that integration.
"It's not going to be easy - there's nothing easy in Iraq - there are some bumps we have to work through, there's some scar tissue we have to work through, but we'll get there," said Barbero, the commanding general in charge of training and advising Iraqi security forces.
The U.S. is providing vehicles and communications equipment to the Kurdish border force. But so far, it's not offering arms - a move sought by Kurdish leaders as necessary to border security but strongly resisted by the Iraqi government.
The Kurds point to 2003, when the U.S. relied on peshmerga troops they brought into Baghdad to help maintain security after American occupation authorities disbanded the Iraqi Army.
"Are we Iraqis or not? Are we part of this country or not?" asks Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Saleh in an interview. "Can a national Iraqi military be truly national without the Kurds? We are alarmed at the prospect of an Iraqi military armed with Abrams tanks and F-16s while the Kurds are kept out of it. We should accept that we are all partners in this country and we should all be committed to its defense."