As Iraqi Kurdistan fighting forces, collectively known as peshmerga, began their three-year battle against the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, members of the Iraqi Kurdish public came to perceive them as one nationalist force defending their land. Even the lower ranks of the force came to believe they were fighting IS for Kurdistan and not for any political party. There were high hopes that the peshmerga forces would finally become an apolitical force under one unified command.
But the recent electoral campaigning and related violence dashed these hopes and showed once again that the two ruling parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — see the peshmerga forces as nothing but militias protecting the parties' power and interests.
“If you don’t have shaq [kick] and para [money], you can’t achieve anything here” is a common saying in Iraqi Kurdistan, meaning no political force can change anything without the power of a militia and a pool of cash. This is often a veiled reference to the main opposition party, the Movement for Change (Gorran), which lacks its own militia.
After the polls closed May 12, a senior PUK commander ordered an attack on Gorran headquarters in Sulaimaniyah. Since then, many in Iraq's Kurdistan region are questioning whether the peshmerga fighters and other politicized security forces can be trusted with maintaining order.
“An armed force led by a member of the PUK leadership attacks Gorran headquarters with heavy guns … without facing any legal consequences from the government and the [PUK] party,” Shorsh Haji, a senior Gorran official, pointed out May 21. “Therefore, in this jungle [Kurdistan] … Gorran should think about another way of defending itself.”
Though Gorran has no organized militia, it does have many armed followers and can mobilize them quickly, as it did on the night of the attack. There is tremendous pressure on the Gorran leadership from its support base to set up a defense militia in case of another attack.
Since that night, delegations from the US government, the United Nations and the British parliament have visited Zargata Hill (also called Gorran Hill), where the Gorran party is based, to discuss the formation of Baghdad's future government, as well as to inspect the scene of the attack.
The United States provides almost $400 million annually to the peshmerga forces, which at times have feigned a unified front to maintain that funding.
“We said it is imperative that this assistance is made conditional upon [actually] unifying the force," said Hoshyar Omer, a Gorran official who met with the American delegation.
Since 1992, when the Kurdish region in northern Iraq became semi-autonomous, the leadership has claimed it wants to unify forces and establish one command. Such efforts have met with fleeting success, at best.
Nawshirwan Mustafa, who was the main PUK peshmerga commander for more than two decades, said in 2005 that the PUK and KDP militias posed the main threat to democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In 2010, Massoud Barzani, who at that time was president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), echoed Mustafa’s warning when he met with the peshmergas' top brass, stating that the political parties should have no influence over the peshmerga. “The future of Kurdistan depends on the peshmerga forces,” Barzani said. “That's why this force needs to be reorganized on a new footing. The more this force is institutionalized, the more influential we [the Kurds] will become, and unless these two forces are unified, the people will live in trepidation.”
Barzani went one step further and said the Kurds “have been promised many things” by their Western partners, but the fulfillment of these promises depends on the “reorganization of the peshmerga forces."
Many have questioned whether some PUK and KDP senior peshmerga commanders have ever been genuinely interested in unification. Their interests would be jeopardized if the forces became more transparent and unified. Unification would mean "significant political collaboration on the part of the KDP and PUK, whose relationship is marked by animosity, suspicion and competition,” wrote US Ambassador Ryan Crocker in July 2007.
The PUK and the KDP managed to unify 12 brigades from late 2010 until 2013, but then the process stopped. In the aftermath of the Kurds' independence referendum in September 2017, Baghdad clashed with the peshmerga forces and most of the unified brigades simply fell apart.
The Kurdish security forces are highly fractured, with loyalties to the two ruling parties and powerful individuals within these parties. The lack of proper oversight and accountability created this fractured force brewing with corruption. Some corrupt commanders even reportedly conducted business with IS, but it appears they faced no punitive measures. The KRG's Peshmerga Ministry, which consists of PUK and KDP commanders and officials, adopted a 35-point reform package last year that is to be implemented with the help of US, British and German military advisers.
The war with IS, the corruption of some senior peshmerga officials and the miserable conditions many peshmerga still live in have made the rank and file realize the only way forward is to unify their forces under one command in the hope of making them more transparent.
“All the low-level peshmerga fighters and even the midlevel peshmerga officers want to come under one command,” a captain in KDP's Zervani police force told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “What happened May 12 on Gorran Hill should be a warning call to the Kurdish officials.”
The jury is still out on the reform package that the Peshmerga Ministry is trying to implement with the help of the coalition advisers, but the fractured nature of the force can only bring more incidents like the one on May 12 at Gorran Hill — and with that comes more instability unless PUK and KDP officials come to their senses and establish a truly integrated and unified force.