Amidst chaos, new Iraqi army is born

by Jenn Buck | 4/14/04 5:00am

Editor's note: This is the third in a multi-part series chronicling a student reporter's time spent in Kurdistan, located in northern Iraq. The Dartmouth was one of the few news organizations in the province, covering news there over the past three weeks.

ERBIL, Iraq -- As pressure is mounting for the Bush administration to find a swift solution to the recent violence from Sunni and Shiite insurgents, hints are starting to circulate that more U.S. troops might be sent to Iraq.

President Bush told reporters at a rare solo televised appearance Tuesday that "if additional forces are needed, I will send them."

Hundreds of thousands of American troops, including those from reserve and National Guard units that have not been deployed for decades, have already been sent to Iraq. For Army units, the one-year tour of duty milestone was passed in March, and replacement units have set up camp for a second year of U.S. military occupation in Iraq.

But what of the Iraqi army? According to most sources, the majority of the military controlled by the former Baath Party regime is either destroyed or on the run.

A new army is being built in Iraq, though, and one we may not hear about as often. A new generation of soldiers is being trained to fight for the people, and alongside coalition forces to try to bring peace to the region.

The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps is the new military presence in Iraq, being trained by U.S. forces. It is an all-volunteer army that will be responsible for internal security within Iraq, as well as defending the country from invasion if necessary.

The ICDC is organized under the New Iraqi Army and is attached to U.S. military units for training, organization and protection.

Many soldiers now serving in the ICDC in the northern region of Kurdistan are former Peshmerga soldiers. The Peshmerga army was the Kurdish military that fought invading forces deployed by Saddam Hussein and has served as the sole military force in Kurdistan throughout its 12-year rule.

The Peshmerga come from different political backgrounds, though, and often fought against each other. The two main political parties in Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Social Democratic Party both employed their own military, which they used against each other in the Kurdish civil war.

Now, the United States is trying to reunite them to fight together under a new, unified Iraqi military.

It's not an easy task. Especially when the Kurdish and former Iraqi armies clashed regularly.

There are now 200,000 members of the ICDC army who have undergone a rigorous regimen of basic training -- similar to boot camp in the United States -- and are now serving in Iraq.

The soldiers of the third ICDC battalion are serving in Erbil, attached to the American Civil Affairs troops stationed there. The soldiers don't speak much English, but their enthusiasm needs no language.

"Zorbash!" they shout to the American soldiers, meaning "very good" in Kurdish. "U.S.A., zorbash!"

The ICDC troops don't always look the part. Next to the smartly-dressed Americans with matching uniforms, boots, and polished weapons, the Iraqi soldiers look a bit like hired thugs. Often they get their uniforms from army surplus stores, and the weapons they carry may be worn out and taped up.

But make no mistake. These former Peshmerga soldiers are all heart.

"It's a privilege to work with Americans," said one through a translator. "From you we are learning how to defend our freedom."

The Peshmerga fighters may learn a lesson in democracy through working alongside Americans, but they certainly have the tactical side of warfare all wrapped up. Often they have been soldiers since the age of 12.

"The school system here creates opportunities for young boys to become soldiers," explained Spc. Shaun Chandler of the 416th Civil Affairs unit stationed in Erbil.

"They take a test at age 12 which determines whether they can continue on in school or not. If they fail, they are done with school. Permanently," he said. "Their only chance back into the educational system is to go before the minister."

Chandler pointed out that for a 12-year old, appearing before one's senator would be more than a little daunting. "So," he said, "a lot of them became Peshmerga."

Many former Peshmerga soldiers also work as private hired guards, protecting U.S. military and civilians working in Iraq.

The Kurdish troops are vigilant and loyal fighters. And their willingness to protect American lives is remarkable.

One former Peshmerga soldier who is now working as a guard for the American military explained his aggressive mentality.

"When I fought in the Iran-Iraq war, a bomb landed near me and a piece cut my leg. Very bad," he said. "So now, I don't need to wear [body armor]. If I survived bomb, I will survive bullet."

The success of the new Iraqi nation may well hinge on how loyal and how dependable these soldiers remain. In recent fighting in Fallujah, witnesses reported that ICDC guards left their posts.

U.S. General John Abizaid, commander of the forces in Iraq, said he has confidence.

"In other places, such as in and around Fallujah, we've had good, strong performances by several units, and we're satisfied with that," he said in a recent press conference.

I'm confident that with work on our part and work on their part, we'll have better performance."