The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has confirmed its powerful military capabilities, claiming that it has tanks, mortars and 190,000 fighters. However, they do not seek separation from Iraq.
In statements made to Al-Hayat, the KRG’s Minister of the Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) Sheikh Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa accused the Baghdad-based Iraqi central government of not having paid the Peshmerga forces’ since 2007, despite the fact that the parliament approved of such a deal. Rumours about attempts to acquire gunships and additional weapons are “chauvinistic allegations and attempts to mobilize hostility against the Kurds.”
“The Iraqi Constitution grants each [autonomous] region the right to form security forces as part of the national defense system. Kurdistan is the only such region in the country,” said Mustafa.
Regarding the current size of his forces and the agreements with the Iraqi government, Mustafa said, “An agreement has yet to be reached between Erbil and Baghdad on the size of the Peshmerga forces. However, we currently have 190,000 individuals.”
Mustafa said, “Over the past few years, we maintained a dialogue with the Iraqi government to reduce this large number of troops. There were suggestions to pension off 90,000 of them and transfer another 30,000 individuals to the federal Ministry of Defense to form two divisions in the army. These divisions would then be based in [Iraqi] Kurdistan. The rest of the troops would serve as security forces to impose the rule of law within the cities. The Internal Security Forces would provide assistance if requested by the reserve police force. The Peshmerga security forces would also support the forces of Iraqi government to prevent external threats if the region is attacked by neighboring countries.”
Mustafa continued, “The Peshmerga security troops carry lighter arms than the army, but are more heavily armed than the police force ... [The role of the ministry] is not only limited to maintaining security in Kurdistan, we also aid the federal government in facing the security challenges in other provinces. The Peshmerga have been cooperating with the Baghdad-based government in enforcing security and stability beyond the borders of Kurdistan. We have made great sacrifices in Baghdad, Samarra and other cities.”
The role of the Peshmerga in the provinces of Mosul, Kirkuk and Diyala has spawned widespread furor as many political parties accused them of being involved in violence actions in these regions.
Mustafa talked about security coordination “with the forces of the Iraqi government, both the army and police, in the disputed areas. Particularly, there is coordination in Mosul, Kirkuk and Diayla. The Peshmerga have played a key role in preserving stability and security in these provinces.”
When asked about the role of his forces in border control, Mustafa stated, “The border crossings are under the control of the Ministry of Interior and the federal border security forces.”
Mustafa did not deny the accusations that Kurds seized the weapons of the former Iraqi government after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. “Yes, we are still holding on to the former army’s tanks and mortars. They are maintained on a regular basis, and we have spare parts for them. We have formed forces to use them.” He added “We do not seek to separate ourselves from the Iraqi government. We want a strong, unified, federal Iraq — one that would strengthen us as we Kurds strengthen it.”
Mustafa accused Baghdad of not using the federal budget to cover his ministry’s budget, saying, “The Peshmerga’s budget is roughly $1 million. The federal government in Baghdad should have covered this budget since 2007. It has not yet fulfilled its obligations, despite the parliament’s approval of this financing.”
Mustafa said that rumors about Kurds being in contact with eastern European countries to arm the Peshmerga were "a joke.” He claimed that “there are no attempts to acquire weapons contracts with other countries. Rumors about providing us with attack helicopters and tanks are completely baseless.”
He also said that talks about Israel training Kurdish Special Forces in Kurdistan are “part of a mobilization campaign that stems from chauvinistic and nationalist hatred. This campaign’s goal is to mobilize hostility against the Kurds and discredit them.” Mustafa added that federal government in Baghdad is fully disclosed regarding the US trainers in Kurdistan. “A number of expert US trainers are working in Kurdistan with our troops, as part of the [US] troop-withdrawal agreement. This is being done with the full knowledge of Baghdad,” he said.