The Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) peshmerga forces are lacking a unified command. Rather, the peshmerga, which played a key role in defeating the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq alongside the US-led global coalition, is receiving commands from the Kurdish ruling parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This raises concerns that the peshmerga will be exploited in political disputes.
“Peshmerga forces must be free of political influence and remain neutral during party disputes,” Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani said Nov. 12. “The Kurdistan Region needs an armed national force that has modern discipline and principles.”
Following the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds rose up against the Iraqi Baath regime and established a semi-autonomous region. The two main Kurdish ruling parties, the KDP and the PUK, have their own peshmerga forces. The KDP has 80 units, and the PUK has 70 units. Both parties jointly have nearly 240,000 peshmerga troops. The parties engaged in an internal armed conflict against each other from 1994 to 1998. Moreover, they frequently use the peshmerga to attack rival political parties and forcefully suppress civilian protests.
The unification of peshmerga forces has been a key topic in discussions between foreign military delegations and officials of the KRG. But no real steps to unify the peshmerga have been taken.
Barzani’s speech came two days after a tragic incident occurred within Brigade 12 of the KRG's peshmerga. In the town of Bardarash, 70 kilometers (43 miles) north of Erbil, a verbal quarrel between peshmerga officers led to the killing of a major and a first lieutenant, according to a senior peshmerga commander. The commander told Al-Monitor that the quarrel was related to who should hold military posts within the newly unified brigade.
“The KRG Ministry of Peshmerga has no authority in distributing the posts within the peshmerga units," the commander said. "Rather, ruling parties and tribal figures are settling out [who will adopt] the commanding posts, consequently leading to quarrels and killings. The tribes insist that, for example, the commander of a peshmerga brigade should be from [among] them, and when their demands are met by ruling party officials, they nominate persons who lack any military knowledge and experience. Thus, qualified commanders and officers are not accepting of such a situation, leading to conflicts.”
He added, “Both the PUK and the KDP use peshmerga forces under their command for other purposes: to guard orchards and houses of their political bureau members, to safeguard and serve tribal chiefs and even 'artists and dancers.'"
Jabbar Yawar, secretary-general of the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, told Al-Monitor that the incident was “unwanted” and was not related to the peshmerga or political affairs. He said the person who fired and killed the officers has been detained and that once he is interrogated he will be brought to justice.
“There is a reform project within our ministry," Yawar said. "We can say that by the end of the current KRG Cabinet tenure in 2022, all the peshmerga forces will be unified. We have no problems for the time being and the unification is not an easy task, it needs time.”
The commander indicated that the processes of unification and reforming peshmerga are going on “slowly” due to “political concerns.”
“The PUK feels its rival, the KDP, while holding the KRG and Kurdistan Region’s presidency; once peshmerga forces were unified under the command of the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga, the PUK cannot rein its forces as before. Hence the fears are culminating,” the commander added.
The office of KRG spokesman Jotiar Adil told Al-Monitor that many issues have delayed the unification of the forces. “The process is taking time for a number of reasons," the office stated, "among them new laws that need to be passed on peshmerga retirement and pensions, logistics and finances that need the support of the coalition forces and the Iraqi government. Also, Baghdad is now taking seriously the issue of the peshmerga budget through Erbil-Baghdad negotiation committees.”
However, the office stated that “the process of the unification of the peshmerga forces is going forward with the support of the coalition forces. It is a comprehensive 35-package reform plan, five of which have been finished and eight are underway.”
The office added, “Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has met with the commanders of both the 70 and 80 forces and is closely working with them to accomplish this unification plan. Progress has been made on two major issues and that is unifying the financial units of both forces and their organizational structure.”
Mustafa Chawrash, commander of the PUK's 70 forces, in a phone call with Al-Monitor denied the commander's accusations, without making other clarifications.
The senior peshmerga commander emphasized that the global coalition against IS has warned the KRG officials that may be it is the last chance for unifying the peshmerga forces, and the coalition would stop financial aid to the peshmerga if not unified under one command.
"Kurdistan regional security and stability are long-held priorities for the Global Coalition against [IS] as well as important components of a stable, secure and prosperous Iraq," Col. Myles Caggins, coalition military spokesman, told Al-Monitor via email. "Peshmerga reform is a key element of that commitment and restructuring the security sector. The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve and our partners at the Embassy's Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq support the Kurdistan Regional Government by building partner capacity through security assistance and sector reform and through defense institution building."
Maj. Gen. Baktyar Muhammed Sadiq, a member of the Ministry of Peshmerga’s reform board, told Al-Monitor that 14 brigades — nearly 40,000 peshmerga forces — are unified under the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.
“There are plans for unifying all peshmerga forces, including the 70 and 80 forces, but there is no specific timeline yet,” Sadiq said. “There are also plans that the political parties would no longer be involved in recruiting peshmerga forces.”
Abubakr Haladni, a lawmaker from the Kurdistan Islamic Union opposition party, told Al-Monitor, “KRG officials only remember the unification of peshmerga forces in ceremonies, or when the coalition forces put pressure on them. The KDP and the PUK lack a true will for merging their forces, as the forces are loyal to the parties and they are being used in party conflicts, especially in elections.”
Haladni, who is also a member of the peshmerga parliamentary committee, said, “We, as the peshmerga committee, will make follow-ups for the unification process. According to Code No. 17 for the year 1993, issued by the Kurdistan parliament, no political party should have armed forces, accordingly, the KDP and the PUK are … disarmed parties.”