Kurdish Force Heads to Baghdad Battle Zone

Kurdish soldiers give a thumbs up before setting out in a 60-vehicle convoy to Baghdad. i i

Kurdish soldiers give a thumbs up before setting out in a 60-vehicle convoy from Northern Iraq to Baghdad. Yerevan Adham for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Yerevan Adham for NPR
Kurdish soldiers give a thumbs up before setting out in a 60-vehicle convoy to Baghdad.

Kurdish soldiers give a thumbs up before setting out in a 60-vehicle convoy from Northern Iraq to Baghdad.

Yerevan Adham for NPR
A Kurdish soldier loads the ammunition belt of his machine gun. i i

A Kurdish soldier loads the ammunition belt of his machine gun. Yerevan Adham for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Yerevan Adham for NPR
A Kurdish soldier loads the ammunition belt of his machine gun.

A Kurdish soldier loads the ammunition belt of his machine gun.

Yerevan Adham for NPR
Gen. Anwar Dolani commands a Kurdish Iraqi Army battalion headed for the Iraqi capital. i i

Gen. Anwar Dolani commands a Kurdish Iraqi Army battalion headed for the Iraqi capital. Yerevan Adham for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Yerevan Adham for NPR
Gen. Anwar Dolani commands a Kurdish Iraqi Army battalion headed for the Iraqi capital.

Gen. Anwar Dolani commands a Kurdish Iraqi Army battalion headed for the Iraqi capital.

Yerevan Adham for NPR
A Kurdish soldier proudly wears a wool cap with the flag of Kurdistan on it. i i

A Kurdish soldier proudly wears a wool cap with the flag of Kurdistan on it. Last year, the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan region ordered the removal of Iraqi flags, which many Kurds see as a symbol of oppression. This Iraqi Army base is one of the only places where you can see Iraqi flags on display in the entire Kurdistan region. Yerevan Adham for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Yerevan Adham for NPR
A Kurdish soldier proudly wears a wool cap with the flag of Kurdistan on it.

A Kurdish soldier proudly wears a wool cap with the flag of Kurdistan on it. Last year, the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan region ordered the removal of Iraqi flags, which many Kurds see as a symbol of oppression. This Iraqi Army base is one of the only places where you can see Iraqi flags on display in the entire Kurdistan region.

Yerevan Adham for NPR

The atmosphere was tense at the Iraqi National Army base in Sulyemaniye, Northern Iraq, Wednesday as soldiers finished up last-minute preparations for the dangerous trip down south to Baghdad.

In a garage, one Kurdish soldier welded a machine-gun mount for the gun turret on top of his British-made armored vehicle. Outside, other soldiers milled around the base, against a stunning backdrop of snow-covered mountains. They packed gear and food into the back of Humvees and loaded bullets into machine ammunition belts.

The 1st battalion of the Iraqi Army's 3rd Brigade, 4th division, consists almost entirely of Kurds. Until this week, it has been based in the highlands of Iraqi Kurdistan, which without question in the safest part of Iraq. But on Monday, the first Kurdish soldiers began moving south to Baghdad.

Their mission, according to Gen. Anwar Dolani, is to prop up the Iraqi central government and to stop "a very bad massacre of the people of Baghdad."

Like many of the soldiers he leads, the general is former Pesh Merga. That's the name for Kurdish rebels who long fought against successive Arab-dominated governments in Baghdad. He knows the job ahead will not be easy.

"The biggest challenge will be the communication," he said, speaking in Kurdish. "Also, our guys do not know the area. And probably 90 percent of our soldiers do not speak Arabic."

The deployment is extremely unpopular in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the president of the semi-autonomous region last year ordered all Iraqi flags removed and replaced by the flag of Kurdistan.

"The public is adamantly against it up here," said Lt. Col. Dennis Chapman, who commands a small team of American military advisers attached to the Kurdish battalion. "It's because there's a great fear of the ethnic strife down there in Baghdad and a fear of it somehow making its way up here."

Chapman says there have been desertions. He expects only several hundred soldiers to show up in Baghdad, out of a battalion of 1,600.

One who still expects to go is 23-year-old Bakhtiar Mohammed Ali Sadik.

"Everybody disagrees in my family to go down to Baghdad to fight, but we have to do this," he said.

The Kurdish soldiers who have agreed to the deployment, say it is their duty to protect Iraq and carry out the orders of Jalal Talabani, Iraq's first Kurdish president. Kurdish officials say their soldiers should only fight insurgent groups and terrorists, and avoid getting caught up in the raging sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Arabs.

Asos Hardi, editor-in-chief of a Kurdish newspaper, fears that if the Kurds clash with Shiite Arab militias, it could spark a new conflict between Iraq's two main ethnic groups.

"It could become the first ignition for the real conflict — real war between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq," Hardi warned.

Wednesday, more than 60 military vehicles barreled down the highway, leaving Suleymaniye and heading south toward Baghdad.

At a small roadside gasoline stand, a small crowd watched, but did not cheer as the convoy drove past.

"Why should we sacrifice ourselves for Arabs who are killing each other?" asked a man named Serdar Ahmad.

The Arabs, he added, are our enemy.

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