Back to Iraq now. For the first time, Iraqi army units made up of ethnic Kurds are being sent to help stabilize Baghdad. It's part of President Bush's new strategy for Iraq.

As NPR's Ivan Watson reports from northern Iraq, that move is unpopular with Iraqi Kurdistan.

IVAN WATSON: Last-minute preparations before a dangerous trip into a bloody war zone.

Yesterday morning this Kurdish soldier welded the machine gun mount for the gun turret on top of his British-made armored vehicle. Nearby, other soldiers worked outside against a stunning backdrop of snow-covered mountains. The troops packed gear and food into the back of Humvees and loaded bullets into machine gun ammunition belts.

This Iraqi National Army battalion consists almost entirely of Kurds. Until now, it's been based in the highlands of Iraqi Kurdistan, which without question is the safest part of Iraq. But on Monday, Kurdish soldiers began moving south to Baghdad, where their mission, General Anwar Dolani says, will be to prop up the Iraqi central government.

General ANWAR DOLANI (Iraqi National Army): (Through translator) Now there is a very bad massacre of the people of Baghdad there. Shia, Sunnis, anybody (unintelligible), we will go and defend, try to stop this kind of killings.

WATSON: Like many of soldiers here, the general is a former Pesh Merga. That's the name for Kurdish rebels who long fought against successive Arab dominated governments in Baghdad. Speaking in Kurdish, Golani says this job will not be easy.

General GOLANI: (Through translator) I think hardest challenge will be in the communication. And probably 90 percent of our soldiers do not speak Arabic.

WATSON: This deployment is extremely unpopular in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the presidents of the semi-autonomous region last year ordered all Iraqi flags to be removed and replaced by the flag of Kurdistan.

Lieutenant Colonel DENNIS CHAPMAN (U.S. Army National Guard): The public is adamantly against it up here.

WATSON: Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Chapman commands a small team of American military advisers attached to the Kurdish battalion.

Lt. Col. CHAPMAN: It's because there's a great fear of the ethnic strife down there in Baghdad, and somehow a fear of it making its way up here.

WATSON: Lt. Col. Chapman says there had been desertions, and he expects only several hundred soldiers to show up in Baghdad out of a battalion of some 1,600 troops. Among them is a 23-year-old named Buktiar Mohammed Ali Sadik(ph), who sat waiting in the bright winter sun yesterday beside his packed bags and Kalashnikov rifle.

Mr. BUKTIAR MOHAMMED ALI SADIK (Kurdish Soldier): (Through translator) Everybody disagrees in my family to go down to Baghdad to fight. But we have to do this.

WATSON: The Kurdish soldiers who have agreed to go to Baghdad say it is their duty to protect Iraq, and to carry out the orders of Jalal Talabani, Iraq's first Kurdish president. Kurdish officials say the soldiers should only fight insurgent groups and terrorists, and not get 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.

Mr. ASOS HARDI (Editor-in-Chief, Awene Newspaper): It could be the first ignition for the real conflict, real war between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq.

WATSON: Yesterday, at the army base, some Kurdish soldiers did not have nice things to say about their Arab countrymen.

Unidentified Man #1: I have no (unintelligible)

WATSON: Officers eventually gave the order to mount up. As the Kurds piled into trucks, their American advisers also prepared to join the convoy.

Unidentified Man #2: All right, lock and load your primary. Reserves, lock and load your primary, make sure...

WATSON: Soon, more than 60 military vehicles were barreling down the highway, heading south from Sulaymaniyah towards the bloody streets of Baghdad.

(Soundbite of traffic)

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

Mr. SADAR AHMED(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Why should we sacrifice ourselves for Arabs who are killing each other, said a Kurdish man here named Sadar Ahmed. The Arabs, he added, are our enemy.

(Soundbite of speeding vehicle)

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan.

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