BALAD, Iraq — Sunni distrust of Shi’ite and Kurdish militias is fueling tension in Iraq’s heartland and undermining the development of a national army.
In this city 50 miles northwest of Baghdad, Sunni residents’ hostility has prevented a unit of Kurdish troops from leaving its base.
The 700-strong Kurdish Iraqi army battalion, originally from the northern city of Sulaimaniyah, deployed to Balad recently to bolster a single Shi’ite battalion mustered from local residents.
Last year, no fewer than three U.S. battalions patrolled the Balad area, but this year that number has dropped to two as U.S. forces turn over responsibility for many cities to Iraqi forces.
Firefights, mortar attacks and roadside bombings attributed to a combination of Sunni insurgents and disaffected locals continued unabated in and around Balad in the wake of the transfer of control, leading to the reassignment of the Kurdish battalion from the relative security of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The large Sunni minority living around Balad has protested the Kurdish unit’s presence, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. David Coffey, a member of an ad hoc military transition team that is helping train the Kurdish battalion.
He said the residents have resisted the presence of the Kurdish battalion with such force that commanders are afraid to let the soldiers leave their base, which is adjacent to a U.S. compound outside the city.
Col. Coffey said the battalion is composed mostly of former Kurdish peshmerga militia, fearsome guerrilla fighters who, after decades of rebellion, defeated Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led Iraqi army in the early 1990s, evicting it from northern Iraq.
The peshmerga, now essentially the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government, remains fully active in northern Iraq alongside Kurdish Iraqi army units manned by former peshmerga.
The peshmerga’s role mirrors the situation in southern Iraq, where radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army operates alongside Shi’ite Iraqi army units.
After the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra last month, Sheik al-Sadr mobilized his Mahdi Army militia to defend Shi’ite religious sites, saying that government forces were ineffective.
Of Iraq’s three major factions, only the Sunnis lack an unofficial army, unless one counts insurgents — although Sunni officers serve in Iraqi army units manned mostly by Shi’ites.
Soldiers in many units, however, acknowledge their allegiance to Sheik al-Sadr or to powerful Shi’ite Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.
Iraqi army Gen. Anwar Dolani, commander of forces around Sulaimaniyah, said last year his sole allegiance was to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.
Stephen Biddle from the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, said training Iraqi security forces makes civil war more likely and potentially bloodier, by effectively equipping Shi’ites and Kurds for war while the Sunnis remain on the sidelines.
“Iraq’s Sunnis perceive the ‘national’ army and police force as a Shi’ite-Kurdish militia on steroids. … To them, the defense forces look like agents of a hostile occupation.”