A gun battle between two units of the Iraqi army has left one soldier and a civilian dead, underlining how ethnic and sectarian divisions are crippling the US-trained force.
The shooting, which took place between Kurdish and Shia soldiers on Friday near Duluiyah, 45 miles north of Baghdad, is a bad omen for US plans to hand over security to the Iraqi army by the end of the year.
The fighting started after a powerful roadside bomb exploded as an Iraqi army convoy carrying Kurdish troops was passing Duluiyah, a small agricultural town that has long been a centre of armed resistance to the occupation. Four soldiers were killed and three wounded in the explosion, according to police, while the US military said one soldier died and 12 were wounded.
Immediately after the attack the Kurdish soldiers rushed their wounded to the local hospital, firing their weapons to clear the streets and killing one civilian. At this point, going by the police account, another unit of the Iraqi army, the 3rd battalion of the 1st Brigade, this time consisting of Shia troops, rushed to confront the Kurds. They appear to have thought that the Kurds were going to retaliate against the local Arab population. Shots were exchanged, and one Shia soldier was killed.
The Kurds decided to remove their wounded from Duluiyah hospital, fearing it would not be safe for them to be left there. But as they tried to leave the town, a third unit of the Iraqi army set up a roadblock, preventing them escaping. At this point US troops, who have a giant military base at Balad nearby, intervened and succeeded in ending the confrontation.
The incident shows the deepening divisions and mistrust within the Iraqi army. Kurdish leaders have told the IoS that in a real civil war, they believe the national army would evaporate immediately, because its units owe their primary allegiance to their own communities.
Peter Galbraith, the former US diplomat and expert on Iraq, citing senior Iraqi Ministry of Defence sources, says the Iraqi army consists of 60 Shia battalions, 45 Sunni battalions and nine Kurdish battalions. There is only one mixed battalion. In fact the number of Kurdish troops, formerly known as peshmerga, is understated. Apart from Kurds in the Iraqi army, there are another 60,000 men under arms within the Kurdish region.
Washington has repeatedly claimed that its aim is to train Iraqi security forces loyal to the central government and capable of fighting the armed resistance to the occupation. This would allow the US and Britain to reduce their forces in Iraq.
But the Iraqi army has remained a ragtag force. In 2004-05 its entire $1.3 billion procurement budget was stolen or spent in return for outdated or non-functioning weapons. Its vehicles, often elderly pick-up trucks, are very vulnerable to roadside bombs such as the one which hit the convoy of Kurdish soldiers on Friday. Even the numbers of the army are unclear, because it contains many “ghost” soldiers whose salaries are still drawn by their commanders.
From the US point of view, however, the communal divisions in the army are the most worrying development. When Iraqi security forces tried to enter the strongly Sunni district of al-Adhamiyah in east Baghdad last month, local militiamen saw the incursion as an attack by Shia death squads. They threw up barricades and militiamen raced from house to house, calling on each family to send one man with a gun to defend their district.
Ordinary Iraqis are extremely frightened by the number of uniformed soldiers and police on the streets who may in reality be death squads waging war against one particular community. In Baquba in Diyala province last week, US soldiers fought anti-occupation resistance forces who were all wearing government uniforms and riding in camouflaged vehicles.