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Americans, Kurds, Arabs join forces on north Iraq frontline

A US commander strides down a street in a Kurdish village in northern Iraq, heading a mixed squad of American troops, Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

world Updated: Feb 28, 2010 16:07 IST

A US commander strides down a street in a Kurdish village in northern Iraq, heading a mixed squad of American troops, Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

Every man who patrols alongside Captain Nick Loudon is at the forefront of a bold new combined security force that has emerged in northern Iraq after months of delicate political negotiations.

Several distinctive camouflage uniforms are being worn, but all are sporting black armbands embroidered with the head of a golden lion.

Launched in January, the force began conducting joint patrols from a US base outside Kirkuk, 240 kilometres (150 miles) north of Baghdad, two weeks ago.

"The bottom line is that it shows how Iraqis of multiple ethnicities can integrate and accomplish a shared goal," Captain Loudon, commander of Alpha Company in the US army's 1st Battalion 30th Infantry Regiment, told AFP.

The force has come together despite the fact that the Iraqi army refuses to accept the legitimacy of peshmerga forces who are loyal to leaders of the autonomous Kurdistan region, rather than the Baghdad government.

An hour earlier a US sergeant had briefed the patrol and Kurdish and Arabic translators were on hand to ensure everyone understands that the aim is to "gauge atmospherics" among the civilian population.

After driving to Rizgari, a small predominantly Kurdish village southeast of Kirkuk, in seven US-owned MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armoured vehicles, which also bear the unit's golden lion symbol, it is clear the Americans, somewhat reluctantly, are in charge.

Captain Loudon, 28, from Brockway, Pennsylvania, takes the lead as the squad fans out across the street, with his radio operator and a US sergeant close by.

A detachment of four Iraqi soldiers, three policemen, and four Kurdish peshmerga is matched by a similar number of American ground troops.

"We are trying to be the honest broker here," said Captain Loudon, who explains that the need to build the force quickly meant it would rely on US vehicles and radios.

The overlap between Kurdish politics and the military in northern Iraq is immediately evident, something that has angered other ethnic groups, including Arabs, Turkmen and Christians in Kirkuk province.

Two members of the Asaish (Kurdish intelligence) greet the combined patrol and Captain Loudon is led to the house of Hadi Saeed, a colonel in a peshmerga unit based in Arbil.

He is also a senior official for the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Massud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan northern region.

"I am responsible for the political administration of the KDP in Kirkuk," said Saeed, with a shoulder holstered pistol visible under his right arm, a reminder of the Kurdish peshmergas' historic role as a resistance force against the now executed Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein.

Captain Loudon and his colleagues are quick to point out that Saeed must be the main power broker in Rizgari, with more influence than its Mukhtar (village chief). The visit has gleaned useful information that will be written up later.

Saeed, whose son offers water and tea to his American visitors, welcomes the recently launched combined patrols but he is less happy about a joint checkpoint nearby.

"The electronic jamming equipment is affecting our mobile phone coverage and the Internet. It would be good if you could do something about that," he tells his guests, who say they will look into the issue.

Hundreds of thousands of Kurds -- who were deported by Saddam to make way for mainly Sunni Arabs -- have returned or settled in Kirkuk province and built homes since the dictator's overthrow.

After leaving Rizgari, the combined security force heads to the nearby village of Punja Ali.

As an indicator of how potentially combustible ethnic tensions are, local officials explain that dozens of houses under construction in the area have been funded by the Kurdish regional government, irking Arabs and Baghdad.

Back at base, the police and soldiers, including the Americans and peshmerga who all share the same living quarters -- an air-conditioned canvas tent with bunk beds -- happily chat and smoke cigarettes as Kurdish music plays in the background.

"I am just a soldier. I leave the politics to the politicians," said Mohammed Shokat Izet, an Iraqi police sergeant and Turkmen who is married to a Kurd and who has emerged as one of the combined force's leaders.

"I want to serve my country and will do so with anyone, be they Kurds, Arabs or Americans."

First Published: Feb 28, 2010 16:05 IST