More than 1,000 Kurdish career soldiers in the Iraqi army have deserted and want to be integrated into the Kurdish former rebel peshmerga militia, officials said on Tuesday.
The move comes after the Kurdish troops disobeyed orders to take part in an operation ordered by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad against a mainly Sunni Arab town.
If their request is fulfilled, such a mass defection would deal a heavy blow to Iraq’s stretched armed forces as they grapple with a surge in violence that has sparked fears of renewed sectarian bloodshed.
Two officials said the 1,070 Kurdish members of the Iraqi army’s 16th Brigade mutinied when gunmen took control of a northern town in April, and subsequently declined to attend disciplinary re-training.
The soldiers were no longer receiving salaries or rations from the Iraqi army, nor were they following any orders from federal forces, according to the mayor of the town where they are based and the spokesman for the Kurdish peshmerga ministry.
But the officials differed as to whether the soldiers’ request to join the Kurdish peshmerga had been met.
The troops had been assigned to the ethnically-mixed towns of Tuz Khurmatu and Sulaiman Bek, the latter of which briefly fell to gunmen in April.
According to Tuz Mayor Shallal Abdul, they stood accused of refusing to follow orders as Sulaiman Bek, a mostly-Arab town, was overrun. As punishment, they were ordered to attend re-training. Three senior Kurdish officers were also replaced with Arabs, Abdul said.
The troops did not follow orders to stay and defend the town against the Sunni Arab gunmen because they did not want to further raise tensions between Arabs and Kurds in what is a swathe of disputed territory claimed by both the central government and Kurdish authorities.
“The forces ... are still deployed to their positions, but they are receiving their salaries and orders from the peshmerga ministry,” Abdul told AFP.
Peshmerga ministry spokesman Halkurd Mullah Ali confirmed that the soldiers were not carrying out Baghdad’s orders, and added that Kurdish authorities were providing rations because officials “sympathized with them”.
But he denied that the soldiers were receiving either wages or orders from peshmerga commanders.
“We will discuss their situation with the joint security committee [of the Baghdad government and the autonomous Kurdish regional administration],” he said.
“If we do not reach an agreement with Baghdad about them, we are ready to integrate them into peshmerga forces.”
1,000 Iraqi Kurdish soldiers desert army, officials say