Deadly clashes Sunday between soldiers with the U.S.-led coalition and fighters loyal to a radical Shiite cleric underscore the potential of militia groups to upset Iraq's transition to sovereignty and plunge the nation into armed conflict.
There are growing signs that dismantling these groups -- even forces like the Kurdish peshmerga, who fought alongside U.S. troops and were a key ally in routing Islamic insurgents in the north -- is unlikely to happen before coalition forces hand over authority to a new Iraqi government on June 30.
How well the peshmerga and other militias make the transition from political and regional armed forces into the new Iraqi army and other national security forces, analysts say, may well determine whether Iraq avoids civil war once coalition forces withdraw.
"No state can exist in which sub-national entities are allowed to have their own private armies or armed forces," a coalition official negotiating the future of the militias said over the weekend. "Our job is to create a single nation in which the government has the control of armed forces. And in order to do that, all these sub-national forces have to be absorbed."
Peshmerga fighters, whose name means "those who face death," already have begun merging into the new Iraqi civil defense and border guard units, but their leaders now say they will also seek to maintain a force of several thousand warriors as a national guard in northern Iraq, in part to promote their aim of expanding Kurdish control over disputed territories like Kirkuk.
"This force was created to achieve a political goal. It has a bright history of sacrifice and pride. And we are not ready to give up the force so easily," Mustafa Said Qadir, a senior military commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said in an interview.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Shiite Badr Organization, which has about 10,000 fighters in southern and central Iraq, said they would refuse to disarm as long as the Kurds maintained their militia in the north.
"The Americans do not want to dissolve the Kurdish military, but they want to dissolve the Badr Brigade? Do they think we will accept such a thing?" said Sheik Abbas Hakim, spokesman for the Badr Organization's political wing.
"If the Kurds lay down their weapons, then the Shiites will do so.... But we are going to make pressure on the Americans to demand our rights," he said.
Negotiations involving the militias leave largely unanswered the question of what will happen should coalition leaders fail to reach agreement with the paramilitary groups. The peshmerga alone claim 120,000 active troops and at least 35,000 reservists, though these figures may be inflated.
"They're out there, they're armed, and frankly I don't think the coalition has the necessary force to disarm them," said Richard Naab, who coordinated the Coalition Provisional Authority's northern region in 2003.
Sunday's battle near the southern city of Najaf between coalition soldiers from Spain and El Salvador and civilian supporters of radical cleric Muqtader Sadr and members of Sadr's recently created Al Mahdi army made clear the potential for future violence if coalition officials were unable to rein in the paramilitary groups.
Gun battles across Iraq left at least 20 Iraqis, seven American soldiers and one Salvadoran soldier dead and an estimated 200 Iraqis wounded.
The Al Mahdi army is one of half a dozen new militias not being offered the option of joining the national army. So far, only paramilitary groups that helped topple Saddam Hussein -- such groups as the peshmerga, Badr, Iraqi Hezbollah and the Iraqi National Congress -- have been offered recruitment into national armies or, as an alternative, government pensions and job training programs.
There are about 60,000 of these eligible militia members, coalition leaders estimate.
Thousands of peshmerga and several hundred members of the Badr Organization have elected to join the new national structures, and coalition officials say they expect those numbers will grow.
In the scenic northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniya, headquarters of the 35,000 active-duty peshmerga controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, three heavily guarded checkpoints protect the road into town. The soldiers wear the fresh-pressed new uniforms of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, but their faces are leathery and creased, pocked with the wounds of the wars fought in these mountains for more than 25 years.
In the last few months, 3,000 PUK peshmerga have traded in their classic baggy trousers and checked head scarves for these plain green fatigues.
"Ninety percent of the members of this battalion, whether they are officers or office staff or soldiers, all of them have served in the ranks of the peshmerga forces for long years," said Anwar Dollany, a Kurdish commander who now heads a national civil defense unit.
"All of us who have been struggling in the ranks of the peshmerga are ready now to take on any duty that will be assigned to us in the new Iraq. It is a continuation of our service to the people."
But peshmerga leaders emphasized their opposition to disbanding the peshmerga, saying the veteran fighting force has made much of northern Iraq an island of relative tranquillity in a nation ravaged by violence.
Unlike Baghdad, where residents live in constant fear of attacks by mortar fire, roadside bombs and drive-by shootings, residents of Sulaymaniya walk freely through the markets and congregate in parks. Last weekend, scores of Kurdish families were picnicking along the roadsides amid the first yellow wildflowers of spring.
Apart from a twin bombing in Irbil earlier this year blamed on Islamic insurgents, terrorist attacks in the north have been rare, and many credit the peshmerga patrols along the border and an extensive intelligence network across the mountains.
"I'm satisfied that if the peshmerga were just disbanded, there would be no security in this area," said Fareidoon Abdul Qadir, interior minister of the eastern Kurdistan regional government.
Peshmerga leaders insist on maintaining a force of unspecified size within the Kurdish area of northern Iraq as the equivalent of a national guard -- at least, they say, until there are guarantees of Kurdish autonomy in a permanent Iraqi constitution.
Some senior peshmerga officers said they would not be willing to give up their weapons until all the historic Kurdish areas from which Kurds were evicted under Hussein's regime -- particularly oil-rich Kirkuk -- were returned to Kurdish control.
"Let them give us a security guarantee in the permanent constitution. Then we will be prepared to dismantle. But now, it is premature to discuss it," Qadir said.
If they are ordered by coalition forces to disarm on June 30, he said, "Nothing will happen. We are not aggressive. But I want Iraqis to know that if the peshmerga forces disappear physically, and in name, that in the moment of threat, in a time of need, the peshmerga forces will appear again."
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
In stories after April 9, 2004, Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr is correctly referred to as Muqtada Sadr.
--- END NOTE ---