Already a dangerous battleground for an array of forces, Baghdad soon could be flooded with another volatile element: thousands of Kurds from northern Iraq.
As part of President Bush's new strategy for Iraq, 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqi troops will deploy to Baghdad in the coming weeks, American and Iraqi officials said, and as many as 3,600 could be Kurds. It would be the first time such a large number of Kurdish forces have been sent to the capital.
The impending deployment has raised fears among Kurds, most of whom live in a protected autonomous enclave, that they are being dragged more directly into Iraq's bloody and complex civil war.
Most of the fighting in Iraq is between Shiite and Sunni Arabs, but Kurds, most of whom are Sunni Muslims, fear that could change if they are seen as players in the country's main struggle.
"I don't think it's wise," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker in Baghdad. "This is a Sunni-Shiite conflict."
Most Kurdish troops are not acquainted with Baghdad, many speak neither Arabic nor English, and their participation could create an even deeper conflict between Kurds and Arabs, he said.
Large numbers of Kurds mix with Arabs in the Kirkuk and Mosul areas of northern Iraq, and a small number live in the capital, but Arab politicians also question the wisdom of bringing Kurdish soldiers into the conflict.
"I advise the Kurdish people to apply pressure on their leaders to prevent this step," said Mohammed Daini, a lawmaker with a major Sunni bloc. Kurdish forces, he said, "will face firm resistance from both the Sunnis and the Shiites."
Sheik Abdul Razzaq Naddawi, an aide to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, agreed that Kurdish troops would not be welcome.
"The Kurds, frankly speaking, consider themselves superior to other Iraqis," he said. "Would they allow troops from the middle or the south to arrive in Kurdistan?" he asked. "Their borders are closed, and they are practically independent."
The idea of using Kurdish troops to quell violence in both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad originated in backroom talks among the country's main power brokers. With a chance to live their dream of autonomy, Kurdish lawmakers were extremely reluctant to take part in the plan. But Iraqi officials as well as U.S. military and political officials argued that if they failed to participate, it would show their lack of commitment to the nation.
Word of the planned deployment took Kurds by surprise. In their small but prospering northern enclave, they shook their heads over the prospect of getting involved in a conflict that has bedeviled the most powerful army on Earth.
"If America and the Arabs aren't able to stop Sunnis and Shiites from killing each other indiscriminately, then what use will it be to send in our forces?" asked one Kurd in an online forum.
"We do not need to have our young men getting killed in a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites," read another posting. "They are both our enemies."
Allegiances and neutrality
The Iraqi government has planned for a 50% troop increase in Baghdad, adding the equivalent of an entire division. U.S. and Iraqi officials say two or three predominantly Kurdish brigades will participate.
A U.S. advisor to the Iraqi Defense Ministry acknowledged that language was a concern, but said the problem would be mitigated by the mix of Arab, Kurdish and American troops in Baghdad.
Politicians in favor of the deployment say Kurdish troops are more impartial than security forces currently in the capital.
Khaliq Zenghana, a Kurdish lawmaker, suggested that Kurdish forces could help protect ministries and government institutions, now mostly run as fiefdoms by sectarian militias.
"The Kurds are neutral in that we do not concern ourselves with the Sunnis or Shiites," he said. "That must be understood by the Arabs here in Baghdad: We do not want to come to protect a neighborhood over another one."
However, many Kurdish soldiers are loyal first to leaders of their own ethnic group, even if they wear the uniform of the national army.
The late Saddam Hussein's regime oppressed the Kurds, killing thousands in a military campaign and sowing division between Kurds and Arabs. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. enforced a no-fly zone over semiautonomous Kurdistan.
Although most Kurds are Sunni, they have been natural allies of the Shiites, with both groups fighting Hussein's Sunni Arab-dominated army.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the historic mistrust between Kurds and Arabs deepened as political groups fought over resources and government posts. Sunni Arabs complained of heavy-handed tactics by Kurdish soldiers who took part in offensives against insurgents in Tall Afar and Fallouja. Also, Kurds and Arabs are locked in a dispute over the future of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.
In Kirkuk, as well as Mosul, Kurdish soldiers wear Kurdish insignia on their Iraqi army uniforms and openly proclaim their desire to annex these ethnically mixed cities to their Kurdish region farther north.
Calling on the militia
Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki have promised that Iraqi security forces will go after Sunni and Shiite gunmen alike. Until now, however, the Shiite-dominated security forces have focused mostly on capturing Sunnis.
The allegiance of Shiite soldiers and policemen often lies with sectarian rather than national leaders. Renegade Shiite security forces have tortured and killed Sunni civilians. Sunni rebels, for their part, have hunkered down in certain neighborhoods, also menacing civilians and fighting off the security forces.
Kurdish officials said that the Americans also have asked for the participation of the Kurdish militia, known as peshmerga, but the request was still being debated in the regional parliament.
Concern about the possible participation of the peshmerga already has been expressed within Sadr's Al Mahdi militia.
"They are doing a good job inside Kurdistan, so they should stay there," said one militiaman who identified himself only as Abu Karrar.
Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari said the army brigades coming to Baghdad would answer to Iraqi army commanders rather than militia leaders.
Far from the civil war raging in Baghdad, residents in the quiet Kurdish city of Irbil were not enthusiastic about the deployment.
"It's an Iraqi issue and Iraq contains all of us, although I think this will cause problems for Kurds and if there was any possible way not to participate, I would prefer that," said Rezgar Taha, 34.