As one of the oldest armed forces in Iraq, Peshmerga dates back to the early 20th century, although its paramilitary roots had arisen in the late 19th century. The Peshmerga forces initially formed among Kurdish tribes in northern Iraq and are now a part of the Iraqi defence system. However, among others political crises and lack of trust remain obstacles to the unification of Peshmerga forces.
During much of the late 20th century, the Peshmerga used guerrilla tactics in their war against Iraqi forces. Some Peshmerga forces led by Mustafa Barzani, the previous leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), while others were under the leadership of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani. After the death of Mustafa Barzani, his son Massoud Barzani (the de-facto president of Kurdish region) took over the leadership of KDP. Most of the efforts by both PUK and KDP were aimed at using Peshmerga forces for a continued control of the party.
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In the wake of the first Gulf War, Iraqi Kurdistan fell into a state of civil war between KDP and PUK. Since that war, the Peshmerga forces have been fighting each other to preserve their areas of influence. When the US-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003, the forces played a critical role in toppling Saddam’s regime. Since then, some of these forces have become a semi-regular force for protecting the region and deterring any threats to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). While the rest of Peshmerga forces remain under the control of both PUK and KDP, they also deter each other and maintain balance and stability (militarily) in the region.
There have been many efforts to unify these forces, but the enthusiasm, willingness, and trust to do so have remained a desideratum. For instance, while waging separate guerrilla wars against the Iraqi army in the 1970s and 1980s, both, KDP and PUK, officially agreed in 1992 to bring together their Peshmerga units and integrate them under the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. However, the eruption of civil war in the region in 1994 negatively affected the integration processes for several years to come.
Still, the two main Kurdish political parties reaffirmed their commitment to unification after signing a peace agreement in 1998. Despite the fact that both PUK and KDP had a common enemy, which was Saddam’s regime, their forces remained divided after the collapse of the regime in 2003.
It seems that the Kurdistan Democratic Party is committed to the 2005 agreement, which provides an equal power sharing with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, through an “equal” control of senior positions (i.e., the President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament). As a result, Barzani took over the presidency in 2005 when a coalition government formed between the PUK and KDP. Ever since, a few Peshmerga forces have been administered by different political parties. This has ultimately brought Peshmerga forces under a sole administration of the Ministry of Peshmerga, making the president of the region and Ministry of Peshmerga (KRG) the constitutional commander of the Peshmerga forces.
However, since the attacks by the Islamic State on Northern Iraq began, most of Peshmerga forces have been mobilised by decisions made by the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Furthermore, the commanders and senior members of PUK and KDP Peshmerga forces are not only fighting the Islamic State, but also facilitating deliberate split and schism among their own forces. For instance, there is a prevailing silence whenever some Peshmerga personnel and officers mount their party’s flag on frontlines at battles.
In addition to that, when the Islamic State took over the control of Mosul in July 2014, the Kurdish parliament (that has been paralysed since 12 October 2015) instructed KRG to unify all the Peshmerga forces within six months. Similarly in many occasions, Barzani has promised to accelerate the unification process of Peshmerga forces. He also ensured that the KRG policy of unification is inline with a request made by the US and other western countries.
Nonetheless, the various Peshmerga forces remain divided along partisan lines. To date, a dozen of armed force and Peshmerga units are still outside the control of the Ministry of Peshmerga. Once again, PUK and KDP are facing a new mutual enemy in the region, which is the Islamic State. However, except some shared Peshmerga units under the control of the Ministry of Peshmerga, several Kurdish forces have independently shown that they are, in one way or another, related to the PUK and KDP. For instance, there are various Kurdish forces and Peshmerga units in Sinjar such as the pro-KDP Rojava Peshmerga, which has formed Syria’s Kurdish National Council (KNC, also known as ENKS in Kurdish), the PKK guerrilla, the YPG fighters, the Sinjar Resistance Units, the Protection Forceof Êzîdxan (HPÊ) founded by Haydar Shesho, the Êzidxan Women’s Units (YJÊ), and other forces divided and controlled separately by the KDP and the PUK.
Moreover, the “units 80”, unofficially called Yakay 80, consist of Gulan Forces, Barzan Forces, Zeravani units, and Asayish and Parastin under the command of the KDP. In the same way, the “units 70”, unofficially called Yakay 70, consist of Dizha Tiror (CTG), Hezekanî Kosrat Rasul, two presidential brigades tasked with defending the Iraqi president, and Zanyarî Agency and Asayish. These forces need to be unified by the commander-in-chief of Peshmerga to protect the region; otherwise, security risks and organisational clash are expected among these forces as has already been noticed in Sinjar.
Officials in KRG insist on the unification process under Barzani’s command. Dindar Zebari, Deputy Head of Kurdistan’s Department of Foreign Relations for International Organisations indicates that “in the past, there was not a solid political will from Baghdad to unify the Peshmerga.” However, several obstacles need to be mentioned such as the war against the Islamic State, financial crisis, political crisis, and more clearly presidential crises.
In spite of him being the commander-in-chief of Peshmerga forces since 2005, Massoud Barzani has marginalised the unification process especially that some commanders of Peshmerga (obviously from PUK) clearly point out that they do not take orders from him anymore. There seems to be a lack of justice on the level of the Ministry of Peshmerga and the commander-in-chief of Peshmerga when dealing with different units of Peshmerga, especially in regard to issues of foreign military aid distribution, weapons, and ammunition, which remain further obstacles on the road of unification. Barzani and his party have been accused of being biased when it comes to treating Peshmerga forces engaged in the fight against the Islamic State.
To sum up, the ideal solutions for unification process are to solve the legal and political crisis throughout the region and to build and increase trust among those parties and armed forces.