SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq -- As the Iraqi government attempts to secure a capital city ravaged by conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslim Arabs, its decision to bring a third party into the mix may cause more problems than peace.
Kurdish soldiers from northern Iraq, who are mostly Sunnis but not Arabs, are deserting the army to avoid the civil war in Baghdad, a conflict they consider someone else's problem.
The Iraqi army brigades being sent to the capital are filled with former members of a Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, and most of the soldiers remain loyal to the militia.
Much as Shiite militias have infiltrated the Iraqi security forces across Arab Iraq, the peshmerga fill the ranks of the Iraqi army in the Kurdish region in the north, poised to secure a semi-independent Kurdistan and seize oil-rich Kirkuk and parts of Mosul if Iraq falls apart. One thing they didn't bank on, they said, was being sent into the "fire" of Baghdad.
"The soldiers don't know the Arabic language, the Arab tradition, and they don't have any experience fighting terror," said Anwar Dolani, a former peshmerga commander who leads the brigade that's being transferred to Baghdad from the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah.
Dolani called the desertions a "phenomenon" but refused to say how many soldiers have left the army.
"I can't deny that a number of soldiers have deserted the army, and it might increase due to the ferocious military operations in Baghdad," he said.
"This is the biggest performance through which we can test them," said Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan, the commander of land forces for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. The Kurdish soldiers will be using translators, and they'll start off doing less dangerous tasks, such as manning checkpoints with Arab soldiers, he said.
In interviews, however, soldiers in Sulaimaniyah expressed loyalty to their Kurdish brethren, not to Iraq. Many said they'd already deserted, and those who are going to Baghdad said they'd flee if the situation there became too difficult.
"I joined the army to be a soldier in my homeland, among my people. Not to fight for others who I have nothing to do with," said Ameen Kareem, 38, who took a week's leave with other soldiers from his brigade in Irbil and never returned. "I used to fight in the mountains and valleys, not in the streets."
Kareem said he knew that deserting was risky, but he said he'd rather be behind bars in Kurdistan than a "soldier in Baghdad's fire." Without the language and with his Kurdish features, he was sure he would stand out, he said. He's a Kurd, he said, and he has no reason to become a target in an Arab war.
Now he drives a taxi in Sulaimaniyah, eking out a living and praying that he doesn't get caught.
Other soldiers in Sulaimaniyah also said they didn't want to be involved in someone else's war.
Farman Mohammed, 42, celebrated the Muslim Eid holiday with his family last month and didn't go back when he heard that he might be deployed to Baghdad. Afraid for his life, he found a new job and settled in with his family.
"The fanatic Sunnis in Baghdad kill the Shiites, and vice versa. Both of them are outraged against the Kurds. They will not hesitate to kill us and accuse us of being collaborators with the occupiers," he said. "How can we face them alone?"
Those who are planning to go to Baghdad said they didn't want to be considered cowards.
Mohammed Abdoul, 41, reluctantly prepared to leave for the Iraqi capital earlier this week. Fear clouded his mind.
"I don't know why we should interfere in this Sunni-Shiite war," he said. "If I am going to face a difficult task in Baghdad and feel sectarian tension, I will leave the army forever, come back to Sulaimaniyah and work in the market."
An army brigade from Sulaimaniyah began arriving at the Muthana Airport in Baghdad earlier this week, and a brigade from Irbil, another Kurdish city, is expected in February, Ghaidan said.
The 1,200 Kurdish soldiers in each of the two brigades from the Kurdish north will be dwarfed by 2,700 soldiers in each brigade that are being brought to Baghdad from the Shiite south.
Generals in Irbil and Sulaimaniyah begged the Ministry of Defense to choose brigades out of Kirkuk that spoke Arabic to help in Baghdad, brigade commander Dolani said. Ghaidan wouldn't explain why entire Kurdish brigades weren't being transferred from the north.
By Leila Fadel and Yaseen Taha