Kurdish battalion moves toward Baghdad

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Kurdish battalion moves toward Baghdad 

Associated Press  - By YAHYA BARZANJI 

A predominantly Kurdish battalion based in this northern city has started the march toward Baghdad, its commander said, as the Iraqi military gears up for a major security operation aimed at pacifying the capital.

Hundreds of soldiers boarded dozens of jeeps, Humvees and trucks on Monday to begin the trip to Baghdad, 160 miles away.

Members of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 4th Division will undergo more specialized military training before being deployed in the capital, said Brig. Gen. Anwar Golani, the brigade's commander. He said the training will be conducted at a base in western Baghdad under the supervision of U.S. troops.

The Iraqi government has not announced a start date for the new security operation announced by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Jan. 6. President Bush followed by pledging to send 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq, most to the Baghdad area, as part of his new war strategy.

Thousands of Iraqi and U.S. troops are expected to do neighborhood-to-neighborhood search operations to clear Baghdad of Sunni Muslim insurgents and local militias such as the Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Mahdi Army has been blamed for much of the sectarian killings in the past months.

Another Kurdish brigade is undergoing intensive urban combat training near the northern city of Irbil in preparation to move to Baghdad.

It will not be the first time that the 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 4th Division has served in volatile areas. It also spent seven months helping to fight Sunni insurgents in the towns of Balad and Duluiyah, some 45 miles north of Baghdad, Golani said, adding that 14 of his troops were killed and 55 were wounded while there.

Only the 1st Battalion of the brigade was heading to Baghdad because two others are needed to protect oil facilities near the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Golani said. He added that they have started setting up a 4th Battalion after a request from the defense ministry.

Golani said many of his soldiers were formerly part of Kurdish militias known as peshmergas that fought Saddam Hussein's regime for decades, making them experienced fighters. He said they had been integrated into the Iraqi army.

"We did benefit a lot from our previous experience," Golani said. "We have experience in how to repulse attacks."

Most of the troops are Kurds and don't speak Arabic, but they were able to overcome that problem in Balad and Duluiyah by enlisting Arab members and drivers to help with translation.

One of the soldiers, Heman Ahmed, said his mother asked him to leave the army rather than go to Baghdad but he refused, noting that many of his friends were going and he couldn't desert them.

"I myself would prefer to serve in Kurdistan because I have experience here and know the region," he said, wearing a beige military uniform, sunglasses and a Kurdish turban. "I am worried about going to Baghdad, but in the end we are soldiers and we have to abide by orders."

Golani acknowledged that some soldiers had expressed reservations about going to an unfamiliar area, but he said the mission was an important one.

"Our aim is to stop the bloodshed between the Sunnis and Shiites in addition to protecting civilians who are suffering as a result of that," he said.

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