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Though battle-hardened, Iraq's Kurdish militia struggles for role

A key question is whether the pesh merga, who have defended key cities, will disband under last year's accord.

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As Iraq's fledgling security forces prepare to take over the country's defense, a crucial question is emerging: what will happen to Iraq's 80,000 or so pesh merga, the battle- hardened Kurdish militia?

Under an agreement hammered out last June, the pesh merga - meaning "those who face death" - and other militias are supposed to be disbanded and absorbed into Iraq's various security forces. But in turbulent northern Iraqi towns like Mosul, Kirkuk, and Tal Afar, the legendary mountain warriors have continued to fight - not as members of the Iraqi Army or national guard, but as pesh merga under the command of Kurdish political parties.

"Officially, there is no pesh merga, only the Iraqi Army," says Fareed Asasard, director of the Kurdistan Strategic Studies Center. "But still, you can see that the pesh merga remain. Maybe in some countries they have succeeded in changing militias into an army, but here, we continue to have pesh merga."

The pesh merga's role in defending key cities like Mosul, and the growing influence of Iraq's Kurdish minority, have revived the delicate question of how - and where - to use the storied guerrillas. In recent battles, they proved to be an invaluable counterinsurgency force, capturing many insurgents and defending strategic locations. But whether they remain in Kurdistan, or deploy throughout Iraq, their future promises to be a politically explosive issue that could heighten ethnic tensions.

Iraq has two main Kurdish parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. Since 1991, each party has controlled an area of northern Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region. The two parties fought a four-year civil war in the mid-1990s, during which the KDP invited Saddam Hussein's troops into the region to drive back PUK forces. The two parties have agreed to unify the Kurdish region under a single government, but each maintains its own band of armed pesh merga with separate command structures.

A key question is whether the pesh merga will have to disband, under the June agreement. If they don't, that could cause tensions with other forces like the Shiite Badr Brigade, the private army of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

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