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1,000 Kurdish soldiers desert Iraq army
by Staff Writers
Kirkuk, Iraq (AFP) June 11, 2013

Traditional footwear thrives in Iraqi Kurdish town
Halabja, Iraq (AFP) June 11, 2013 - Between pots of glue and scraps of cotton, Bahjat Majeed sits cross-legged in his tiny workshop, putting the final touches on a pair of handmade shoes traditionally crafted in his hometown of Halabja.

The meticulously-crafted "klash", which trace their roots back several hundred years, remain a key feature of Kurdish culture even as the three-province autonomous region in north Iraq has seen breakneck economic development.

The shoes feature soles made of cotton fabrics and cow hide, and upper vamps that are made with knitted wool thread, and are usually worn by men on special occasions such as the Kurdish new year celebrations of Nowruz.

"I have been doing this for 15 years," Majeed, 34, says proudly.

"I cannot think of a better job. I make a traditional symbol of Kurdish culture. This is wonderful."

Klash are made in one of three colours -- white, red or blue -- or some combination of the three, and do not differentiate between the left and right foot. The shoes are known in particular for their sturdiness.

They are produced by artisans in the town of Halabja, which lies in a mountainous region near the Iranian border and some 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Baghdad.

The town, however, is sadly more famous as the site of what is thought to have been the worst ever gas attack targeting civilians.

In March 1988, as Iraq's eight-year war with Iran was coming to an end, Kurdish peshmerga rebels, with Tehran's backing, took over the farming community of Halabja near the border with the Islamic republic.

Now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein's forces bombed the area, forcing the rebels to retreat into the surrounding hills, leaving their families behind. Iraqi jets then swooped over the small town and for five hours sprayed it with nerve agents.

An estimated 5,000 people were killed, mostly women and children.

But historically Halabja and the surrounding area have been known for the klash.

And Majeed is an expert in making these handmade shoes.

He deftly passes cotton threads between his toes before connecting them to small machines that wrap them together, helping form, in this case, what will become the sole of the shoe.

A few metres from Majeed's studio, Akram Mustafa tries to convince passing customers to pick up a new pair of klash, showcasing various varieties that sell for between 40,000 and 75,000 Iraqi dinars (between $33 and $62).

It was by chance that Mustafa became fascinated with the traditional Kurdish footwear, when he began selling them on the side of the road while unemployed 16 years ago. Since then, his "love" for the shoes has constantly grown.

"I love these shoes even though they do not bring in much money," he says.

The klash originates from the Hawraman region of Kurdistan, a mountainous area that straddles western and northeast Iraq.

Residents of the area speak Hawrami, one of five Kurdish dialects. Agriculture forms the lion's share of the local economy, and provides the raw materials for the klash.

The footwear is believed -- according to legend -- to have first been worn by Zoroaster, the founder of the eponymous religion.

And while modern-day Kurds typically reserve the klash for ceremonial occasions, shoemakers in Halabja say they also receive strong business from overseas, year-round.

"Throughout the year, we receive orders from abroad, or from Kurds who want to gift these shoes to their friends who live overseas," says Abu Baqr, who runs a store selling klash in the town.

And, he adds, the footwear also inspires feelings of Kurdish nationalism.

"Some people here are proud that their shoes are made from imported material, but the klash is Kurdish and nothing else," Abu Baqr says.

"It is not an imitation."

More than 1,000 Kurdish career soldiers in Iraq's army have deserted and want to be integrated into forces loyal to the autonomous Kurdistan region, a heavy blow to the country's stretched armed forces.

The move comes after the Kurdish troops disobeyed orders to take part in an operation ordered by the Shiite-led authorities against a mainly Sunni Arab town.

If their request is fulfilled, such a mass defection would be a major loss to Iraq's security forces as they grapple with a surge in violence that has sparked fears of renewed sectarian bloodshed.

Two officials said the 1,070 Kurdish members of the Iraqi army's 16th Brigade mutinied when gunmen took control of a northern town in April, and subsequently declined to attend disciplinary re-training.

The soldiers were no longer receiving salaries or rations from the Iraqi army, nor were they following any orders from federal forces, according to the mayor of the town where they are based.

His comments were echoed by the spokesman for the Kurdish ministry responsible for peshmerga forces, the former rebel militia that is now part of Kurdistan's security forces.

But the officials differed as to whether the soldiers' request to join the peshmerga had been met.

The troops had been assigned to the ethnically-mixed towns of Tuz Khurmatu and Sulaiman Bek, the latter of which briefly fell to gunmen in April.

According to Tuz Mayor Shallal Abdul, they stood accused of refusing to follow orders as Sulaiman Bek, a mostly-Arab town, was overrun.

As punishment, they were ordered to attend re-training. Three senior Kurdish officers were also replaced with Arabs, Abdul said.

The troops did not follow orders to stay and defend the town against the Sunni Arab gunmen because they did not want to further raise tensions between Arabs and Kurds in a swathe of disputed territory claimed by both the central government and Kurdish authorities.

"The forces ... are still deployed to their positions, but they are receiving their salaries and orders from the peshmerga ministry," Abdul told AFP.

Peshmerga ministry spokesman Halkurd Mullah Ali confirmed that the soldiers were not carrying out Baghdad's orders, and added that Kurdish authorities were providing rations because officials "sympathised with them".

But he denied that the soldiers were receiving either wages or orders from peshmerga commanders.

"We will discuss their situation with the joint security committee (of the Baghdad government and the autonomous Kurdish regional administration)," he said.

"If we do not reach an agreement with Baghdad about them, we are ready to integrate them into peshmerga forces."

The mass defection comes at a crucial time for Iraq's security forces, which are dealing with a massive spike in violence, months of protests in Sunni Arab provinces, and fears of spillover from the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

Last month, more than 1,000 people were killed in violence according to the United Nations, the highest toll since 2008, and attacks on Monday left 78 people dead.

"This happens in places where you have a severe division of loyalties," warned John Drake, an Iraq analyst for risk consultancy firm AKE Group, referring to the potential defection of the Kurdish troops.

"These tensions are being driven by ethnic and sectarian identity, so when you have got community identity having more of an impact on your job and your efforts to enforce security, you are not going to be an effective force."

He added that it seemed as though "employees of the government -- because that is what they are -- feel that the situation is out of control, and they are resorting to insubordination.

"That would be a worrying sign. It would indicate a lack of belief in the state."


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