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In northern Iraq, longstanding tensions surge even as ISIS is pushed back

Patterns of thought

Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, nominal allies in the battle against Islamic State forces, are trying to control disputed territory – often violently. 

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    The town of Tuz Khurmatu, north of Baghdad, has seen its share of violence. In this January 20, 2014, file photo, a car bomb and a roadside bomb exploded in the town, which is contested between Arabs and Kurds.
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Kurdish fighters and Shiite militias together in 2014 pushed out forces of the self-declared Islamic State (IS) from around the northern Iraqi town of Tuz Khurmatu. But the subsequent bouts of fighting between the nominal allies – and a string of broken cease-fires – are a likely harbinger of future discord in Iraq, as the threat from IS eases and focus returns to longstanding border disputes between Kurds and forces loyal to Baghdad.

In the latest episode, up to a dozen were killed in five days of clashes that began when Shiite militants – who are backed by the central government in Baghdad, as well as Iran – threw a grenade into the house of a Kurdish leader. 

As animosity continues between Kurdish and Baghdad-backed forces, and the failed cease-fires pile up, many fear it could complicate the battle against IS and set the stage for continued conflict in an area essential to Iraq’s long-term recovery.

“We have broken Daesh’s back in this area but fighting between [Kurds and Shiite militias] will only serve Daesh and strengthen them,” says Karim Al-Nuri, a spokesman for the Shiite militias, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

A cease-fire was declared April 24 in Tuz Khurmatu, but mortar attacks and shooting continued until Wednesday, when all sides agreed again to silence their guns around the town, which has turned into two segregated areas, one occupied by ethnic Kurds and the other by Shiite Turkmen. There is still a heavy presence of Kurdish and Shiite armed forces; local police are meant to take control and Kurdish and Shiite forces to withdraw, officials say.

The ethnic and political tensions that have for decades torn this strategic region south of oil-rich city of Kirkuk were exacerbated by the IS sweep into northern Iraq in June 2014. Kurdish peshmerga units took up the fight and advanced south, taking over the territory, including Kirkuk, as Iraqi Army battalions disintegrated before the IS advance. Baghdad’s Shiite-led government still claims that ground, though Kurds want to keep it as part of their autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.

Lack of trust

It may be quiet in Tuz Khurmatu for the moment, but mutual suspicion still runs deep.

“They cannot be trusted,” says Sgt. Mariwan, a Kurdish fighter referring to the Shiite militias, as he plays with a bullet in his hands. Just days earlier, he and his soldiers from the elite Black Force unit fought the militias as they guarded a complex that had been used by the local chief of the powerful Shiite Badr Organization.

“They want to eventually occupy Tuz Khurmatu and its surrounding areas,” he says.

Mr. Nuri of the Shiite militia, meanwhile, had strong words for the Kurdish peshmerga, perhaps showing a rising level of confidence, since such militias have played a major role in weakening IS in central Iraq and enjoy the backing of the Iraqi government and neighboring Iran.

“If anyone wants to extend the borders by blood, this is a huge mistake, and we will not allow this,” he warns.

Shiite militias have been trying to entrench their position in Tuz Khormatu and farther north, where there are significant Shiite populations. The Kurds want to consolidate their grip on those areas ahead of a major offensive – expected by year’s end – to push IS out of Mosul.

“I think more struggle over territory will occur,” says Christine van den Toorn, director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. “Such [cease-fire] deals might get us through the next few months … but it’s not going to work unless it’s part of a broader national deal."

With a mix of Kurdish, Shia Turkmen, and Arab populations, Khurmatu has long been a highly combustible area. A former district of the multiethnic, multi-sectarian Kirkuk province, Khurmatu was detached from Kirkuk in mid-1970s and annexed to the newly formed Salahaddin province, which included the hometown of future President Saddam Hussein.

Iraq’s post-Hussein constitution in 2005 stated that a series of measures be taken in order to reverse the impact of Hussein’s efforts to manipulate ethnic rivalries to strengthen his control. That process was to culminate in a referendum where the residents would vote on whether they wanted to be ruled by the KRG to the north or the federal government in Baghdad.

But that has not happened. IS has lost almost half the territory it controlled in Iraq and faces multiple offensives by Iraqi forces, but the actors here are vying, often violently, to fill the void. Rivalries over land and resources have poisoned communal relations and local politics. Each side sees the other party as trying to impose its will. 

In the past, Iranian officials have intervened to broker deals between the Kurds and Shiite forces in Khurmatu, but these have been short-lived and fragile. There is little room for the United States to play a role as mediator, as it does not have any sway over the Shiite armed groups. 

As a result, many Khurmatu residents, such as university student Mustafa Farhad, are anxious about the prospects of life in their town. He says rounds of fighting have severely damaged social relations among communities here.

He quit going to school for several days after the fighting broke out because his school was in the Turkmen part of town. If it continues, he says, the town will lose more residents. 

“If there is going to be more heavy fighting again, we will leave the town,” he says. “We’ll go somewhere else, probably Kirkuk.”

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