Aid to Sunni Arabs in Kurdistan comes with a side of suspicion

Sunni Arabs have found shelter from Iraq's spreading war in Kurdish controlled camps. But ethnic hostility is close to the surface.

Dominique Soguel
The Kurdistan refugee camp for Sunni Arabs outside the Kurdish-controlled Iraqi city of Khanaqin in August, 2014. Some locals call the camp 'Guantánamo,' a reference to the rough conditions and also the view of many Kurds that Sunni Arabs all support terrorism.

An Iraqi mother who had no choice but to deliver her baby at night in a ditch; a little girl in pigtails with a poorly fixed cleft lip; a boy that lost his finger to a fan blade. These are the inhabitants of “Guantánamo” – a precarious camp on the fringes of Khanaqin.

And then there are the men – most of them too young or too old to fight. Kurdish security forces have provided a semblance of shelter as air strikes hit their towns, areas where the militant group Islamic State has allegedly found a solid foothold.

But some say something darker is going on in this camp for Sunni Arabs fleeing the fighting that has swept northern Iraq in recent months. Ethnic hostility between Iraq's Kurds and Arabs is nothing new. But with the mostly Sunni Arab fighters of the so-called Islamic State seeking to expand their territory, and threatening Kurdish controlled areas with invasion, hostility towards all Arabs has reached a fever pitch. To many here, the people living in squalid camp conditions far from their homes aren't victims, but accomplices of IS and its agenda to impose its harsh version of Islamic law on the region.

The camp’s real name is Kurdistan, but managers of other refugee centers in the area refer to it as Guantánamo. Kurdish locals say the nickname is a reference to the “terrorists” who live there, and who have been denied passage into Kurdish-controlled population centers.

The conditions are miserable. The United Nations and other aid agencies have provided tents and non-food items but little else. Were it not for a Sulaymaniyah-based NGO dedicated to keeping “Guantánamo” supplied, 130 families would starve. In contrast, the camps within the city’s perimeter have clinics, communal kitchens, and even child-friendly spaces.

The camp is home to Arab Sunnis who stayed, in the eyes of local authorities, too long in areas under Islamic State control.

“Those families lived for two months with the Islamic State. They didn’t have a problem with them. Even on Youtube and Facebook we saw them welcoming them,” says Ayden Hassan, a local official. “Because of the bombings by the Iraqi air force, those families left Saadiya and Jalawla." He says the people here are being kept out of town for security reasons, and alleges that most of the men from these families are fighting with IS against Kurdish fighters in the area.

The de facto manager of the Kurdistan camp, Zukhoor Assad, a Shiite Kurd, is appalled. She rejects the idea that the families pose a security threat, and says the only reason they took so long to leave IS-held areas in Diyala Province was because they’re too old, young, or sick to move with ease. "The truth is they are not terrorists – they pose a risk to no one," says Ms. Assad.

Tough conditions

Thousands of Arab Sunnis – who arrived earlier and were not deemed a security threat – are already sheltered in three camps within Khanaqin, a disputed territory. The conditions of Kurdistan camp stand in sharp contrast with those in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, where many Christians and other minorities have found shelter.

It also reflects the realities of a war that has widened the fault line between Arabs and Kurds, not only in Iraq but also in Syria. Assad blames the rise of IS on the divisive politics of outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and says the Kurds should avoid repeating his mistakes.

“The camp is like a prison. They are not allowed to enter Khanaqin and they are not allowed to [go home],“ she says. “For all its good measures and good advice, Americans will not get us to reconcile unless we are willing to reconcile ourselves.”

Despite the tough conditions, there is no overt resentment from those living in Kurdistan camp. Most are happy to have found a safe haven – however basic – in Kurdish-run areas that are removed from the “arbitrary bombings” of the Iraqi army and the “indiscriminate killings” of Shiite militias.

The women are quick to credit the hospitality of the Kurds.

The men in the camp – most of them from Saadiya and Jalalwa – refer to the conflict back home as one between gunmen and Shiite militias backed by the warplanes of Baghdad. Rarely do they use the term Islamic State, or its pejorative Arabic acronym, Daash.

“I live in a remote village and have never crossed paths with Islamic State fighters in my life,” says an elder dressed in a grey dishdasha. The children crowded around him are less concerned about appearances or ideology, openly referring to the men who entered their villages as “Daash,” then bursting out in innocent laughter.

Support for IS

Another man, Hussein, was candid about his support for the Islamic State, saying they had checked abuses carried out by Shiite militias and government security services.  “Of course we are grateful to them. They liberated us from the tyrant al-Maliki,” he says.

Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi, from Maliki's Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, will have to work hard to undo the damage done by his predecessor. He must get Sunnis on board in the wider fight against the Islamic State. But those efforts suffered a setback last Friday when gunmen, alleged to be Shiite, killed 73 Sunni worshipers at a mosque in Diyala.

Iraq’s Sunni politicians have pulled out of talks in protest over the attack, which many fear will trigger a fresh cycle of sectarian killings and reprisals. The current spiral of violence in Iraq mirrors the bloodshed of 2007-8, the country’s worst chapter of sectarian strife.

In Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, Arabs who are not Christians are viewed with open suspicion. The minority community is accused of facilitating the advance of the Islamic State, firing at peshmerga forces when they cross Arab villages, and blamed for suicide attacks like the ones that rocked Erbil and Kirkuk last weekend.

“The way Iraqi Arab tribes have assisted ISIS in attacks against Yezidis, Christians and Shiites makes reconciliation very hard to foresee,” wrote Qubad Talabani, deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, on his twitter account.

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