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Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Tensions between Kurds and Shiites could spark civil war

Shiite flag for the holy day of 10 Muharrem in Kirkuk, which the Shiites consider a day of mourning, on 16 November. (Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
Shiite flags adorn a bridge in the disputed city of Kirkuk on 16 November. (Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
An Arab member of the Kurdish security police Asayish is used to petrol the city of Tuz Khurmato (Wladimir van Wilgenburg, 16 November 2015)
A Peshmerga fighter from the sixteen brigade overlooks the city of Tuz Khurmato (Wladimir van Wilgenburg, 16 November 2015)
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter petrols the streets in front of shops burned down by civilians (Wladimir van Wilgenburg, 16 November 2015)
Shiite flags cover a sign on the road between Kirkuk and the city of Daquq on 16 November (Wladimir van Wilgenburg, 16 November 2015)

TUZ KHURMATO — The streets of the mixed Turkmen-Kurdish town of Tuz Khurmato are mostly quiet three days after Iranian intervention and negotiations between Kurdish and Shiite leaders stopped the conflict that erupted between them on 12 November.

Nevertheless, tensions continue via social media after a Kurdish civilian in Europe calling himself Abu Chicho Azraeli published a video insulting Shiite paramilitary forces in response to their videos.

Following the released of the video, civilians recorded yet another video showing a Kurdish flag being walked on in Karbala, one of holiest cities in Shia Islam. In reaction, Kurds burned an Iraqi flag in the main market of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region, last Friday.

Moreover, more videos were published of Kurdish civilians burning Iraqi flags and insulting former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the last two days.
 
These videos could spark new conflicts on the fault lines between Shiite and Kurdish forces in the areas disputed between Baghdad and the Kurdish administration in Erbil.

 

Over 20 people had already been killed in clashes when a gunfight broke out between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) forces at a Kurdish checkpoint on 12 November.

Three days later the town of Tuz Khurmato looks almost empty, the streets of which are patrolled by Kurdish security forces. “Could we see PMU?” we asked Kurdish civilians. “Don’t go there — there are snipers and they will shoot you,” said Sofi, a 20-year-old Kurdish civilian.

 

Gunfire erupted sporadically from Shiite snipers while most shops had been reduced to ashes — either burned by Shiite Turkmen civilians or Kurds.
 
“There was fighting between the Shiites and Kurds,” said Aso, 21, a Kurdish civilian standing in a shop next to the burned remains of a Turkmen shop. “You see the crisis here, and the Popular Mobilization forces have snipers and attack the people. Most of the territory is under their control because of the snipers, even Kurdish districts.”

This is not the first time there have been problems between Shiite paramilitary groups and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. On 9 May, Shiite militants kidnapped the presidential guards of Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurd. After this, tensions also rose between Shiites and Kurds in Tuz Khurmato.

“This is nothing new,” said Colonel Najeb Hassan Afgha, of from the 16th brigade of the Ministry of Peshmerga. “There were some problems a long time ago. There is a problem between Kurdish and Turkmen people. A couple of days ago, a Shiite militia fired on a Kurdish checkpoint. After that, one Shiite militia fighter was killed, and eight were captured by Peshmerga forces.”

Following the attack, PMU forces sent reinforcements from outside Tuz Khurmato and attacked Kurdish civilians, and burning and looting Kurdish shops and houses in revenge. They even attacked the hospital, killing doctor Abdulkhaliq Abdulkarim.

In response, the Kurds sent Peshmerga forces from the frontlines against the Islamic State and anti-terror forces from Sulaymaniyah to the city to prevent escalation.
 
“They came down to the factories and captured the workers and kidnapped 63 Kurdish people, and they took them to Amerli,” Afgha said.

“After that, clashes erupted between Kurdish civilians and Shiite militias. The Shiite militias started burning and robbing shops, houses and trucks, but Kurds did the same.”

 

Afgha suspects that criminal elements among the Kurds and Turkmen tried to take advantage of the conflict situation to loot and smuggle. “An Arab family came from Baghdad and their car was stolen by an unknown group,” he said.

As a consequence, my driver asked me to remove my press pass, fearing possible attempts by criminals to rob or kidnap us in the city. Some Kurdish civilians say the Shiite militias hate the Peshmerga forces so much that they compare them to ISIS militants.
 
“They call the Kurdish forces daeshmerga. They are religious extremists and burned down the Kurdish shops,” Sofi told me. “People are running away and most of them send their families away. The people are very concerned and the situation is horrible.”

On Wednesday, PMU militias released 15 Kurdish hostages a week after the clashes took place. Moreover, Kurdish security forces disarmed Kurdish civilians who were trying to fight.

“Why they fight against civilians? They are extremist and sectarian forces that want to control Tuz Khurmato,” Sofi said.

“There are troublemakers,” said Kurdish civilian Cumma, 34. “The Kurds and Turkmen and Arabs live together and are good people, but the Shiite militias come from Baghdad and make problems.”

“In the beginning there was a fight between Shiit Turkmen and Arabs, and now between Kurds and Turkmen,” he said. “The Turkmen in Tuz Khurmato are very nice people, I think the people from outside come and make problems and destroy everything.”

The tensions have disrupted the road between the Kurdish-controlled territory towards Baghdad.

“People don’t go to Baghdad anymore. The Shiite militia captured his brother,” Cumma said, pointing at a Kurdish civilian who refused to be interviewed, fearing for the safety of his brother. “No one knows where he is now. His brother just wants to know if he is alive or not.”

“We all knew this was going to happen,” Cumma added. “Once they finish ISIS, the Kurds will be next, they told us. Their plan is to capture Tuz today, and then they will go to Kirkuk and beyond. Our leaders say there is an agreement and settle things down, but I don’t trust them. We are afraid.”

According to Cumma, the problem is that there are different Shiite groups who do not work together. “Those from [Iraqi PM] Abadi are okay, but those from [former PM] Maliki are very extremist and violent,” he said.

Kemal Kerkuki, the commander of the frontline in the town of Dibiz, says the PMU must leave these areas.

“They are not like Peshmerga forces — they are mixed and they don’t listen to anyone, including Iraqi PM Abadi,” he said. “They don’t follow the law, and don’t believe in democracy.
 
“They don’t allow Sunnis to go back to Tikrit, and now they come to our city to kill us,” said 25-year-old Kurdish civilian Zulfiqar. “Where were they when ISIS took Mosul? Why they don’t liberate the Shia village of Al Bashir.”

Abu Qasim, a spokesperson for a PMU group linked to Haider al-Abadi in Kirkuk, said mistakes had been made on both sides but that the leadership had solved the problems and that Kurds and Shiite fighters would together liberate the ISIS-occupied Shiite Turkmen village of Al-Bashir in Kirkuk Governorate.

“It is not the time or place to fight because we have a common enemy who targets humanity,” he told me.

“In the resistance factions there are hardliners and moderates,” he said of the political factions within the Shiite paramilitary forces. “But if the leadership tells them, they will not enter the conflict. It is in no one’s interest to have more conflict.”

“We need time to calm down the tensions, because people died. In Iraq it’s difficult since Iraqis are impulsive,” he said. “The tribal people like to fight because they grew up with weapons.

“ISIS kills Kurds, and ISIS kills Turkmen. At the same time, Turkmen ISIS kill Shiite Turkmen, and Arab ISIS also kill Shiite Arabs,” he said. “Therefore, Turkmen, Kurds and Arabs are not each other’s enemies — ISIS’s ideology is our enemy.”

 

But while many Kurdish leaders and Shiite politicians see ISIS as a common enemy, experts expect more clashes.
 
“Iranian-backed Shia militias have sporadically raised their anti-Kurdish messaging since 2013,” said Philip Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher who tracks Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

“[There is] much more anti-Barzani [Kurdish president] and propaganda attempting to cast the Kurds as agents of Israel, ISIS, and the United States,” he added.
 
And it’s unlikely that the Obama administration could do much to stop these tensions in the future, Smyth says.

“I don't believe the US can do all that much to stop feuding between the Shia militias and Kurdish elements. Both groups want to expand their influence.”

 

Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a political analyst and freelance journalist specializing in Kurdish politics, based in Erbil. He tweets @vvanwilgenburg

Shiite flag for the holy day of 10 Muharrem in Kirkuk, which the Shiites consider a day of mourning, on 16 November. (Wladimir van Wilgenburg)

This is nothing new,” said Colonel Najeb Hassan Afgha, of from the 16th brigade of the Ministry of Peshmerga. “There were some problems a long time ago. There is a problem between Kurdish and Turkmen people. A couple of days ago, a Shiite militia fired on a Kurdish checkpoint. After that, one Shiite militia fighter was killed, and eight were captured by Peshmerga forces.”