Kurdish and Shia Fighters Face Off Over Iraqi Town
Both factions want Jalawla
A new batch of Iraqi Shia militiamen have taken positions near the Kurdish controlled town of Jalawla in Northern Iraq. The Kurdish fighters inside the town are not excited about that.
“We hope nothing will happen, but if they fire at peshmerga we will respond,” Gen. Mahmud Sangawi told Kurdish outlet Rudaw on Nov. 14. “We will never let them take over Jalawla. Jalawla is a Kurdish town. We took control of it with our blood. No other forces should be seen inside Jalawla.”
Jalawla was the site of a bloody, protracted battle after Islamic State militants seized Mosul in June 2014. After months of fighting, Kurdish peshmerga troops retook the town last November.
The town lay in ruins and littered with booby traps, and disagreements between Kurdish forces and Shia militia forces led to a tense standoff. Now a year after the Jalawla’s liberation, that uncertainty still hangs over the town.
Former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki deputized Shia militia groups to fight on Baghdad’s behalf after Iraqi army leaders abandoned their troops in Mosul, leaving units to collapse in the face of Islamic State’s advance. The militias gave the Iraqi government a huge influx of fighters, allowing it to strike back at Islamic State.
There been disagreement between northern Kurdish forces and southern Shia militia forces often known as Hashd Al Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units. Many Kurds see the Shia forces as outsiders, and often troublesome ones.
The Shia militias played an important role in protecting the Turkmen town of Amerli as Islamic State forces advanced. Though they prevented the massacre of the mostly Shia Turkmen residents, the battle had an unpleasant epilogue. Kurdish troops began reporting militiamen burning and looting the homes of Sunni residents of the town, both Turkmen and Arab.
Though the war has exposed complications in the relationship between Iraqi Kurds and their Sunni Arab neighbors, peshmerga with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who operate in Jalawla, Kirkuk and Tuz Kharmatu have expressed concerns that the conduct of the Shia militia fighters could drive more Sunnis to join Islamic State.
Many of the militias’ leaders and fighters were ringleaders in the sectarian violence that ravaged Iraq during the U.S. occupation. Both then and now, Iranian agents have held significant sway over these factions.
During the 2014 battle for Jalawla, peshmerga officers told War Is Boring that they couldn’t truly defeat Islamic State forces without Sunni Arab allies. During the course of the battle, Kurdish sources told us the peshmerga were working with local Arabs to gather intelligence.
Islamic State’s brutal tactics caused a rift in the leadership of the Karway, a Sunni Arab tribe that moved to Jalawla in the late 1970s as part of the Ba’athist leader Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” programs. While many joined Islamic State, others worked with the Kurds instead.
When Kurdish forces finally retook the town, Shia militias marching from the south moved into the city as well. It didn’t take long before the militiamen began looting abandoned businesses and leaving graffiti behind.
By January, Kurdish forces and the militiamen signed an agreement that limited the militia presence in the town to 80 men. Jalawla remained a “militarized zone,” and locals mostly lived on the outskirts in refugee camps and had to check with Kurdish security forces if they wanted to retrieve their belongings. However, a volunteer force of locals began guarding businesses from looters.
Kurdish authorities have been in talks with local Arab leaders to form an ethnically mixed security force to take responsibility for the town in the future. However, there are several obstacles to actually putting such a force together. One of them may end up being Sangawi himself, who told both War Is Boring and the BBC that he opposed letting members of the Karway tribe return.
Though some Kurds are willing to let Arabs live in Jalawla, almost all regard it as a Kurdish town. And after losing fighters to take it, they intend to keep it that way.