The Allied Force Fighting to Liberate Mosul Is Tearing Itself Apart
Kurdish-Shia split is a sobering preview of post-Islamic State Iraq
by KEVIN KNODELL
Iraqi security forces backed by the U.S.-led international coalition have launched a campaign to dislodge Islamic State militants from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
It’s an ambitious operation involving multiple factions — and one that could determine the country’s fate as it struggles to eject ISIS and hold itself together amid sectarian bickering.
For even as the anti-ISIS coalition wages this decisive battle, Kurdish troops are clashing with Shia militiamen in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Fighting erupted on the night of April 23 after Shia militiamen allegedly threw a grenade into the house of a Peshmerga commander in the town. Several Peshmerga and Shia fighters have died in the ensuing clashes.
Leaders from the two sides worked out a truce, but the peace is fragile. Such internal fighting is becoming a nearly monthly occurrence as the two groups in the town — ostensibly allies in the battle against Islamic State — fail to find common ground aside from their mutual enemy.
It’s a sobering reminder that even if the alliance manages to dislodge the Islamic State from Mosul, Iraq will continue to suffer sectarian violence.
Tuz Khurmatu is under the control of Peshmerga loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan — the PUK — and Shia militiamen. The Shia militia fighters are a mix of local Turkmen and Shia Arabs that came up from Iraq’s southern provinces to fight Islamic State.
Both sides have historical ties to Iran. Maj. Gen. Abdulla Musla Boor currently commands the Peshmerga forces in Tuz Khurmatu. The old warrior once fought against Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime as an Iran-based guerilla for the PUK.
Iran also backed the PUK during the Kurdish civil war of the 1990s — and many Iraqi Kurds loyal to the PUK have family ties to Iranian Kurds across the border.
The Iran-PUK alliance was born out of the two groups’ common disdain for Hussein’s regime. But the PUK’s secular ideology in many ways makes it an odd ally for Iran’s Islamist regime.
Peshmerga troops and Iran-backed Shia militiamen worked together during the 2014 battle to protect the Iraqi Turkmen town of Amerli.
They fought to repel Islamic State after the Islamists embarked on a genocidal march into the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar. The militants seemed intent on repeating their campaign of slaughter on Shia Turkmen.
U.S. warplanes supported them from the even air as Iranian advisers joined the anti-ISIS fighters on the ground.
But after the fighters secured Amerli, Kurdish troops began reporting that Shia militiamen were abducting Arab and Turkmen Sunnis from the area, looting their homes and even carrying out extrajudicial killings.
When Kurdish troops tried to enter Amerli, Shia militia troops blocked them. The relationship soon soured. It didn’t take long before tensions bubbled to the surface in nearby Tuz Khurmatu, an ethnically mixed town of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.
The Peshmerga began accusing militiamen of more kidnappings and possible killings of Sunnis in the area. The accusations against the militia became a source of conflict.
Boor and his troops told War Is Boring early into the conflict that they considered it their duty to protect all Tuz Kharmatu’s residents, regardless of ethnicity or sect. Their reasoning was partially pragmatic, as Boor stressed that having Sunni Arab allies to fight against Islamic State would be vital to bringing down the group.
By October 2014, photos emerged of Iranian major general Ghassem Soleymani — Tehran’s top agent in the Middle East — meeting with Peshmerga fighters in Tuz Khurmatu. It’s possible he hoped to smooth things over between the two groups.
However, the two forces have continued to poke each other. Just a few months after Soleymani’s visit gunmen killed a local Kurdish Sunni cleric in a drive-by shooting. Locals blamed Shia militiamen.
The relationship has remained tense. Peshmerga troops and Shia militia have had a series of standoffs both in Tuz Khurmatu as well as the ethnically mixed town of Jalawla.
The most recent round of fighting in Tuz Khurmatu prompted a summit of local leaders, where Boor was joined by Peshmerga general Mahmood Sangawi and Kirkuk governor Najmadin Karim for negotiations with Shia militia leaders.
The two have agreed to pull out the bulk of their forces and leave security to the town’s local police force.
The agreement hinges on the police force achieving a personnel balance that reasonably reflects the town’s ethnic makeup — a process Kurdish town official Kareem Shkur told Reuters will take a month.
In the meantime, Peshmerga and Shia militia leaders in Tuz Khurmato will be coordinate future operations through a joint operations room.
Many Sunni Arabs in the north have told War Is Boring that they fear southern Shia militias — and hope that Kurdish authorities will protect them.
Last year, Arab Sunnis from Jalawla, now living in a nearby refugee camp, complained that when the central government in Baghdad took over camp administration from the Kurdish Regional Government, there was serious decrease in services and resources.
Several of the refugees expressed an interest in living under Kurdish rule if they ever got the choice. But Sangawi, who commands Boor and his troops as well as those in Jalawla, has said that he’d like to expel Arabs families that settled in the region during Saddam Hussein’s rule.
During the battle for the town, Kurdish officials told War Is Boring that many of those same Arabs aided Kurdish forces as scouts and informants.
Human-rights monitors have alleged that some Peshmerga units have destroyed and looted Arab homes in an effort to “cleanse” ethnically-mixed areas, thus making space for more Kurdish settlement. Kurdish leaders are mulling what to do with the growing number of Arab citizens and refugees in northern Iraq.
This whole mess is a chilling preview how complicated Iraq’s security situation is likely to remain even if the disparate factions manage to band together and defeat Islamic State. What comes after that is likely to be a vexing problem in its own right.
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