Kurdish military in Iraq because they 'Cannot sit still and watch Kurdish civilians killed'
As US troops prepare to withdraw, conflict along ethnic and sectarian lines is one of Iraq’s greatest potential problems. Now Kurdish troops are moving into Diyala province to protect their own people there.
“Our patience is not eternal and we cannot take it anymore. As of today, we will protect our people with our own hands.” This was the statement made by Kurdish politician Mahmoud al-Sangawi as he announced that military forces from the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan were being dispatched to the Diyala province inside Iraq proper to protect the Kurdish people living there.
Al-Sangawi is a high ranking member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two leading political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, who currently administer the region. The Kurdish forces have been deployed beyond the borders of the semi-autonomous state because, according to officials, ongoing and recent violence in Diyala has led to deaths and displacement among the Kurdish living there.
The Kurdish bloc in Baghdad’s parliament recently estimated that, since the fall of the former Iraqi regime after a US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, nearly 500 Kurdish civilians have been killed in the Diyala region and 1,400 Kurdish families have been displaced because of violence against them. The province, which is 55 kilometres northeast of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, is made up of six districts and has a population of around 1.5 million people. These are a mixture of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen – although Arabs make up almost three quarters of Diyala’s population, there are some areas where Kurds are in the majority.
A press release issued by the PUK after its last meeting in mid-August concluded that “the tense situation in Sadiya, Jalawla and other Kurdish areas in the Diyala province poses a real and direct threat to all Kurdish people. Careful investigation has revealed that attacks [against Kurdish] are not being carried out by terrorists,” the politicians said, “but are being organized as part of a campaign that seeks to continue the policies of Arabisation.”
Arabisation was the name given to a policy practised by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that saw hundreds of thousands of Kurdish families deported and ethnic Arab families brought in to take their place. The tug of war over geography in places like Diyala, Kirkuk and Mosul has continued even after Hussein’s regime toppled. In 2003, Article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution was formulated to remedy the expulsions, the ethnic cleansing and Arabisation, through three steps.
These are, firstly, normalization - a return of Kurds and other residents displaced by Arabisation – followed by a census taken to determine the demographic makeup of the province's population and then finally, a referendum to determine the status of disputed territories. Obviously whether a territory is home to mainly Kurds or mainly Arabs will have an effect on who can lay claim to the area.
Originally Article 140 was supposed to begin to be implemented at the end of 2007. However as yet, no real steps appear to have been taken and all the while tensions between Iraqi and Kurdish interests in disputed areas continue to rise. And post-US-withdrawal, analysts believe that if a civil war was to start in Iraq, then these types of disputed areas might well become flashpoints for conflict.
In fact after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Kurdish military forces – known as the Peshmerga – were sent to serve in several parts of Diyala. Often US troops had acted as a buffer between Kurdish and Iraqi forces and they’d also trained a number of tri-partite forces, consisting of themselves as well as Iraqi and Kurdish military. Eventually though, the Kurdish forces had been convinced to leave the Diyala province, leaving the security of the Kurds resident there in Iraqi army, Iraqi police and US military hands.
However, as recent political declarations and troop movements indicate, this month things have changed. On Aug. 18, a representative of the government of Iraqi Kurdistan Kurdish, Kamal Karkuki, explained that the 2008 withdrawal of Peshmerga forces from Diyala had been made because of pressure from the US and he described it as a “strategic mistake”.
“These areas are part of the Kurdistan region,” Karkuki argued, “and it is our duty to send the Peshmerga forces there to save the lives of citizens. We asked for deployment of the Peshmerga in the Kurdish parts of Diyala and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan has responded positively to that request.”
Several thousand Peshmerga fighters have now taken up positions on the outskirts of towns in Diyala where Kurds have been attacked. According to information obtained by NIQASH, the Kurdish forces are heavily armed. They have also been given dispensation by local clerics to break the fast expected of them during the month of Ramadan, a holy month during which Muslims fast and refrain from smoking or sex during the day in order to learn humility, spirituality and patience. The fatwa – a religious opinion issued by a holy man – was issued because, as one of the clerics said, because the Peshmerga troops “are travelling and performing a sacred duty.”
The towns of Sadiya and Jalawla, both in the Khanaquin district where the Peshmerga have been deployed, are home to a mixture of Arabs and Kurds. And Kurdish theorists have voiced their suspicions that there is also a hidden battle to categorize these areas as home to either one ethnicity or the other.
Official statistics appear to indicate that currently the Arab ethnicity is winning. The number of Kurds living in the area has dropped since the regime change in 2003 and the number of Arabs has gone up. In the town of Jalawla, the percentage of Arab residents has gone from 40 to 77. In Sadiya, Arabs went from 37 per cent of the population to 82 and the number of Kurdish declined from 31 per cent to just 7 per cent. And in Qartaba, the Arab population has risen from 52 per cent to 66, while the Kurdish dropped from 27 to 16 per cent.
The numbers of Kurds living in the area had fallen because of security concerns, Jabbar Yawar, the spokesperson for the Kurdish Peshmerga military forces, argued. Out of 555 people who were killed in the area, 423 were Kurdish. Yawar also listed the number of families that had been forced to leave their homes in the Diyala province: 679 in Jalawla, 610 in Sadiya and 64 in Qartaba.
In Baghdad, the spokesperson for the Kurdish voting bloc in Iraq’s federal parliament, Muayad al-Tayeb, told reporters at a press conference held in his Baghdad office that Kurds in the area had made formal complaints about the performance of Iraqi military in the region. He accused the Iraqi armed forces of condoning attacks against Kurds, saying that “we believe that [Iraqi prime minister] Nouri al-Maliki, as commander in chief of the armed forces, can put an end to violence in the region.”
The deterioration in the security situation comes at a particularly difficult time, just as US forces are slowly withdrawing from Iraq, with American forces that were previously cooperating with Iraqi and Kurdish military ceasing those operations at the beginning of August.
Burhan Mohammed, a Kurdish MP in Baghdad, believes the tensions in Diyala stem from the Iraqi government’s lack of commitment to Article 140. Hardly any of the plans mooted in Article 140 have been acted upon and “this has opened the door wide for the expulsion of Kurdish families from their homes,” Mohammed said.
Meanwhile the Iraqi politicians who hold the majority of seats in the Diyala province have denied that Kurds are being specifically targeted in recent violence and they condemned the deployment of Kurdish military in the area. In a press release, the Iraqiya List MPS argued that this move “will only further complicate the situation.”
Nonetheless the Kurdish military are sticking to their guns, literally. They will not withdraw from Diyala this time until the security of Kurdish civilians is guaranteed. Because, they argue, the Peshmerga “cannot just sit still and watch Kurdish citizens killed.”