The conflict with Syria is threatening to spill over borders, as Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad line up on opposing sides. Now the face-off has gone beyond words, with Iraqi and Kurdish troops digging trenches in a border village.
For weeks, Iraqis living in villages and towns near the Syrian border have heard bomb blasts and explosions as the Syrian rebels and the Syrian army fight fierce battles. But now observers are warning that Iraqis may soon do more than just hear the noise of warfare, as the conflict threatens to spill over the border.
The would-be battleground looks likely to be the northern Iraqi state of Ninawa and, rather than any Syrians playing a role in fighting, the troops facing off will be those belonging to the Iraqi army, under Baghdad’s command, and troops belonging to Iraqi Kurdistan, under Erbil’s command. The semi-autonomous state has its own borders, government, legislature and military, all of which operate relatively independently of the rest of Iraq.
And while the government in Baghdad appears to have been tacitly supporting the beleaguered regime of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - or at the very least, trying to stay neutral – at least some of the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have been doing exactly the opposite.
For example, the region’s president, Massoud al-Barzani, recently admitted that the Iraqi Kurdish had been giving military training to Syrian Kurdish refugees who had fled over the border.
The Kurdish people are one the largest ethnic groups in the world without an actual homeland and Kurdish living in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey share a language, culture and ethnicity. Analysts say that by supporting their Syrian Kurdish counterparts in the ouster of al-Assad’s regime, the Iraqi Kurdish hope to be able to play a role in Syria in the future, should al-Assad be deposed.
Syrian Kurds have long been discriminated against in Syria and if al-Assad falls, they may be able to use this as an opportunity to advance their people.
And now these opposing viewpoints are manifesting in reality, and in particular in the border village of Qahira, which is near the Rabia border crossing. Life in border towns has been tense anyway and when Syrian rebels took control of several checkpoints on the Syrian side, things became even more so.
Additionally, there has been a flood of Iraqis returning home to escape the ever-increasing violence in Syria. The head of the Rabia border crossing told NIQASH that he believed 7,000 Iraqis had returned over this crossing since last Sunday.
Meanwhile the small village of Qahira, with about 80 residences, has seen conflict of a different kind. All of its inhabitants apparently fled the village within the space of an hour recently because of the arrival of both Iraqi Kurdish troops - known as Peshmerga – and the Iraqi military.
“Everyone left because they were afraid of violence similar to what is happening in Syria,” one of the village’s residents, Ali al-Sayed told NIQASH. “The Peshmerga and the Iraqi army seemed to be about to start a battle. We didn’t know what was going on. We only wanted to stay alive.”
Al-Sayed says that all of the families in the village, including children and elderly, fled their houses on one of the hottest days they’ve had there so far, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which sees the religious fasting all day until the evening. Currently Qahira’s residents are all sheltering in nearby villages or they’ve gone to the city of Mosul, al-Sayed says.
Now apparently the only people occupying Qahira are the Peshmerga and the Iraqi military. The Iraqi regiment that moved there is part of a larger force that had been deployed along the Iraqi-Syria border when the Syrian rebels began to target border crossings.
The Peshmerga forces have been in this area for longer. Mosul, Kirkuk and other parts of the state of Ninawa are what are best described as Iraq’s disputed territories. That is, there is land there that Iraqi Kurdistan says belongs to Iraqi Kurdistan but which Baghdad says belongs to Iraq. However in reality, the Iraqi Kurdish has been able to, at least partially, control some of these areas, as their military have remained in charge there.
And this could be one reason why the Peshmerga troops refused to allow the Iraqi army regiment to cross the village towards one of the border checkpoints, where the Iraqi army would have been able to stop Syrians passing back and forth between the two countries.
According to local eyewitnesses, the two military groups then began to cement their positions at either side of the village, by digging trenches. Both were showing they would not budge.
Official sources from within the Peshmerga said that no skirmishes had taken place but did admit that their troops had prevented the Iraqi military from approaching the border.
At a recent press conference held by the governor of the state of Ninawa, Atheel al-Nujaifi, he raised concerns about an Iraqi-Kurdish conflict, fuelled by differences over the Syrian conflict.
Ninawa’s governor informed gathered reporters that he knew nothing about the troop movements or the confrontation and that the local government had had nothing to do with any of the mobilizations.
The Ninawa operations command, the Iraqi army authority responsible for security in parts of the province not controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish, confirmed that they had moved some troops into areas of the city of Mosul to fill in gaps created by others heading out to border areas. However, the operations command would not comment on what was happening in Qahira, saying that only the federal Ministry of Defence could make statements on this matter.
Baghdad daily, Azzam, reported a statement from Baghdad: “The Office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces announced earlier that the forces within Kurdistan are acting against the constitution, accusing them of nearly provoking a conflict with the armed forces,” Azzam wrote.
“[Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki said in a statement yesterday that there were clear suspicions that the province's guards had turned the region, near the Iraqi-Syrian border, into a haven for militants to cross to and from Syria, stressing that this was why they refused the army entry to that area, given that they could cut off supplies to insurgents.”
Azzam also reported that al-Maliki had called the moves by the Kurdish forces unconstitutional – the Iraqi military was supposed to protect the nation’s borders – and that it was yet another sign that the Iraqi Kurdish were trying to form their own state.
But without further information, it is hard to say whether the Iraqi Kurdish are helping Syrian rebels move back and forth and thereby tacitly supporting the attempts to overthrow the al-Assad regime. Or whether this is just the latest flashpoint in a long and ongoing saga about the disputed territories in this area. There have been similar situations in the past, and these did not involve Syria.
At the press conference in Ninawa, Governor al-Nujaifi said he feared an escalation of the Kurdish-Iraq conflict, currently escalating in the political arena, where the two sets of leaders have been harshly critical of one another over issues such as oil industry contracts, federalization, power sharing and the Syrian issue.
One thing is certain though: the Iraqi-Syrian border remains as porous as ever, with reports that smugglers from over the border continue to bring contraband, including weapons back and forth, at will.
Rabia is well known for smuggling and one of Iraqi smugglers, who gave his name only as Rahmeh, says that Syrian contraband is moving more freely than ever.
“The Syrian smugglers are doing the same thing we did when the Saddam Hussein regime, and the entire Iraqi state, collapsed in 2003,” Rahmeh says, perhaps giving an indication of exactly how things stand over the border. “They come with their own cars, they cross the dirt barrier and they bring in smuggled goods because there is no one to stop them,” he notes.
The trade goes both ways too: “Ten days ago, the Syrians started to demand more weapons,” Rahmeh says. “We’ve heard that most of these munitions are bound for [the Syrian city of] Aleppo.”