In the aftermath of clashes between Sunni Muslim protestors and Iraqi army forces, in Hawija in the Ninawa province in northern Iraq, the Iraqi army has partially withdrawn from the area. The clashes, which occurred when the army entered a camp of protestors, resulted in around 50 dead and over 100 injured. An army officer was also killed and around 30 soldiers injured.
Both sides have differing explanations for how the clashes began. The army says protestors attacked an army checkpoint near the square where they were holding their sit-ins, killing one soldier and injuring two others. As a result the army tried to chase the culprits but they hid among protestors in the camp.
The protestors themselves say the Iraqi army simply attacked their camp and they believe they did so on direct orders from the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
Tensions spread into other provinces but after some further fighting, the conflict is officially supposed to be at an end. This may be so but according to confidential documents sighted by NIQASH, significant numbers of well-equipped peshmerga forces have moved into troubled areas like Hawija, Tikrit and Yayji. Many of these places are part of Iraq’s disputed territories here – that is, terrain that Iraqi Kurdistan says belongs to its semi-autonomous state but that the government in Baghdad believes is part of Iraq proper. The peshmerga appear to have taken the opportunity afforded them by incidents in Hawija to move into some of these areas.
Meanwhile the commander of the controversial Tigris Operation Command, part of the Iraqi army here, wants the peshmerga to withdraw. And his memos appear to indicate that he is ready to confront the peshmerga if they do not move out of areas that he feels his Tigris Operation Command is supposed to oversee. The documents sighted by NIQASH say that the Iraqi army’s 12th brigade was instructed to watch what the peshmerga were doing and that if they did anything out of the ordinary, the brigade was to stop them.
Speaking anonymously, one officer from the Tigris Operations Command told NIQASH that, “we asked the peshmerga to withdraw from where they’ve recently deployed to, in order to ease tensions. We’ve received information that peshmerga have come into areas like Tikrit, Hawija and Yayji, dressed as local police and with the cooperation of local security forces,” he explained. “And that concerned us because it means they’ve exceeded their powers.”
Since it was formed in July last year, the Tigris Operations Command has been controversial, as Iraqi Kurdish forces accused it of being another way that the Iraqi government was trying to take power in disputed territories like Kirkuk.
Despite the fact that Kirkuk is outside the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish say they have historic rights to the city, while the government in Baghdad disputes this.In reality though, it has been unclear who is in charge in these disputed territories.
Kurdish armed forces control some areas while Iraq’s federal troops control others. Formerly US troops stationed here were seen as a buffer between the two groups and more recently there’s been a delicate balance, complete with lack of open confrontation. Officially security is supposed to be the duty of local police and local military together with some Kurdish units. All of which is why the addition of a whole new military force last year was so controversial. And the two sides to the dispute – the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi army – have held their positions ever since.
Neither Jabbar Yawar, spokesperson for the peshmerga, Sarhad Qader, the commander of police forces in Kirkuk province nor the head of the peshmerga\'s first brigade would comment on the current problems when approached by NIQASH, saying they didn’t have the authority to do so. However one of the commanders of the peshmerga forces in the area told NIQASH anonymously that the peshmerga have been told not withdraw unless orders came through from the top of the Iraqi Kurdish government.
“Peshmerga have deployed in the areas the army has left in order to avoid a security vacuum,” he explained. “And we are ready to face any emergency or incident.”
As for the locals in the area, they simply want both sides to back down and comparative peace.
“The local council has also asked the peshmerga to withdraw,” Hussein Ali Saleh, head of Hawija’s local authority, told NIQASH. “We asked them to withdraw and go back to their original stations before the incidents here because we’re worried there will be further clashes if they stay.”
“If these political and military issues are not resolved, then we may see more violence such as that seen in Hawija,” the governor of Kirkuk, Najmuddine Karim, said. Karim blames the Tigris Operations Command for the instability in his area. “The army attacked the protesters inhumanely,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult to heal those wounds and I think the Tigris Operations Command is to be blamed because it is the source of all this current chaos.”
On April 29, a delegation of Iraqi Kurdish politicians, headed by Iraqi Kurdistan\'s Prime Minister, Najirvan Barzani, met with Prime Minister al-Maliki with a view to resolving these issues. And the two sides did agree to come to an arrangement even though, as yet, it doesn’t seem as though anything has changed.
“We saw al-Maliki and Barzani together in Baghdad on television,” comments one Kirkuk local. “It looked as if everything was fine and that there was no dispute between them. But from here all we see is the Iraqi army and the peshmerga taking up positions and it feels as though new problems and violence could erupt any time.”