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iraq's kurds and the extremists
are they really in a secret alliance?

Zanko Ahmad
It is one of the many conspiracy theories in Baghdad: Iraq's Kurds betrayed the country and are secretly allied with Sunni extremists. Up north Iraqi Kurdish forces say they've been told not to shoot at ISIS and…
19.06.2014  |  Sulaymaniyah
A Kurdish flag atop a tank.
A Kurdish flag atop a tank.

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He and his men are stationed on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Kurdish territory ends and the territory controlled by Sunni Muslim extremists now begins. And, as this Iraqi Kurdish lieutenant says, he and his troops see Sunni extremist fighters every day. But, he adds, they have orders not to engage them.

“Our commanders have told us to be ready to defend the areas we control at all costs,” said the lieutenant, who did not want to be named because he was not supposed to comment to media. “But we are not allowed to attack ISIS militants unless they attack us.”

NIQASH spoke with a number of members of the Iraqi Kurdish military who were deployed on the front lines and all said that they were given orders not to shoot first. They could only attack ISIS, if ISIS attacked them.

Such comments seem to provide evidence that some of the darker conspiracy theories doing the rounds in senior political circles in Baghdad might be true. These involve accusations that the Iraqi Kurdish have some kind of special relationship with the Sunni Muslim extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Iraq's beleaguered Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his representatives have hinted at conspiracy theories, alleging that cooperation between the Iraqi Kurdish and Sunni Muslim militias led to the fall of the nearby northern city of Mosul.

Additionally the Iraqi Kurdish have not made any moves to assist the Iraqi army in trying to expel the extremist group. They've been accused of using the crisis for themselves and their own gains; for example, due to the Iraqi army simply leaving, the Iraqi Kurdish have managed to claim territory in Kirkuk that they've wanted Baghdad to give them for years.

The semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has a long border and these areas are seeing minor skirmishes between military from Iraqi Kurdistan and Sunni Muslim extremists. Where the two groups have met clashes have not lasted longer than a couple of hours, then they have gone their separate ways. And the cities inside Iraqi Kurdistan haven't been badly affected by the fighting either.

ISIS has deployed fighters along Iraqi Kurdistan's borders, taking over former Iraqi army positions east of Mosul right up until the west and then south of Khanaquin too. But through it's spokespeople, ISIS has repeated comments that it has no intention to attack targets inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Many military analysts suspect that this is only because the group cannot afford to, or doesn’t want to, open up any more fronts at the moment.

Given all this, could there by any truth to these allegations that the Iraqi Kurdistan and ISIS are working together, so they both get what they want?

Local political analyst Jamal Hussein doesn’t believe that there could possibly be any coordination between the Iraqi Kurdish authorities and ISIS though. The Iraqi Kurdish just want to stay out of this crisis, he told NIQASH. “No one understands the equation. Those who are close to al-Maliki accuse the Kurds of conspiring with ISIS. While ISIS considers the Kurds “Safavids” and closer to Iran.” In this context, the use of “Safavid”, is an insult because it refers to the Safavid dynasty which ruled neighbouring Iran for centuries.

Iraqi Kurdistan cannot co-exist with ISIS, Hussein says. “Because it is more radical than Al Qaeda and any group that has ever allied themselves with this group has received a beating in the end,” he argues.

“Al-Maliki just wants to blame others for the failure of his army,” insists Ari Harsin, an Iraqi Kurdish MP for the KDP and member of Peshmerga affairs committee in the local parliament. “He has no other option but to say that it's all a plot against him.”

Harsin says there is no way that the Iraqi Kurdish security forces would be flexible in dealings with ISIS. “If ISIS dares to attack one inch of Iraqi Kurdistan then we will see how the Peshmerga react,” he said.

Locals in Iraqi Kurdistan have varying opinions about the current situation and Iraqi Kurdish involvement – or perhaps, non-involvement. Many believe that they shouldn't get involved in this crisis – and what some see as a potential civil war between Iraq's two major sects, Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim – because it means nothing to them. Al-Maliki should deal with these problems, they argue. He must pay the price for his past hostility to Iraq's Sunni Muslims and the country's Kurds.

Others have different opinions and say that if ISIS managed to establish a permanent foothold in northern Iraq, then sooner or later the group will cause Iraqi Kurdistan big problems. They believe Iraqi Kurdistan will suffer more suicide bombings, car bombs and terrorist attacks. If ISIS is not beaten back now, it will be difficult to contain the extremist group later.

The response of Iraqi Kurdistan's biggest political parties to potential confrontations with ISIS has also been varied. While the Iraqi Kurdish military is committed to confronting ISIS is it makes incursions into the semi-autonomous region, which has its own borders, legislation and parliament, rumour has it the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, is apparently more enthusiastic about battling ISIS – the PUK is known to be closer to Iran, a country completely opposed to Sunni Muslim extremism. Meanwhile the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, which is known to be closer to Turkey, is not as keen.

This suggestion is supported by the location of Iraqi Kurdish-ISIS clashes so far. Traditionally control over the whole region of Iraqi Kurdistan has been split between the PUK and the KDP. And more of these skirmishes have taken place in areas around Kirkuk and near Diyala, which are controlled by the PUK. The area towards Mosul, controlled by the KDP, has seen less fighting.

Iraqi Kurdistan has been in this situation before and security forces here know better than anyone what having extremists next door means. Between 2001 and 2003, Ansar Al Islam, another Sunni Muslim extremist group affiliated with Al Qaeda, took control of terrain, including small villages, in the mountainous Horaman area in the Sulaymaniyah district of Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdish security forces fought the extremists but only managed to finally expel the groups with the help of US munitions in 2003. The extremist camps were used to launch attacks on Iraqi Kurdish targets and Iraqi Kurdish locals fear the same thing may happen again if ISIS gains a permanent foothold anywhere in Iraq.

At the moment it does seem that Iraqi Kurdish politicians have already come to the conclusion that this unofficial truce between themselves and ISIS cannot last much longer. Preparations seem to be under way for some kind of confrontation. On June 17, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, held meetings with leaders of local security forces. A statement issued afterwards said that there would be no compromise when dealing with terrorist organizations.

Maybe ISIS knows this too. In one of their latest propaganda clips posted onto YouTube, ISIS makes threats against Iraqi Kurdistan. The tape shows individuals speaking Kurdish and one of them is pointing north, saying that, “the next phase will be the declaration of an Islamic state in Erbil and Dohuk”. Whether this is seriously meant or whether it is just more of the same of ISIS' threatening posturing is not clear. But what is clear is that the Iraqi Kurds will be unable to live peacefully with their new neighbours for very long.