Statue of a peshmerga on the road into Kirkuk. (photo: Levi Clancy / Wikimedia Commons)
Last month a strange set of pictures appeared on social media used by Iraqi Kurdish locals. They featured market stall holders, selling fruit and vegetables. The captions read things like this: One kilo of apples for the ordinary citizen costs IQD750 (US$0.65). But they will cost peshmerga IQD150”.
Peshmerga is the local name for Kurdish soldiers. In the pictures, the vendors who wanted to charge soldiers double are not shown, nor is the location. Because the joke, if it can be called that, is controversial. This is one of the first times in local history when civilians have openly said derogatory things about their military.
We are demonstrating to ensure that you too can eat. Why are you defending the authorities?
Almost all of the recent past, the peshmerga have been accorded great respect and seen as brave, almost legendary figures. They were heroes in the struggle for Kurdish independence against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and more recently, they have been seen as heroic in their fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State. But over the past few weeks, that mythical reputation has been battered.
Pictures like those of the fruit sellers’ signs are just the latest indication of how angry locals are in the semi-autonomous northern region. Recently the Iraqi Kurdish military was used against civilian protests. The soldiers dispersed demonstrations during which locals were protesting a lack of salary payments and state services; during these events, at least three demonstrators were killed and hundreds more injured. More than 500 were arrested, as some soldiers followed orders and turned their weapons against those they were supposed to protect – at least, according to popular sentiment.
Not all of the Iraqi Kurdish military did as they were told. One captain, Dilshad Shawkur, refused to use his weapon on the protestors and he also asked his colleagues to follow his lead. Speaking to NIQASH, he blamed the Iraqi Kurdish military’s political leaders for the fact that pictures like those of the fruit were doing the rounds on social media. It was their fault that the soldiers’ images had been tarnished.
“The leaders of the KDP [the Kurdistan Democratic Party] and PUK [the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] … did harm to the peshmerga,” Shawkur said. “They praise them when they need them but make them vulnerable to criticism, when they need that."
As many analysts have also pointed out in the past, the Iraqi Kurdish military are not necessarily a force acting in the interests of all Kurds, all the time. “The KDP and PUK have not been able to make the peshmerga a national force,” Shawkur was critical. “Rather it is a partisan force and it is used to serve whatever is in the interests of the political party.”
The soldiers of the Iraqi Kurdish forces are used and abused, just as the civilians are, Shawkur insists. “People were taking pictures with the peshmerga during the war against the Islamic State. Now they criticise them – but these are the same people. Before the salaries of the soldiers were a priority. Now their salaries are delayed and reduced,” he complains.
Then again there is plenty of historical precedent for the Iraqi Kurdish military being used against civilians. In the mid-1990s, both of the major political parties, the PUK and the KDP, launched a civil war against each other using their own troops. Those troops were all regular Iraqi Kurdish military, the same who went on to sacrifice so much in the fight against the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group.
In 2011, demonstrations for reform and for better state services were also suppressed by the deployment of those same soldiers.
And in the past there has certainly been frustration and anger at the way the Iraqi Kurdish military have been deployed against their own people. But this may well be the first time that Iraqi Kurdish citizens have been so open about those feelings, accusing the soldiers of attacking civilians just for the benefit of the politicians.
It was not only pictures like those of the fruit sellers’ signs. Another popular video showed citizens on the streets of Raniya, 130 kilometres north of Sulaymaniyah, berating the soldiers entering the city. They told them: We are demonstrating to ensure that you too can eat. Why are you defending the authorities?
The Iraqi Kurdish soldiers are drawn into conflicts like this because we do not have a regional army, explains Qadir Razgaiy, a local politician and a member of the peshmerga committee in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament.
“It is clear that the peshmerga forces are not a pan-government institution. It is also clear that the political parties are the ones that control the military and that we do not have unified army free from political agendas,” Razgaiy told NIQASH.
The soldiers’ rights are the same as the citizens’ rights, he continued. Razgaiy says he hoped that such realisations would prevent the soldiers from confronting the demonstrators, adding that demonstrators should not become violent though.
The majority of the troops are affiliated with, and paid by, one or other of the region’s two largest political parties. They have not been truly independent or non-partisan since the 1940s.
Today there are around 14 joint brigades, with around 45,000 members. These were formed according to an agreement between the parties which said that if one brigade was headed by a KDP officer, then his deputy should be a PUK officer, and vice versa.
But in addition to those joint forces, each party has its own military. Both outnumber the jointly controlled brigades. The PUK has about 70 units and the KDP has about 80, with around 150,000 members in total.
Mahmoud Sinkawi commands Kurdish forces in the Khanaquin and Karmayan areas and he joined the army 48 years ago. Sinkawi is against using troops to suppress the protests. The role of the soldiers is to protect the citizens, he says.
“Most of those participating in the demonstrations are demanding that the government give them what is rightfully theirs,” Sinkawi told NIQASH. “People have no money for food, no salaries and no electricity. Involving the peshmerga in this partisan fight is unfortunate. Most of the forces present in Kurdistan now are associated with one of two political parties. I prefer the idea of dissolving these forces and forming a new one,” Sinkawi continued. “I support the idea of recruiting peshmerga with the aim being to protect the gains of all of the Kurdish people, rather than just some of them.”
Still, while it is true that antipathetic opinions about the Iraqi Kurdish military are currently being expressed by some, there are still plenty of locals who haven’t given up the hero worship. In fact, in response to the fruit seller pictures, some taxi drivers made signs for their cars, offering free rides to military. And some store owners also made new signs. This time, rather than hiking the price for the armed forces, they offered soldier-customers a bigger discount.