The dust from the most recent car bomb attack in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, has yet to settle properly. But already there has been a clear rise in anti-Arab sentiment in the region, which has its own military, government and borders within Iraq and which currently neighbours territory taken over by the extremist group, the Islamic State. Many Iraqi Arabs have sought shelter in the better protected Iraqi Kurdish territory but locals say the influx of Arab refugees presents a danger to Kurdish security; they believe that supporters from the Islamic State group, which is now fighting Iraqi Kurdish military, have infiltrated the refugees and displaced people and will launch further attacks inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Some say that at least two more car bomb attacks are expected in the coming weeks.
Even before this latest event, which took place last Wednesday and killed five people and wounded 29, anti-Arab sentiment was already strong in the city. After the event, these feelings were even more pronounced – local media reported that Arabs were being abused by their Kurdish compatriots on the street.
The IS group took responsibility for the suicide car-bomb attack in an online statement. Although many locals had assumed that the suicide bomber who carried out the attack was an Arab, the IS group’s statement said that the name of the bomber was Abdul Rahman al-Kurdi, which indicates the bomber was actually a Kurd.
As a result of the car bombing local security forces said that they would tighten security in the region even further. Iraqi Arabs have already been complaining about how hard it is for them to get through checkpoints. One local Arab journalist regularly working for NIQASH says she is often forced to wait for several hours at least at checkpoints – and that is if she gets into certain parts of Iraqi Kurdistan at all.
“Before any Arab citizen who wanted to go into Erbil was required to have a Kurdish guarantor,” says a member of the security forces in the capital, who could not give his name because he was not authorised to speak to media. “However as of now there will be new procedures for Arabs wanting to enter the city.”
The officer would not elaborate on the new measures.
After the car bomb attack there was also a rumour that security forces had sent out a notice saying that any Iraqi Kurdish citizen was allowed to perform a kind of citizen’s arrest and inspection of any Arab’s ID in their area, if they had reason to suspect something was wrong. However Erbil’s police force said this was just a baseless rumour. Any Iraqi Kurdish local who tried to do this would be subject to arrest, they said.
Erbil police also issued a statement saying that the aim behind this rumour was the creation of hatred and disunity.
Iraqi Kurdish locals should inform the local security forces if they saw anything suspicious. But the job of inspecting and verifying identity cards was a job for the police only, the statement emphasized.
“Arab families living in Erbil fulfil the security forces’ conditions for entry and their identities have been verified,” the statement concluded. “Action will be taken against anyone who is here illegally and who is suspected of having links to terrorist organizations.”
Some locals have made the latest car bomb attack another opportunity to call for a halt to the entry of displaced Iraqis into the region. Some have said that all of the refugees and displaced people in the area should be gathered in special camps and not be allowed into the region’s major cities.
“It’s been a long time since the last attack,” says Ahmad Shakir, an Erbil resident. “And security forces have become more lenient and flexible with visitors. We don’t want to prevent people from elsewhere in Iraq from coming here but we want security personnel to be more vigilant when they inspect vehicles. The car that exploded in Erbil came through the checkpoints,” he points out.
The last car bomb in Erbil exploded outside the headquarters of the region’s secret service in late September 2013.
Any Iraqi citizen should be allowed to enter the region and to reside here, says local lawyer Surour Karim. But he too thinks that security needs to be tightened up and that any terrorism suspects should be closely monitored.
“There could well be people with bad intentions among the displaced seeking shelter here,” Karim argues. “And some may support the IS group. But not all of the displaced are close to the extremists. Some are their victims.”
“Not all of the Arab citizens of this country now living in the Kurdish region can be considered bad or collaborators with the terrorists,” Iraqi Kurdish MP Qader Razqi, a member of the Committee of Internal Affairs and Security in the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament told NIQASH. “Security forces and other institutions should be keeping their eyes open and they should be taking adequate precautions. But they should not be creating more difficulties for the Iraqi people who have sought shelter in Kurdish cities.”
“As part of Iraq, the Kurdish region cannot close its borders and prevent Iraqis from entering,” Razqi continued. “But it should have procedures in place that keep the region secure without violating people’s rights.”
“Not everyone who is coming into Iraqi Kurdistan is a good person,” says Rankin Abdullah Mohammed, an Iraqi Kurdish MP from the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad. “But that doesn’t mean we should make the lives of those who come here difficult.” Instead she called upon the people of Iraqi Kurdistan to practice self restraint and to refrain from anything that might do damage to the region’s reputation for tolerance.