In Northern Iraq, A Sign of the Civil War to Come?
Last week's clashes between Shiite militias and Kurdish military resurrected the spectre of ethnic fighting. A peace deal has been signed. But it's never that easy in Iraq and the area remains “a ticking time bomb”.
Iraqi Kurdish military, the Peshmerga, manning a checkpoint in Tuz Khurmatu during clashes in mid-November. (photo: وكالة الاناضول)
On November 17, various parties in the northern Iraqi city of Tuz Khurmatu signed an agreement that said they would stop fighting one another. The parties to the conflict – members of the Iraqi Kurdish military known as the Peshmerga, members of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias who mostly come from cities further south and locals who belong to the Turkman ethnic group but who are also Shiite Muslims in terms of religious sect – had all previously been fighting the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
But after the Islamic State, or IS, fighters were driven out, old enmities resurfaced and the former allies turned on one another. On November 12, a quarrel erupted at a checkpoint at the Sulaiman Bek intersection, south of Tuz Khurmatu; the checkpoint was manned by Shiite Muslim volunteer militias and a fight started after a disagreement between the men at the checkpoint and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. Three of the Shiite Muslim men were killed and the incident sparked further tensions inside the already-tense city, populated mainly by Iraqi Kurds and the Shiite Muslim Turkmen. Houses and businesses belonging to both groups were attacked, looted and burned.
Tuz Khurmatu has always been considered a flashpoint, thanks to its varied population; it has been described as a “little Kirkuk” for this reason. There have been problems here for years but the current issue is mainly between the Kurdish here and the Shiite Muslim Turkmen. In practical terms, the Kurdish have been running the city since after 2003 but there is little trust between the Kurdish and Turkmen populations. The Kurdish see the area as a gateway to their own region and therefore very important in security terms.
In the past Turkmen in Tuz Khurmatu have said they want the Iraqi Kurdish military there to protect them – in the words of one local, “anything is better than the IS group” – but they don't trust them. Meanwhile the Iraqi Kurdish say that the Turkmen just oppose anything they want to do because the Turkmen think the Iraqi Kurdish are trying to force them to leave, or turn them into second-class citizens in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Officially Tuz Khurmatu is part of the Salahaddin province, which is part of federal Iraq. Unofficially it is also one of the country's “disputed territories” - that is terrain that the Kurdish say should be part of their semi-autonomous region, thanks to a Kurdish majority population, but which the Iraqi government in Baghdad says belongs to Iraq proper.
In an increasingly common tale, the emergence of the Islamic State, or IS, has only made things worse. Shiite Muslim Turkmen have been joining the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias from further down south, which has strengthened their ties with Baghdad and the rest of the country, as well as their sectarian alliances.
The Iraqi Kurdish military, the Peshmerga, joined with the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias to push the IS group out of this area. But the current infighting indicates that the struggle over who should control this area now that the IS group has gone, will continue. Outside of the city of Tuz Khurmatu there are also three districts – Amerli and Yankija which are thought to have a Turkmen majority, Sulaiman Bek, with a Sunni Arab majority and Iraqi Kurds occupy the centre of the Tuz Khurmatu area. Having said this, there are no official statistics on populations in this area.
In a statement issued on November 18, a spokesperson for the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, agreed that the Iraqi Kurdish have no quarrel with the Shiite Muslim militias. “If they want to fight the Islamic State group, we will cooperate with them. But this doesn't mean that the Shiite Muslim militias can come to Tuz Khurmatu – which is Kurdish land, protected by the Kurdish military – and occupy it.”
“The Kurds have marginalised the Shiite Turkmen here for years and this is the result of that policy,” Mohammed Mahdi al-Bayati, a senior official from the Shiite militias operating in the north, told NIQASH; al-Bayati is also a Shiite Turkmen and comes from Tuz Khurmatu himself. “The cause of the problems in Tuz Khurmatu was due to a lack of trust between the parties. Any further conflict in the future will only hurt the Kurds more,” he suggests, “even though the two sides are not actually supposed to be fighting one another.”
The question of who Tuz Khurmatu belongs to could have been settled using Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution; this says a census and a public referendum should be used to work out which population forms the majority in any given area, and therefore whether the area is part of Iraqi Kurdistan or not. Al-Bayati believes the 2014 Iraqi parliamentary elections showed that Turkmen are the majority here.
“Three Turkmen MPs were voted in, thanks to Tuz Khurmatu,” al-Bayati says, “which proves we form the majority here.” Iraqi Kurdish candidates didn't win enough votes for their candidates in the Salahaddin province.
Al-Bayati also adds that he believes the recent fighting was the fault of certain specific groups, although he didn't want to name names. Shallal Abdul, the Iraqi Kurdish mayor of Tuz Khurmatu, agrees with him about this.
“The Turkmen living this area were attacked and now they're taking their revenge, especially against the Sunni Arabs,” Abdul told NIQASH. “We've seen 155 people killed in the city – there were five Kurds among them – but this all only started with the arrival of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias from down south. The Iraqi Kurdish have their official military here and they wouldn't let this kind of thing happen.”
And, Abdul argued, “the complaints from the Shiite Turkmen that they don't get to participate in the administration here are not justified. About 65 percent of our staff and the police force in Tuz Khurmatu are Shiite Turkmen.”
As for the Sunni Arabs living in this area, they have even less power than the other two groups. There are far fewer of them but they too have a vision for the future of Tuz Khurmatu. At the moment it aligns fairly closely with that of the Kurds', most likely because they fear increasing Shiite influence in the area and believe the Kurds will be a bulwark for them.
“We suffer because of the provincial government of Salahaddin,” Sami al-Bayati, a senior Sunni Arab and head of the local tribal council, told NIQASH. “They neglect our areas. It is better for us to leave this province and to be annexed to Kirkuk [currently controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish].”
No matter who eventually gets their way in Tuz Khurmatu, it seems the city's status as a flashpoint on the borders between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish-controlled territory isn't going away anytime soon. The city's location means it is a link between the Sunni-majority Salahaddin province, the Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk area and the central parts of Iraq, which are home to mostly Shiites.
Tuz Khurmatu will remain a dangerous and unknown quantity, Watheq al-Hashimi, the director of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies based in Baghdad, told NIQASH. “It is a ticking time bomb,” he noted.
Al-Hashimi also believes there are more influencers in the city than one might think. “These events are coming in the middle of this war against the Islamic State group and the aim behind them is to create tensions in the city,” al-Hashimi argues. “Politicians from both sides should be reasonable and put an end to this kind of fighting. It's the sort of fighting that may spread to other parts of Iraq and see the country engaged in yet another round of ethnic and sectarian bloodletting.”
“From a Constitutional standpoint, Tuz Khurmatu's position remains unclear,” Niazi Mimar Oglu, the MP representing the interests of Turkmen in Iraq's Parliament, says. “It could become an independent province or an independent administrative region,” he suggests. “The Kurds should undertake a policy that brings all other components together and that creates better opportunities for co-existence.”