Last weekend, fighting broke out again between two groups supposedly fighting against the extremist Islamic State group in northern Iraq. The antipathy between the Iraqi Kurdish military, also known as the Peshmerga, and some groups belonging to Iraq’s often-controversial Shiite Muslim volunteer militias was not new in Tuz Khurmatu and the area around Kirkuk.
Tuz Khurmatu has always been considered a flashpoint, thanks to its varied population. And there have been ethnic and sectarian tensions 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. After pushing the Islamic State group out of the area, Shiite Muslim militias have entered the area, and have been welcomed by the Shiite Muslim Turkmen who prefer them over the Kurdish. Meanwhile the Kurdish see the area as a gateway to their own region and therefore very important in security terms.
So the tensions are not new. What was new however was the scale of fighting and the number of deaths that resulted. Official reports suggest that the serious clashes resulted in the deaths of around 25 fighters. Five were supposedly Iraqi Kurdish military, four of these were officers, and all the other deaths were from among the Shiite Muslim militias. Another 37 people were allegedly killed or injured in the fighting and this included local women and children.
We fight this war with guns and social media. Nothing scares our enemy more than these things.
Earlier scraps between the two parties had been resolved after negotiations. In October 2015, the Iranians apparently mediated. And just hours after this latest outburst of fighting started, it was supposedly over. Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr Brigades, a powerful Shiite Muslim militia, met with the governor of Kirkuk, Najmuddin Karim, and then announced a ceasefire on Sunday afternoon.
However in other areas the battle was still being fought. Iraqi news media and Iraqi social media was ablaze with reports on the incident. Headlines screamed that Shiite Muslim volunteer militias had managed to destroy a number of Iraqi Kurdish tanks. Dozens of Iraqi pages on social media like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube ran similar reports and before long the comments sections were filled with sectarian insults and hate speech.
Mainstream Iraqi media outlets published pictures of the tanks burning alongside stories about the fighting in Tuz Khurmatu. Some Facebook pages published pictures of dead soldiers, saying that these were Iraqi Kurdish military. Others showed similar pictures of dead men but claimed they were members of the Shiite Muslim militias.
However careful research on the pictures and reports quickly indicated that they were not actually from Tuz Khurmatu at all; in fact, many of them were older pictures from the Syrian crisis and from earlier on in Iraq.
Social networking websites also spread the false stories further, especially those pages affiliated with the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias and some pages belonging to Iraqi politicians; these Facebook pages tend to have a ready audience of thousands. The wave of comments that followed in the wake of the false reports revealed again the increase in sectarian and ethnic hatreds among ordinary people, especially when they thought that their own kind had been attacked unjustly.
The pages included those belonging to the Badr movement, certain brigades belonging to the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, a page advocating Turkmen nationalism and the Basra Youth Facebook page.
Had these false reports simply been taken at face value, this would have been damaging enough. What was worse is that the false reports had an impact on the battle field, increasing the enmity between the two fighting groups who were already involved in the conflict.
Mariwan Mohammed, a senior Peshmerga commander in Kirkuk, told NIQASH that his troops were most definitely influenced by the false reports on social media.
“Social media played a negative role in provoking clashes in Tuz Khurmatu,” Mohammed agreed. “The situation was just about going back to normal but some of the Facebook pages belonging to the volunteer militias, or people associated with them, kept publishing misleading information. That had a negative impact on popular opinion.”
As an example, Mohammed talks about pictures of a pick-up truck loaded with dead bodies that was published by the Badr organization on the first day of fighting in Tuz Khurmatu. The caption said that the bodies were those of Iraqi Kurdish soldiers. “But later on we found out that the picture was actually of IS fighters killed in Anbar,” the major-general said. “And that was enough to incite violence.”
Individual Iraqi Kurdish soldiers also acknowledged the impact of social media; some even admitted using their Facebook pages as a way to stir things up.
“After we heard gunfire in Tuz Khurmatu last Saturday, we entered the city,” explains Ari Bakr, a soldier with the Iraqi Kurdish military stationed in nearby Chamchamal. “The deputy commander of our brigade, Sirwan Mohammed, was killed by a sniper. I was so angry that I wrote on my Facebook page: ‘My commander, tonight I will slaughter ten Shiite Muslims to avenge your death’. But my brother, who’s a university student, asked me to delete the comment. He told me that it would have a negative impact on me eventually.”
Bakr deleted the comment. Nonetheless, as he told NIQASH, “we fight this war with guns and with social media. Nothing scares our enemy more than these two things”.
“We were very concerned about what people did on social media and how they cursed each other online and how they crossed some sacrosanct lines,” concedes Khalif Awaf, a commander with the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias in the area, from the other side of the weekend’s conflict. Awaf notes that one of the Facebook pages had said the Iraqi Kurdish military were sending tanks, anti-terrorism troops and masked special forces to Tuz Khurmatu. His troops prepared to fight on. “But when we called the mayor of the city to confirm this, he told us it was a lie,” Awaf notes.
In the end, Awaf says, “we asked the Iraqi Commission for Media and Communication to block social media within Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu because the sites were just being used to spread lies about both sides.”
Some of the field commanders that NIQASH spoke with said they believed that the campaigns on social media were actually carefully orchestrated and that there was a not-so-secret online, propaganda battle being fought at all times in Iraq.
“All the political parties – and there are no exceptions – use young people to manage their social media,” Abbas Najar, the deputy commander of a Shiite Muslim militia, the al-Abbad brigade, in Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu, said. “They accuse all the other sides of disloyalty. For example, four of our members were killed in the latest attempt to liberate the village of Bashir [about 27 kilometres south of Kirkuk]. Afterwards some of the social media sites based in Tuz Khurmatu made fun of us, saying that we couldn’t even liberate one village. All of this, as well as those false reports, have a negative impact in everyone.”
The rumours that fanned the flames of battle in Tuz Khurmatu, then kept them smouldering after the ceasefire was announced, are far from unusual in Iraq these days. They’re not the first such rumours and they won’t be the last. Iraqis generally tend not to trust their own media, which is usually partisan and funded by political parties or individuals with an agenda. So sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where news is spread through personal contacts, are seen as sources of real information, with the latest security and political updates.
The most recent example came after the fighting was over in Tuz Khurmatu. A particularly popular picture among the Iraqi Kurdish shows an older man removing a flag belonging to the Shiite Muslim militias from the top of a building in Tuz Khurmatu.
The man is Abbas Qawali, a 57-year-old volunteer with the Iraqi Kurdish military; Qawali joined the army last year after his brother was killed by the extremist Islamic State group in Jalawla.
He explained why he had removed the flag: “I am proud of the Iraqi flag because it carries God’s name. And I am proud of the flag of my Kurdish people because we have thrived by sacrificing our own blood. But I cannot accept any other flag”.
Qawali says he personally doesn’t have his own Facebook page but that he has received a lot of messages from those who do, telling him that his picture has been shared a lot. “I’m even going to be interviewed by some TV channels and clearly what I did has reverberated with people,” he told NIQASH. “And I’m happy about that.”
Qawali says he was around in 2003, when, after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s Baath party lost power in Iraq. In Tuz Khurmatu, he says he and other locals celebrated by burning cars belonging to party members and took Baath flags off buildings. “But nobody really talked about what we did then, except us,” Qawali told NIQASH. “Now, after I took one Shiite militia flag off a building, I have become famous. That makes me happy. My children are afraid though – they believe that the militias won’t be happy about what I did and they worry that I am in danger. But I am not afraid,” he concludes. “I don’t mind being a hero like this.”