A member of Iraq's Shiite Muslim volunteer militias on the outskirts of Fallujah. (photo: احمد الربيعي)
The young Kurdish man has been waiting six months to commit treason – at least, that is how many in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan would see it. Ali Shareef, 23, has registered himself to join up with Iraq’s militias, most of which are made up of Shiite Muslims from southern Iraq, who volunteered to defend the country after the extremist group known as the Islamic State attacked the city of Mosul in June 2014.
Two of his friends have already joined, Shareef told NIQASH, and they are now on duty in the Khanaquin district. “They were the ones who encouraged me to register my name and they said that the militias are a legal force now, affiliated with the Iraqi government,” Shareef explains. He has heard that the working conditions are good too, with ten days on duty and 15 days off.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, there is no official comment on the matter. Most departments deal with the idea as if it is merely a rumour.
“I was told that around 80 citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan have already joined the militias and that they are currently getting training before they go on active duty,” the young man continues, adding that he has no idea where the training is happening.
Shareef is not the young recruit’s real name. In Iraqi Kurdistan there is intense loyalty to the region’s own military forces, known as the Peshmerga. In the past the volunteer militias, who also include Sunni, Christian, Yazidi and Turkmen groups, have fought the Peshmerga because of ongoing tensions around land rights. Some would say that joining up with an Iraqi force, if you are a Kurdish local, is akin to treason against Iraqi Kurdistan, where there has recently been another revival of nationalist talk about the region seeking independence from federal Iraq.
Shareef’s reasons for trying to join the militias is also economic. He graduated in management but has yet to find a job, thanks to the precarious economic situation in Iraqi Kurdistan. “That’s why I registered to join them,” he concedes, “even though I am not sure what is going to happen next, or what they would want me to do.”
NIQASH’s enquiries into the topic resulted in an interview with one of several Kurds living outside the Iraqi Kurdish region, who are actively recruiting the young men to join the militias, albeit secretly.
A recent recruit gave NIQASH the phone number of his recruiter, saying he lived in Diyala, further south in Iraq, but the number was no longer active. Other recruits say they are in contact with those registering their names on a wait list via social media.
“There are some citizens from the Iraqi Kurdish region who have joined the militias,” agrees Mohammed Mahdi al-Bayati, a senior official from the Shiite militias operating in the north; al-Bayati is a Shiite Muslim of Turkmen ethnicity and comes from Tuz Khurmatu. ”But this has happened within the bounds of the Sulaymaniyah, Kalar and Rania areas; some of them have told us they are willing to form battalions.”
“We actually advised those who asked us, to join the Peshmerga instead,” al-Bayati continues. “Because it’s hard to transfer people from here to central and southern Iraq to fight. However, they didn’t listen to us. The ones who did join are deployed in disputed areas like Kirkuk and Khanaquin, where we need them.”
There is no doubt that having Kurdish members of the militias in these areas could cause further tensions. In late 2015, there were clashes between the Iraqi Kurdish military and the Shiite Muslim militias in Tuz Khurmatu, that led to casualties -even though the situation was eventually calmed down.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, there is no official comment on the matter. When politicians are asked about whether Iraqi Kurdish locals should go and join the militias, they often reply that it is “treason” to do so. Most official departments deal with the idea as if it is merely a rumour.
“This issue has nothing to do with the Iraqi Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga,” Jabbar Yawar, official spokesperson for the Peshmerga, told NIQASH. “The Iraqi Constitution says that the only official forces in this region are the Peshmerga, the local intelligence services and the local police. Any others in Iraqi Kurdistan are not legal. Talk about such a force being formed is just a rumour. And we cannot arrest anyone based on that.”
In fact, the Constitution says that while the Iraqi Kurdish can form their own security forces and military inside Iraqi Kurdistan, it doesn’t say anything about banning the militias from using locals who join them. Nor does it say anything about Iraqi Kurdish who join the militias not being allowed to work in the so-called disputed areas. These are areas that the Iraqi Kurdish believe rightfully belong to their region, which has its own borders, but which the Iraqi government says belong to Iraq proper.
It is already clear that control of the disputed areas will be a source of tension after the IS group has been forced out of the country.
Kamran Barwari, a professor of political science at the University of Dohuk, believes that the economic problems in Iraqi Kurdistan and the political deadlock that has been going on for over a year, are two factors driving young locals into the Iraqi militias.
Regardless of why they have left the Iraqi Kurdish military, Barwari believes this is sure to cause problems in the near future.
“There is already a lot of potential for the Iraqi Kurdish military to clash with the militias again,” the professor argues. “That potential will be stronger, and the situation will be more complicated, if Iraqi Kurdish citizens are involved in the militias. It is not easy for a citizen to join a force that his government thinks is illegal, when they could be defending their own region.”
This situation is not limited to locals joining the militias. Tribal leaders inside Iraqi Kurdistan have also expressed a desire to form their own militias, and have even contacted the government in Baghdad to get support for doing so.
One of these is Sardar Harki, who is the head of his clan. He said he was able to form a fighting force of about 3,000 men from his own tribe, based in the Soran district of the Erbil province in Iraqi Kurdistan. The salaries of the members would be paid by Baghdad, Harki told NIQASH.
“In terms of Baghdad, the deal is done,” Harki says. “But there are some problems within Iraqi Kurdistan because the Peshmerga Ministry doesn’t allow any other forces to be formed here. I am waiting for this to be resolved.”
Local analysts believe the Iraqi militias are keen to try and further their influence, even within Iraqi Kurdistan.
“The militias are made up of a number of different forces and each one of these has its own ideas about Iraqi Kurdistan,” states Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, the head of an Erbil-based think tank, the Middle East Research Institute. “Many of the militia leaders would like to be able to influence key issues in Iraq, and that includes in Iraqi Kurdistan. The militias will try and strengthen their influence and they will make use of their position in the disputed areas.”