In the past, there have been violent clashes between soldiers from the Iraqi Kurdish military in northern Iraq and members of the local Shite Muslim militias, a quasi-official fighting force in Iraq. However, as preparations begin to battle in the town of Hawija, a stronghold of the extremist group known as the Islamic State, in the province of Kirkuk, the danger of further confrontations looms – especially because Iraqi Kurdish forces have said they don’t want the Shiite Muslim militias fighting there.
In an interview with NIQASH, Ali al-Husseini, the spokesperson for the Shiite Muslim militias in northern Iraq, said there was no reason for concern. Relations between the two fighting forces were much better, al-Husseini insisted, with everyone focused on their common goal: defeating the Islamic State, or IS, group.
Why should the Iraqi Kurdish consider our presence so dangerous? After all some of them think it is OK for Turkish troops to be here.
Still, while battlefield tensions might be ameliorated by that common goal, there’s no doubt there are still some political tensions, particularly when it comes to Iranian support for the militias.
NIQASH: What is happening for the militias in this area at the moment? Do you have everything you need here?
Ali al-Husseini: There are two brigades in this area – the 16th and the 52nd. They have responsibility for the area from the town of Sarha in Tuz Khurmatu to the village of Bashir [about 27 kilometres south of Kirkuk]. We definitely have problems with getting enough equipment but we won’t let that stop us from fighting.
NIQASH: Based on that, we can assume that your troops are in both the provinces of Kirkuk and also in Salahaddin.
Al-Husseini: When Bashir’s people were massacred by the IS group and when mustard gas was used against the residents of Taza, the brigades were formed. It’s important to remember that majority of these brigades are made up of Shiite Muslim Turkmen - locals - from the surrounding areas, and that they were not formed by the Iraqi army. The two brigades were formed on the authority of Iraq’s supreme religious authority [the Shiite Muslim leader, Ali al-Sistani].
NIQASH: Nonetheless, your Kurdish neighbours in Kirkuk have some concerns. They fear that you have political goals.
Al-Husseini: We do not have political goals. We were not formed by any partisan decisions, but rather by the religious authorities. We simply want to protect Kirkuk – especially the Shiite Muslim-majority areas of Kirkuk – and we want to do this in cooperation with our Iraqi Kurdish brothers.
NIQASH: Still, some say that your troops want to bring in Iranians to compete in Kirkuk’s provincial elections, when the time comes.
Al-Husseini: I come from Iran originally, but I consider myself to be Iraqi. It’s just that some people want to identify us as Iranians.
NIQASH: So, who do you take your orders from?
Al-Husseini: We take our orders from [Iraqi Prime Minister] Haidar al-Abadi, the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces. We also take orders from Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the [Shiite Muslim militia] Badr organization and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the commander of the Shiite Muslim units.
NIQASH: Some critics in the Iraqi Kurdish forces have said that you are also being supported by foreigners? And by that, they most likely mean Iran.
Al-Husseini: We had hoped that we would get support from neighbouring countries but this didn’t happen. We get all our equipment from the central government.
NIQASH: So, Iran never directly provided you with military equipment?
Al-Husseini: No, the equipment is being sent to the central government and then it is distributed to the units.
We are a reality on the ground and nobody can ignore reality, not in Kirkuk, not elsewhere.
NIQASH: So why do those Iraqi Kurdish critics still believe that Iran is supporting you?
Al-Husseini: I don’t hide the fact that we owe the Iranians in terms of military support and because they help us with our wounded. I want the whole world to know that we are proud to be supported by Iran and I am sure that historians will record what Iran has done in golden letters. When Baghdad was threatened by the extremists from the IS group, Iran stepped in. This support from Iran is the result of an agreement between that country and the Iraqi government, that has allowed our country to be reborn and to enjoy secure conditions.
NIQASH: The authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan have accused your forces of kidnapping and carrying out violent retribution against locals living here. Your response?
Al-Husseini: Not all the Iraqi Kurdish leaders hold such opinions. But we listen to all those opinions with respect. But I am actually surprised to hear this. Why should the Iraqi Kurdish consider our presence so dangerous? We are all Iraqi, we are all flesh and blood. And after all some of the Iraqi Kurdish leaders think it is OK for Turkish troops to be here. They welcome them. Isn’t that even more strange?
NIQASH: One of the next major fights will be for the town of Hawija, widely known as an IS group stronghold. There have been some who say they do not want the Shiite Muslim militias to take part in this fighting.
Al-Husseini: The 16th brigade is actually made up of locals from Hawija and its surrounding districts. So I don’t really understand why some people are opposed to them participating in this fight. We have made all the necessary preparations to take part and when the displaced people from there come here, our troops welcome them – this happens on a daily basis. There is a lack of food and other supplies in Hawija and the situation there is grim – we need to move onto Hawija as soon as possible.
NIQASH: The commander of the Iraqi Kurdish forces said that if your militias take part in fighting for Hawija, then there will be no air support from the coalition forces.
Al-Husseini: Honestly, during the fighting around Mosul, when the Iraqi Kurdish and the Shiite Muslim units were working together, I can say that the Iraqi warplanes hit more targets than in fighting when the coalition aircraft took part. And the coalition also said this when we were fighting for Bashir, but eventually they joined in.
NIQASH: How difficult will the fight for Hawija be?
Al-Husseini: According to the commander of the Badr forces, the battle to regain control over Hawija should only take a few hours. The IS group really only has explosives to use there.
NIQASH: What is your relationship like now, with the Iraqi Kurdish military? After all, in the past there have been violent clashes.
Al-Husseini: We have a strong relationship. That’s because we are a reality on the ground and nobody can ignore reality, not in Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu, not anywhere else in Iraq. There are also parts of Mosul that are being protected where the Iraqi Kurdish military work together with the Shiite Muslim units.
NIQASH: Can you guarantee that those kinds of conflicts won’t happen again?
Al-Husseini: I don’t want to go back there. What is important now is our shared understanding about the goal we have: The fight against the terrorists and the protection of Tuz Khurmatu. That is our main job. Understanding this is leading to very good relations between ourselves and the administration in Tuz Khurmatu.