Who did the planes belong to and what were they doing there, so close to the territory in northern Iraq still held by the extremist group known as the Islamic State? Were they US planes? Or perhaps they were Turkish planes?
These were the kinds of scurrilous questions being asked about a video that appeared on Iraqi social media recently. It featured six military helicopters and two larger military planes flying over territory held by the Iraqi Kurdish military. The video had clearly been filmed using a mobile phone and the landing site of the planes and helicopters was not clear.
This gave further fuel to a rumour that has been doing the rounds in Iraq for some time now: That international actors – such as, for example, the US or Turkey – are actually helping the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group in Iraq. This new video appeared to be further evidence of this.
The video was made by a member of the Iraqi Kurdish troops on the frontline in the Kirkuk area. The first apparent version of the video appeared on June 29 on a Facebook page of a news organisation, Kirkuk24.
Due to mission confidentiality, nobody was able to reveal what the aircraft were doing in the area.
“Seven black helicopters landed south of Kirkuk, in an area that is under the control of the IS terrorists,” the caption read. “After an hour, the transport planes took off again, flying over Iraqi Kurdish-held territory.”
The video then became so controversial that Rasoul Karkui, commander of the Iraqi Kurdish military in Kirkuk also known as Wasta Rasoul, held a press conference on June 30.
The planes belonged to a joint Iraqi-US operation and that operation was completed successfully, the officer said. But no further information would be released, he added.
“Any military operation conducted by the US or any other foreign party can only happen with the permission of the Iraqi military,” Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul, the spokesperson for the Iraqi forces, told NIQASH. Regarding the video, Rasoul replied that, “we are carrying out our investigations and when we get some results, we will announce them.”
As yet, the Iraqi army has yet to make further comment on this matter.
Further investigation answered some of the above questions. The journalists from Kirkuk24 confirmed that they had received the video clips from an active soldier in Kirkuk.
In Kirkuk, there are five main areas where the Iraqi Kurdish military are deployed. Three of these are next to the Hawija district, which is still held by the IS group. The video footage may have come from from Daquq, about 30 kilometres south of Kirkuk, controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish military.
But the commander of Iraqi Kurdish forces in this area, Mohammed Haji Qadir, told NIQASH that although planes fly overhead all the time, he didn’t think the eight aircraft in the video had been there.
“The video was not filmed in our area,” another member of the Iraqi Kurdish military said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. “I know the front very well. And also, there are no mobile phone towers in our area.” There is one in the video.
Various other possibilities were discounted by military staff working in nearby areas.
However eventually Hama Regr, the commander of Iraqi Kurdish military in the Dibis area of Kirkuk, recognized the terrain. “The area the video was filmed in is Haliwa,” Regr told NIQASH, “and the planes landed in the air strip in that area.”
Regr was able to pass on the name of the commanding officer, from whose unit the video came.
“After posting the video, he [the person who filmed it] was called in for questioning and we know that the aircraft landed at Haliwa,” Azad Bargash, a senior officer with the first regiment of the 16th brigade told NIQASH. “The video was filmed from the headquarters of the regiment.”
The airport is not far away from the areas controlled by the IS group, Bargash explained, which is why there were doubts as to where the aircraft had landed.
“But the planes were US planes and they landed in the airport, which is under Iraqi Kurdish control,” the officer continued. “From time to time, planes land here.”
Due to mission confidentiality, nobody was able to reveal what the aircraft were doing in the area. Finally, NIQASH was also able to reach one of the Iraqi Kurdish soldiers who appears in the video. “They were US planes and they arrived around 11am on June 27,” Hassan Abdullah confirmed again. “We saw the planes and then we left the base. I am not sure who filmed the video though.”
Further attempts made to ascertain where the planes had come from, or where they were going were also unsuccessful. One might assume they came from the Hareer air base, close to Erbil, where many US planes are based, or from Kirkuk.
In conclusion, the aircraft were not in the sky that day to help the IS group. So those rumours can be dismissed.
However, what does remain interesting is the mysterious nature of the crafts’ mission, so close to IS territory; none of the Iraqi military spoken to were willing to give any further details.
“It’s too close to the IS area,” one of the soldiers said. “It’s hugely dangerous and that is why the US troops never give their reasons for being in this area.”