On Thursday night in northern Iraq, military movements caused significant problems, coming as they did at a time of heightened tension between the Iraqi government in Bagdad and authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan, where a referendum on independence had just been held. The semi-autonomous northern zone operates like a state within a state and has its own borders, parliament and military; recently a referendum was held asking whether the Kurdish zone should secede from Iraq.
Several days ago, Iraqi Kurdish military forces, known as the Peshmerga, withdrew around 15 kilometres from their established positions in the district of Maktab Khalid, 20 kilometres south of Kirkuk and from villages in the Tuz Khurmatu and Daquq areas. Soldiers from the Iraqi army and fighters from Shiite Muslim militias took their places; some of the fighters in these militias are actually local to the area. Before that happened though, the two forces faced off for about two hours. In the end the incident ended without shots fired.
The whole incident was confusing and the finer details behind the troop movements remain unclear. However, speaking anonymously, a Kurdish official told NIQASH that the movements were the result of a negotiated settlement between the Iraqi Kurdish political party that runs Kirkuk (and most of the military there), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The settlement had apparently been negotiated with the help of Iran.
The eventual withdrawal was a military tactic, the commander explains. But then the media reports and social media changed what everyone thought.
It is worth noting that the Kurdish zone is split between two parties, the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. The former is closer to Iran and the latter is closer to Turkey. Since a civil war in the 1990s, the two parties have split the region into two, controlling each side with troops loyal to their own party.
Several sources, including from within Iraqi Kurdish intelligence services, politics, and military, told NIQASH that it was the Shiite Muslim militias who first demanded the withdrawal of the Kurdish military. However, the PUK refused to move their men, saying they would only hand the areas over to representatives of the Iraqi government and military and not to the militias.
The militias are a semi-official force that arose out of the security crisis sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Some of the Shiite Muslim militias are beholden to the government in Baghdad and others have declared they are closer to Iran and Iranian military figures.
The PUK’s initial refusal is what caused the stand-off and why the Iraqi Kurdish military apparently readied themselves for action.
“When [Iraqi prime Minister] al-Abadi requested a belt of Iraqi military be established south of Kirkuk, and a Kurdish withdrawal of up to 15 kilometres, the PUK agreed,” the Kurdish official says, “so as not to stir up problems, especially because the relationship between Baghdad and Kurdistan is very poor at the moment.”
“The militias asked us to withdraw from around Kirkuk but our response was robust,” Rasoul Karkui, a senior commander of the Iraqi Kurdish military in Kirkuk also known as Wasta Rasoul, confirmed to NIQASH. “We deployed more forces in the area and that stopped them coming closer.”
The eventual withdrawal was a military tactic, Karkui explains. “But then the media reports and social media changed what everyone thought. Then it was perceived as some sort of defeat or attack.”
Kirkuk and its surrounds has a varied demographic mixture and this is why the city is often referred as a flash point. The different ethnic and religious groups here have differing alliances and interests and this has caused deadly conflict in the past. Kirkuk is also one of Iraq’s so-called “disputed territories” – that is, the Iraqi Kurdish say it should belong to their region while Baghdad says it is part of Iraq proper. After the security crisis sparked by the IS group, the Iraqi Kurdish military took control of the city – despite the different demographic groups living there.
As a result of those complicated alliances and interests, Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk posted items on social media calling the military movements a defeat for the Kurdish military and yet another victory for the Iraqi army and the militias. Meanwhile Kurds blamed their leaders for retreating without resistance.
Whatever was said, the results of the media reports and the conflagration on social media were alarming for many locals. And although the night of October 12 was actually calm in Kirkuk, ordinary citizens carrying their private weapons took to the streets and prepared for confrontation.
Those who are causing hatred and rancour on social media do not reflect our attitudes, a spokesperson for the Shiite Muslim militias, says. Burning a flag of any kind is not something that we do.
The controversial governor of Kirkuk, Najmuddin Karim, who has called for a ban on unlicensed weapons in the past, published pictures of volunteers around the city carrying guns and wrote things like, “the people of Kirkuk prove they are always ready to defend their city”.
To many, the alarming messages on social media – Iraqis tend to get most of their news from Facebook – were worrying enough. Genuine pictures, which would probably have been enough to anger, were soon joined by even more incendiary fake ones.
“On Thursday we were kept on full alert and we were told there would be military movements but they didn’t tell us if these would be because of the Islamic State or any other party,” Hayman Kaka, a soldier with the 9th brigade of the Iraqi Kurdish military stationed in the Daquq area, told NIQASH. “But when I opened Facebook I saw that everybody was writing that the militias had occupied Kirkuk and that a bloody war was about to break out.”
Kaka, a computer studies graduate who joined the military, says he read that where he was on the front line, there was fighting. But there was nothing at all going on, Kaka says.
“On Facebook, everybody said there was fighting in Albu Mohammad [a village about 30 kilometres south of Kirkuk] and that the peshmerga have withdrawn,” Kaka complains. “But I was there and there was no fighting. Unfortunately, social media gave a lot of the wrong information.”
Referring to pictures that showed the burning of the Kurdish flag and defaced Kurdish symbols, senior Iraqi Kurdish military commander, Aziz Abdullah Hadur, told NIQASH he and his men had seen the pictures and were disappointed.
“When the Iraqi army was defeated in this area in 2014, we were able to push the IS group out of here by spilling the blood of our own men,” Hadur says, when asked about the inflammatory posts on social media. “We withdrew from these areas on October 12 because of a decision taken by senior authorities. But it makes us angry that we see our flag and our base being disrespected.”
The Shiite Muslim militias don’t dismiss the concerns of the Kurdish military but they believe that the incidents involving graffiti and other vandalism are being carried out by a small number of irresponsible individuals.
“Those who are causing hatred and rancour on social media do not reflect our attitudes,” Karim Nouri, a spokesperson for the Shiite Muslim militias, told NIQASH. “Burning a flag of any kind is not something that we do,” he said, before adding that the Kurdish have also disrespected symbols and flags belonging to his group. “And we have the pictures and videos to prove it,” Nouri noted.
Some locals see a hidden agenda behind the recent events, and they believe nefarious motives can be attributed to all sides. These events could, for example, lead to the postponement of Kurdish elections, currently scheduled to take place in early November. That would obviously benefit any party enjoying the current status quo, including the region’s current president, Massoud Barzani, whose role as such is disputed by his critics.
On the Iraqi side, the movements of the Shiite Muslim militias and the polarizing talk on social media could be seen as a propaganda tool for the militias, and for those who want to promote them, in time for upcoming Iraqi elections – these are slated for April next year and the leaders of some Shiite Muslim militias will be running as candidates. A “defeat” of the Kurdish makes them look strong.
Another popular rumour has it that anyone selling oil out of Iraqi Kurdistan right now can continue to do so without much oversight, while tensions are high.
“The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has clearly said he will not fight the Kurds. And the prime minister of Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, has also said there will be no ethnic war,” Mohammed Umar, a retired general from the Iraqi intelligence service, told NIQASH. “It is only those who have big bets on the elections, the referendum and the oil fields that want war. All parties should be acting more responsibly. The blood of citizens must be more important than partisan or personal interests. Those selfish interests are causing these tensions.”
NIQASH investigated some of the pictures and video footage from in and around Kirkuk that went viral over the past few days.
A lot of the pictures that enraged the Iraqi Kurdish were those that saw the Kurdish flag defaced. These pictures tended to be posted by individuals from within the Shiite Muslim militias, then passed on.
One picture that was widely spread showed a placard that stated the name of a brigade of the Kurdish military as well as a torn poster that had once shown the face of Jalal Talabani, the recently deceased, former leader of the PUK.
This picture appears to be genuine. Asking around the Kurdish military, they confirm the location as being south of Bashir village, about 27 kilometres south of Kirkuk. The name of the brigades and units on the defaced sign are the ones that were in charge in this area; these are Kurdish military units run by the PUK and they withdrew from Bashir.
As with most of the other inflammatory pictures on social media, it is impossible to find out who defaced the signs and tore the picture of the PUK leader.
Another picture shows a concrete barrier that had a picture of the Iraqi Kurdish flag on it. The painted flag had been defaced and written on it were the words: “Daesh and the peshmerga”. The former is the colloquial word for the extremist Islamic State group and the latter for the Kurdish military: Clearly the writer equates the two as terrorist organisations. There were also other phrases on the barriers that attacked Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP.
Iraqi Kurdish officers told NIQASH that this barrier was in the eastern part of Maktab Khalid.
After the Iraqi Kurdish military withdrew from here, this area came under the control of the second regiment of the 16th brigade of the Iraqi federal police, a Kurdish soldier said. The two men in the picture do indeed wear the uniforms of Iraq’s federal police although there is absolutely nothing to indicate that they were the ones who defaced the barriers.
One of the most widely shared pictures is that of an armed man burning a Kurdish flag. This picture caused widespread outrage in the Iraqi Kurdish community on social media.
A Kurdish soldier familiar with the terrain believes that the man is near a water storage project in Bashir village. The uniform of the man in the picture would appear to indicate he is a member of one of the militias. This man also appears in another picture, where he sits in a chair in front of a large picture of PUK leader, Jalal Talabani. The latter picture also shows the words 102nd brigade, who were the Kurdish unit in charge in Bashir. This area was included in the withdrawal.
In fact, the Iraqi Kurdish military believe the man is part of a more moderate militia called the Abbas Brigades. This militia – full name: the Abu Fadhil al-Abbas Brigade also helped support the Iraqi army’s ninth division in the fight for Mosul.
After one night of tensions, a conflict started between Iraqi Kurdish military and Shiite Muslim militias in the Tuz Khurmatu area. These have erupted before and have resulted in deaths.
Some local news outlets, including Kirkuk Now, posted a video that allegedly showed ongoing fighting between the two groups in the area. The video was described as showing “fierce fighting between the Peshmerga and the militias in the centre of Tuz Khurmatu”.
However, this video turned out to be fake. It appeared on YouTube originally about a year ago and apparently showed a fire fight between the Shiite Muslim militias and the IS group in Mosul – although even this is hard to prove.
*The headline of this story was changed on October 16 to reflect changing circumstances in Kirkuk.