The northern Iraqi city of Tuz Khurmatu has always been something of a flashpoint, a reflection of the sectarian and ethnic tensions played out on a larger scale in the nearby city of Kirkuk. So, it has never been the most peaceful place, with occasional violence between the military and militias here. But since the mid-October takeover of Kirkuk and the area around it by the Iraqi federal government, the town looks more like the middle of a war zone than ever.
There are destroyed or burned out buildings all around, streets and alleyways are closed and parts of the town feel deserted.
Since 2009, people have always left Tuz Khurmatu, says local resident, Kawa Hama Karim, in search of somewhere more stable and peaceful but things got a lot worse after mid-October. It was then that the Iraqi Kurdish military, also known as the peshmerga, who had been in control of security in the town withdrew. In their place, came the Iraqi military and members of the often-controversial Shiite Muslim militias.
“When the Kurdish forces withdrew, there were only volunteers left," Karim explains. "So a lot of people left for Iraqi Kurdistan, and they took nothing with them.”
We had 18 prisoners and we handed them back, unharmed. If destruction was our goal, we would not have done this.
Some of the families in Tuz Khurmatu had been threatened by other locals, other families left because they feared the Iraqi military and militias. Dozens of houses and buildings have since been damaged, some of them burnt and others blown up. The perpetrators remain at large.
Unofficial estimates from the district’s administration suggest that around 225 houses and 150 shops and businesses in the town have been looted and then destroyed. Among them were 53 houses belonging to senior members of the Iraqi Kurdish military or in the Tuz Khurmatu police force or district council. It is also thought that around 50,000 locals have been displaced from the town, which was home to about 180,000 people.
The population consists mainly of members of the Kurdish and the Turkmen ethnicity. And at least some of the damage is being attributed to revenge. Previously the town’s Turkmen had said they were being driven out of Tuz Khurmatu as Kurdish forces tried to dominate the area. Now, locals say, the Turkmen are driving the Kurdish out.
Kurdish locals accuse members of the Shiite Muslim militias of looting and destroying homes as well as worse crimes. These could well be considered a continuation of previous clashes. For example, in November 2015, there was intermittent fighting between the Iraqi Kurdish military and the Turkmen militias allied to the Shiite Muslim militia groups. The parties to the conflict were members of the peshmerga, members of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias who mostly come from cities further south and locals who belong to the Turkmen ethnic group but who are also Shiite Muslims in terms of religious sect. It lasted for 17 days and saw over 100 wounded and an estimated 21 deaths. After meetings between the Iraqi Kurdish political party in control of security in Kirkuk, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the League of the Righteous militia, a ceasefire was declared. But this did not stop further sporadic fighting.
The figures from the administration are not official and there has been no follow up on the damages caused in October, Sayed Ali al-Hashimi, a spokesperson for the commanders of the Shiite Muslim militias in Kirkuk, told NIQASH. “We deny accusations that our troops burned or destroyed houses. All of the destruction resulted from military clashes,” he added.
“We had 18 prisoners from the peshmerga and we handed them back, unharmed, to the PUK in Kirkuk after just two days,” al-Hashimi continued. “If destruction was our goal, we would not have done this. The Kurdish leadership should not listen to those who do not serve the interests of the district.”
However Goran Gawhar, a senior officer among the volunteer soldiers who stayed in Tuz Khurmatu, disagrees, saying that the city is being destroyed while the rest of the world turns a blind eye.
“We don’t believe in the ceasefire agreements between the Kurdish officials and the militias anymore,” Gawhar told NIQASH. “Especially after violations of ceasefire agreements made in 2015. That’s why we will continue our struggle here to restore the city’s security. We cannot accept that our people have been displaced and they are living inside the Kurdish region while their homes and business are being looted and burned.”
Gawhar now lives outside the district and he was told that his own house was blown up: “I was told by people in Tuz Khurmatu that my place was blown up by the militias and that they used TNT to do it,” he notes.
Despite all of this, preparations are supposedly underway to bring those who fled the town back and to ensure the town is secure. This is apparently being done through ongoing negotiations between the PUK and the Shiite Muslim militias here.
Leading member of the PUK, Ala Talabani, says that her party has called upon Iraq’s highest Shiite Muslim religious authority, Ali al-Sistani, to try to get involved and help calm the situation in Tuz Khurmatu. “Because the displaced people, as well as the people who stayed in Tuz Khurmatu, are in a difficult situation and they cannot go on like this,” Talabani explained.
The former Kurdish mayor of Tuz Khurmatu, Shalal Abdul, was removed from his post after the federal takeover – for taking part in the Kurdish referendum on independence - but he was recently able to come back to the town to try and help organize the return of the displaced and to coordinate with Iraqi forces in the town.
Nonetheless Abdul seemed pessimistic. “Tuz Khurmatu has been destroyed,” he told NIQASH. “The coexistence between the residents here was unique and it lasted for years. But now there is nothing but destruction,” he lamented, before adding that, “we must keep working to keep the town away from war because if we don’t then everybody is a victim, especially the Kurds.”
He is not so sure that the Kurds who left should return yet, telling NIQASH that it would be better if a neutral Kurdish military force were in Tuz Khurmatu, before civilians come back to the town.