Over the past week or so, Iraqi Kurdish social media has been alive with the sound of anti-Arab sentiment.
“Arabs should not be allowed to roam freely around Iraqi Kurdistan,” wrote one Twitter user from northern Iraq. “Special camps should be made to house them.”
“I wish Sunni Arabs would stop supporting ISIS, a threat to civilisation,” noted another.
“Everyone here is regretting the fact that Erbil houses a large Arab population,” tweeted yet another. “We have a reckless open door policy.”
“It wasn’t the Islamic State who took our girls,” said one writer angrily, referring to the kidnap of a large number of women from the town of Sinjar by the Sunni Muslim extremist group known as the Islamic State. “It was the Arab tribes.”
These are just a sample of the kinds of comments that Iraqi Kurdish social media users have been posting online. Others added even more vitriol, reporting that relatives serving in the Iraqi military, who were fighting the Islamic State group, said they were shot at by ordinary Arabs in contested areas. They also said that the ordinary Arabs in contested areas were providing the extremists with intelligence.
The online anger against Arabs that started as random messages on social media has also evolved into online campaigning in some cases, with one group starting a Facebook page “for the expulsion of Arabs from Iraqi Kurdistan”. A group of Facebook campaigners also began to organise a demonstration against Arabs in Iraqi Kurdistan, even though Iraqi Kurdish authorities forbade it.
Last weekend the UK-based website, Middle East Eye, reported on an impromptu demonstration held in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. The mostly young men involved apparently set up checkpoints on the street to police anyone driving by, that they suspected was Arab. The protestors also tried to vandalise property they thought belonged to Arabs. Iraqi Kurdish security forces broke the protest up.
“We don’t want the Arabs here because they are all spies,” one protestor told Middle East Eye. “They come here to Kurdistan like they are refugees, but we know most of them are working with the Islamic State. If it was the other way, they wouldn’t help us, in the past they have killed us, we don’t want to help them.”
There seems to be difference between attitudes in different parts of Iraqi Kurdistan too. One journalist from Baghdad who is now living in Sulaymaniyah says she is treated very differently in Erbil and Dohuk, which are generally considered more conservative than Sulaymaniyah.
“The Iraqi Kurdish security staff treats me badly and I am never allowed to cross into Erbil or Dohuk easily,” the Baghdad reporter told NIQASH – she wished to remain anonymous for fear of recrimination inside Iraqi Kurdistan. “Sometimes I have to wait four or five hours at the checkpoints.”
She tells how, returning from a wedding in Dohuk, she was travelling with two Europeans, one from Denmark, another from Italy, and the passengers were made to wait together at a checkpoint for some time – and not because one of the Europeans had forgotten his passport but because, the Iraqi Kurdish security forces on the border, said, “there was an Arab woman in the car”.
“A few days ago, I met with another female journalist who left Mosul and settled in Dohuk,” the journalist continued. “She complained to me about discrimination against Arabs and she said that people look at them with fear and doubt. She also thinks that the Iraqi Kurdish authorities there deliberately delay residency procedures for Arabs coming into Dohuk.”
She believes the anti-Arab feeling in Iraqi Kurdistan is just going to get worse. And some Arabs have said they are considering going back to places like Baghdad until the anti-Arab feeling dies down.
One family originally from Mosul told a relative in Abu Dhabi, that it took around two weeks and a lot of pressure to be allowed to take one car into the Dohuk area.
“They say that Kurds there are smashing cars with Mosul number plates. They haven’t been physically hurt but are afraid because they have seen cars smashed in their area,” the relative, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of backlash against family in Iraq, said in an email to NIQASH. “They are asking the Arabs to go back to where they came from. My cousins said they want to leave as soon as possible and go back to Mosul.”
Some cars in Dohuk have also been seen sporting a specially designed anti-Arab sticker and apparently a restaurant on the road between Sulaymaniyah and Erbil has a sign saying “Arabs may not enter”.
It’s not just the obvious events either – small instances of casual racist cruelty also appear to be on the rise.
“My relative was flying with his aged mother from Erbil to Dubai and he asked for a seat where his mother could lift her feet and be comfortable,” says the Abu Dhabi-based relative. “The manager came to the counter and asked him if he was Arab or Kurd. He told him if he was Arab, then no, his mother would have sit in an ordinary seat. My relative tried to explain that this was not acceptable for an international airline. But the manager just walked away.”
Some of the angry chatter online does appear to have a basis in reality. When the extremist group, the Islamic State, or IS, first arrived in the town of Sinjar, many of the residents fled in terror. However the IS fighters were apparently greeted by their neighbours, Sunni Arabs, a minority in the town. Eye witness reports from the residents who fled Sinjar said that members of local Arab tribes were convinced to join the group and that after they did, they informed on and killed their former Yazidi neighbours.
There have been pictures posted online that allegedly show local Arabs greeting the IS fighters in Sinjar. The faces of those greeting the fighters so warmly have been magnified and those posting the pictures make ominous comments, saying they will take revenge on the individuals concerned.
Sinjar was mainly inhabited by Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority with close links to Iraq’s Kurdish population. The IS group, which adheres to an extreme version of Sunni Islam, considers the Yazidis infidels.
Although numbers remain vague, it seems that most Yazidis fled. There have been unconfirmed reports from inside Sinjar of all kinds of brutality against the Yazidis who stayed, from summary execution to being buried alive to kidnapping. One thing that has been confirmed is that the IS group took between 300 and 500 Yazidi women and girls and sent them away on a bus; it is thought they are now in a prison and nobody knows if the IS fighters plan to use them as slaves or sell them as wives.
Many of the Yazidis who fled headed into the nearby wilderness – they left without food, water or shelter and, despite rescue operations, many remain trapped on the hillsides in Iraq’s deadly summer heat, where temperatures rise to around 50 degrees C. Their plight has sparked a major humanitarian aid effort while pictures of children and old people dying of thirst and hunger have aroused much anger and sadness in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the locals consider them part of their ethnic group.
In light of what has happened to those Yazidis who fled, the horror stories coming out of Sinjar, as well as the concerns about the welfare of the kidnapped Yazidi women, it is hardly surprising that many Iraqi Kurdish are angry at the Yazidis’ Sunni Muslim neighbours, who apparently helped IS fighters, giving them information about locals, assisting them with navigation and even providing tea and food.
It is also well known that the IS group are dependent on “sleeper cells” – that is armed groups of local sympathizers who only expose their alliance once IS fighters are nearby. Iraqi Kurdish locals are concerned that by letting so many Arab refugees in they’re opening what was until very recently a safe haven up to attack.
“The Arabs are not clean,” one, usually-liberal Iraqi Kurdish civil society activist tells NIQASH without a trace of irony. “They betray one another and us.”
“The Kurdish public are divided on this issue,” writes Shalaw Fatah, a Masters student at the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah, on a website run by local think tank, the Kurdish Policy Foundation. “Those who are nationalist tend to perceive the influx of refugees as a major concern that must be dealt with adequately, while others who are considered as moderate Kurds don’t see the influx of Arabs … as a national crisis.”
This bout of anti-Arab feeling is most likely about more than the very recent events. It’s been building for a while.
Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own military, legislation and parliament, has consistently been one of the safest and most prosperous places in Iraq. The Kurdish people are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without their own country and rather than fighting about their religious denomination – Kurds are Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Christian as well as secular – they focus on their shared ethnicity and their ambitions for statehood. This is why many Iraqis, who have fled violence in their own hometowns, have ended up sheltering in Iraqi Kurdistan.
And in the recent past, the region has seen several waves of refugees, starting with Syrians from over the border, and more recently, Iraqis leaving the nearby city of Mosul, which was taken over by the extremists in early June. The most recent wave consists of Christians from Mosul and Yazidis from the Sinjar area. It is estimated that there are now over a million refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan now. Some say there may be as many as 2 million, possibly more, because many of the displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan are not registered as official refugees – they may be staying in hotels or with relatives.
As a result of such a massive influx of people as well as financial problems that local authorities are having with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurdish Ministry of Social Affairs says that levels of crime and other socially undesirable behaviour, such as begging on the streets, has increased. And as demand rises, rents increase and shortages grow due to blocked roads, prices for food and gas have also increased in the region. Again, this has increased bad feelings towards Arabs among locals.
Then again, this isn’t anything new. There has always been enmity between the Iraqi Kurdish and the Arabs of Iraq. After all, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein tried to kill or displace as many Kurds as possible; the country’s Kurdish suffered greatly and rose up against him as a result. The Kurdish have always wanted their own country.
"In Iraq we have a term, “Kurdish-Arab brotherhood,” that was coined and promoted by successive regimes. But the truth is more like Kurdish-Arab suspicion and distrust," Ayub Nuri, editor at the Iraqi Kurdish news organisation, Rudaw, wrote in an opinion piece in Time magazine recently. "The Kurds see Iraq as the cause of all their miseries and Iraq thinks the Kurds are the reason that the country has never been stable. Both sides are right. Iraq has brutalized us for decades, and we have fought Baghdad politically and militarily for years."
And as one patriotic Iraqi Kurdish man readily admits about the situation in Sinjar, “wherever there are Peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdish military] in charge, they don’t always treat the Arabs as well as their own Kurds”.
Some ethnic minorities have also insisted that the Iraqi Kurdish are using the conflict with the IS group as an excuse for a land grab; to expand the territory they control and harass local Arabs. For example, the Assyrian Federation of Sweden, which was in contact with locals in the northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, compiled a report saying that Iraqi Kurds deliberately started a fight with local Arabs in late June.
And the standoff at checkpoints going into Iraqi Kurdistan is nothing new either. It was happening long before the IS group took control of Mosul.
After a September 2013 attack on Iraqi Kurdish military headquarters in Erbil – it killed seven staff and injured as many as 72 others – border security was tightened and it became much tougher for Arabs to enter the region. All of the attackers had been Arabs, authorities said. Arabs coming into the region were subjected to special scrutiny – especially if they were single males. Many who had planned to come into Iraqi Kurdistan were denied entry and made to turn back.
Having said all this, there are also efforts afoot to stem the rising tide of racism. Authorities have not allowed anti-Arab demonstrations to go ahead and many local media have published editorials and articles saying that locals need to be tolerant of, and compassionate toward, refugees.
Iraqi Kurdistan is doing its best to help the refugees flooding into the region and locals are happy about this, many commentators have said.
Even the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, has voted for tolerance in his region – albeit in a statement made before the most recent attacks on Sinjar. “The Kurdish people enjoy good relations with their Christian brothers and sisters as well as all other ethnic and religious groups, and we are proud to protect the diversity that exists in Kurdistan,” an official June 19 statement, asking for aid for refugees, said. “This diversity and culture of tolerance have been effective over the past few years in our society.”