It only took a few days to undo years of good, neighbourly relations in the northern district of Makhmour in Iraq’s Ninawa province.
On Aug 7, Sunni Muslim extremists from the group now known as the Islamic State took control of Makhmour, which lies around a hundred kilometres south of Mosul, the major northern city that the group has controlled since early June. It only took a few days though for Iraqi Kurdish military – together with support from US air strikes - to re-take the town, which had a Kurdish-majority population.
Nonetheless three days was enough for relations between the Iraqi Arab and Iraqi Kurdish residents of the town to become strained. Today many friends and neighbours don’t even want to see one another – and this is after around 80 years of living side by side.
One local man, Shihab Shabib, left his home in Makhmour’s sub district of Qaraj about a month ago. When he returned he discovered that his house was almost completely empty.
“My neighbours say that, with their own eyes, they saw how the Arabs of this area cooperated with the Sunni Muslim extremists, as they went round looting houses owned by Kurds,” Shabib told NIQASH. “How can I live next to people who would attack my home and belongings whenever the opportunity arose?” asks the man, who’s now living inside the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
But it is not only the Iraqi Kurdish who suffered during the three days that the extremists from the Islamic State, or IS, group held Makhmour. A lot of local Arabs also returned to find their homes wrecked and looted. They say it was the Iraqi Kurdish military doing the looting, in revenge for the work of the Sunni Arab extremists. Many of Makhmour’s Arabs don’t want to return home at all anymore because they believe that the Iraqi Kurdish military, who now control the area, will take further revenge upon them.
“My father and my grandfathers lived beside Kurdish people in this area for many years without any problems,” says Majid Ahmad, another resident from the Qaraj area. “But now there’s so much distrust.”
Ahmad actually left Makhmour on Aug 9 and he’s now living in the Hawija district in Kirkuk, an area currently controlled by the IS group.
Ahmad agreed that when the IS fighters came they looted and set on fire property belonging to local Iraqi Kurdish. “But unfortunately when the Iraqi Kurdish military came to Makhmour and its suburbs, they did the same to Arab houses,” Ahmad explains. “My house was one of those.”
And now more than three weeks after the Iraqi Kurdish military took control of the area again, the district still looks and feels like a war zone. The Iraqi Kurdish locals who fled the IS fighters are too frightened to return in case the IS manages to return and the local Arabs have left because they fear that the Iraqi Kurdish military will take revenge upon them.
Makhmour used to be part of the province of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, but as part of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s attempt to change the demographics in Kurdish areas, it became part of the more mixed Ninawa province in 1996. However in 2003, the area, which is home to a mostly Iraqi Kurdish population, came back under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish military and since then it has remained one of Iraq’s disputed territories – that is, land that the Iraqi Kurdish say should belong to their semi-autonomous region but which the Iraqi government in Baghdad says belongs to Iraq proper.
Unofficial Iraqi Kurdish figures suggest that of the almost 180,000 locals living in Makhmour and its sub-districts, around 65 percent are Iraqi Kurdish and 35 percent are Iraqi Arabs.
“All of the Iraqi governments over the years haven’t been able to ruin the relationships between Kurdish and Arab neighbours here,” says Rashad Khadir, a prominent member of the Iraqi Kurdish community in Makhmour. “However in just a few days, the IS group has been able to do that.”
“Over the years the Iraqi government [under Saddam Hussein] brought many Arabs here from the south and forced them to take up residency in Makhmour,” Khadir explains. “People’s lands were seized. Yet somehow it’s never created the kind of hostile feelings and desire for revenge that you can feel here now. Revenge is the prevailing mood. Attacks by the IS group have greatly damaged options for security and stability in this region.”
These concerns are also being voiced by local Arabs. “The Kurds and Arabs in this area have a history together,” says Mohammed Salih, an Arab community leader in Makhmour. “There are a lot of villages around here where there are equal numbers of Arabs and Kurds. And we have shared joys and sorrows. But recent events have had political repercussions. We can only hope that they won’t affect the social relationships between the people here on an ongoing basis and that eventually things will go back to the way they were before the IS fighters came here.”
Local authorities are going to do their best to ensure that this happens, the mayor of Makhmour, Ibrahim Sheikh-Allah, told NIQASH. The district belongs to both ethnicities equally.
“The IS group has done harm to all of the residents of Makhmour – to the Kurds and to the Arabs,” Sheikh-Allah says. “So nobody should be taking the blame for what the IS fighters did. Those who committed crimes need to be brought to justice. We will not allow the IS group’s plans to spoil the society here.”