A local man points out the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack in northern Iraq. (photo: شالاو محمد )
Since July of 2014, the village of Bashir – about 27 kilometres south of Kirkuk, with around 1,300 homes and around 4,000 inhabitants – has been under the control of the extremist group known as the Islamic State. And for around the same amount of time there have been attempts made to free the village, home mostly to the Iraqi ethnic group known as Turkmen, most of whom are Shiite Muslims here. Because the Islamic State group practises its own version of Sunni Islam and considers Shiite Muslims their enemy, many of the locals fled when the group arrived; most of them ended up in the comparative safety of nearby Kirkuk, which is controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish military.
On March 15 this year a high level meeting in Kirkuk brought together the various parties who want to help free Bashir from the extremists. This included senior members of the Iraqi Kurdish military, senior commanders of the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias and members of a militia that has been formed by Turkmen from the area. With the support of coalition air strikes, the various forces made a plan to move into Bashir.
As a condition of fighting, they’ve told us the Kurdish flag must be raised next to the Iraqi flag once we enter the town.
However, on April 2, that plan was suspended and no clear explanations were given as to why.
The Turkmen from the area have a theory.
“We developed a lot of plans together with everyone,” a senior member of the Turkmen militias in the area, Abu Ridha al-Najja, told NIQASH. “But we haven’t been able to go any further with plans for Bashir because the issue has become political. The Iraqi Kurdish military are not ready to liberate Bashir if certain conditions they have set are not met. For example, they’ve told us that the Kurdish flag must be raised next to the Iraqi flag once we enter the town – and they insist that Iraqi Kurdish military must stay in the town after the IS group is driven out.”
Meanwhile the Iraqi Kurdish military have their own explanations: They blame the Iraqi government.
“The failure of this plan to recapture Bashir is due to the Iraqi government,” Wasta Rasul, one of the most senior commanders of the Iraqi Kurdish military in Kirkuk, told NIQASH. “They’ve decided to support this Turkmen militia and to provide them with weapons and equipment rather than sending their own troops into the area.”
Rasul believes that the coalition forces fighting the IS group from the air are also reluctant to start bombing areas where what he describes as “sectarian flags” may fly.
Another military group has also taken up positions close to Bashir; the Al Abbas Brigade, one of Iraq’s controversial Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, has been stationed in the Kirkuk area for around a month now. However the militia has been unable to do anything more than any of the other groups in the area.
“Bashir is going to be liberated very soon,” Maysam al-Zaidi, the commander of the brigade, told NIQASH. “But the most recent plan was postponed because the entire village has been booby-trapped,” he said, providing a less political explanation for the delay.
“The Iraqi government is putting obstacles in the way of the plan to liberate Bashir,” Kirkuk’s governor, Najmuddin Karim, stated at the last meeting of the provincial council’s security committee. “If Bashir was liberated, then [nearby town] Tuz Khurmatu could be kept safer.”
Officials say that Bashir has been a launching pad for the IS group’s attacks in the area, including, most recently, a suspected chemical weapons attack on the town of Taza, about 10 kilometres away, which killed one toddler and injured hundreds of others.
“We have become victims of politics,” says Ziad Ghafour, one of the residents of Taza , who was hurt during the attack. “If Bashir was free, then this wouldn’t have happened.”
On March 11, a day before the suspected chemical weapons attack, around 200 of the Shiite Muslim Turkmen from the district and from Bashir organized a demonstration in Kirkuk, during which they demanded that Bashir be liberated.
“The Iraqi Prime Minister [Haider al-Abadi] met with a number of the organisers and told them that the town was going to be freed,” says Abu Walid Shukur, one of the protest’s organisers. “He also told them that whatever the IS group did would not go unpunished. But up until now, nothing has happened.”