The Iraq Report: Kurdish independence and foreign intrigues

The Iraq Report: Kurdish independence and foreign intrigues
Analysis: Welcome to The New Arab's weekly digest of events in Iraq
8 min read
14 June, 2017
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Though Islamic State group militants have lost yet another neighbourhood in Mosul, the Iraqi military assault to recapture Iraq’s second city has faced a gruelling fightback, prompting the dispatch of further special forces reinforcements to attempt to finally take out the dug-in militants. However, the renewed operation has come up against further controversy, with civilians allegedly being exposed to munitions the use of which may constitute war crimes on the part of the authorities and their allies. Refugees, meanwhile, face death in Mosul and the threat of death in nearby refugee camps.


Meanwhile, Kurdish hopes for independence have sparked new Kurdish fears of instability and violence following the announcement last Wednesday that a referendum will be held in September. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has faced opposition - not only from Baghdad, but also from Ankara, Tehran, Washington and even parties within the KRG - demonstrating that the road to independence may not be as smooth as some pundits may be suggesting.


Mosul civilians risk exposure to illegal weapons


Following the frequent failures of the Iraqi military to recapture Mosul by their own self-imposed deadlines, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said last Wednesday that he refused to set any further deadlines for the completion of operations. However, by Sunday he had seemingly changed his mind and declared at a meeting of senior officers in the Iraqi military that “mere days separate us from great victory” in Mosul.


According to the US-led coalition, IS’ chemical weapons ability has been degraded due to targeted strikes killing their chemical weapons experts, while raids have destroyed and permanently shut down their labs. Although the advance on IS’ last positions in Mosul have managed to take the Zinjili neighbourhood, the offensive has become bogged down once again, forcing Baghdad to dispatch further special forces to attempt to complete the operation within Abadi’s deadline of “days”.


However, the celebratory mood was dampened when footage released from Mosul appeared to show white phosphorus rounds being deployed by the US-led coalition in densely populated areas of Mosul. The Washington Post reported on Friday that these munitions were likely deployed by the US military, and in areas where the UN says at least 200,000 civilians remain trapped.

It's been alleged that white phosphorous ammunition has been used in civilian areas of Mosul [AFP]


While white phosphorus is not an illegal weapon per se – it has uses as a marking or obscuring agent – international humanitarian law prohibits its use in civilian areas. The use of these munitions hearkens back to the November 2004 US military offensive in Fallujah in central Iraq, where American troops were accused of committing war crimes after documentary evidence showed civilians had been literally burnt to the bone, suffering horrific deaths.


Refugees die of food poisoning


Apart from facing death or maiming in Mosul, those who manage to flee the city risk unsanitary and deadly conditions in nearby refugee camps.


The lack of good quality food and baby formula has meant that even babies have been unable to feed. In the Khazir refugee camp, east of Mosul, the lack of provisions has meant that many mothers have been unable to produce breast milk for their babies, and the scorching Iraqi summer sun has made conditions even more unbearable. Infants face starvation and death in the refugee camps, risking yet another lost generation of Iraqi children.


Even where food is available, it is often of such low quality that it might be safer not to eat anything at all. A food poisoning outbreak in the Khazir camp on Monday has already led to the death of at least one child, with some 800 more people requiring emergency medical care. The outbreak is thought to have come after a kitchen based in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, served an allegedly unhygienic meal to refugees who were breaking their fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.


Although the refugee camps are ostensibly under the supervision of the Iraqi government, it is unclear as to why unauthorised kitchens were allowed to bring food in to camps. The public health crisis is worsened by the fact that thousands of people from Mosul have demanded compensation from Baghdad, claiming their lives had been destroyed by the government’s “negligent approach” to removing IS from Mosul, Al Jazeera reported on Friday. This included complaints about conditions in refugee camps, as well as the mass destruction of infrastructure and homes.


Hundreds of abducted Iraqis still missing


War crimes in the campaign against IS have once again come under scrutiny, as Amnesty International has renewed calls for the Iraqi government to disclose the fates of hundreds of Sunni Arab men and boys who were abducted last year.


As the Iraqi military and allied Shia militias from the Iran-backed, state-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces fought IS for control of Fallujah in June last year, the PMF is alleged to have taken 643 men and boys from nearby Saqlawiyah. These abductions were immediately confirmed by the governor of Iraq’s western Anbar governorate, Sohaib al-Rawi.


Reports emerged of atrocities and human rights violations almost immediately, with harrowing footage leaked by personnel within the military showing men being beaten by soldiers, while others said they had been forced to drink the blood of fellow civilians who had been slaughtered in front of them in an orgy of sectarian Shia-on-Sunni violence.


Survivors who were also abducted from near Fallujah recall being taken to the “yellow house” were some captives were beaten to death with metal rods, executed by being shot point-blank or left to die of thirst. Such incidents led to accusations that the PMF and the Iraqi authorities were committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, with human rights organisations raising concerns over the fates of the missing 643 men.


Qatari hostage money seized by Iraq


Other hostages that have aroused much controversy not only in Iraq but throughout the Gulf region include 26 Qataris who were recently released back to Doha in late April after being held for almost a year and a half incommunicado in Iraq, reportedly by Iran-backed militants.


According to Saudi Arabia and UAE, Qatar paid almost $1 billion in order to free their citizens, including members of the ruling al-Thani family. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have long been claiming that Doha finances Iran-backed extremist organisations in Iraq and Syria. Doha has categorically rejected these allegations, and also stated that the ransom paid was significantly less.


However, Prime Minister Abadi stated on Sunday that none of the money paid to the hostage-takers was in the hands of armed groups, but was instead being held by Iraq’s central bank. Not only does this appear to suggest that Saudi and UAE allegations against Qatar are baseless, but it also indicates that Baghdad is in possession of money extorted as part of a criminal enterprise. Abadi gave no indication of whether or not the money would be returned to Doha.

Portraits of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani for sale in a shop in Erbil [AFP]


Kurdish independence and political grandstanding


Iraqi Kurdistan is gearing up for a long-awaited independence referendum that was announced last Wednesday. The KRG said that the referendum would take place on September 25, with presidential elections to be held the year after. Although the majority of Iraqi Kurds support independence, many are also fearful of what may happen and the instability and chaos such independence may bring.


The region’s capitals have traditionally been opposed to Kurdish statehood, and it does not appear that those feelings have changed recently. Despite close ties with the Turkish government, Ankara has made it categorically clear that it opposes the independence bid launched by KRG President Massoud Barzani. Similarly, Iran has said that it opposes the plan, as does Baghdad itself.


The KRG’s traditional benefactor, the United States, also shot down Kurdish hopes for heavyweight western support for independence. Washington said that the referendum would be a “distraction” from the fight against IS, which indicates that the US does not believe that the IS threat will end by the scheduled time of the referendum.


Further adding to the obstacles faced by the Kurds are the fact that the KRG has declared that the referendum will encompass areas that are disputed and that do not already fall under Erbil’s official authority. Makhmour, for instance, – whose Arab residents were reportedly forced out by Kurdish forces – and other districts will have a vote, in addition to the oil-rich Kirkuk province which is home to a mix of Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs.


Not only does Baghdad oppose such a step to include territories that are not legally under the auspices of the KRG, but local Arabs and Turkmen also resist what they say is a Kurdish ethnic cleansing campaign attempting to homogenise mixed areas into Kurdish-only zones. Human Rights Watch reported in May that Turkmen were being forced out of Kirkuk after having fled violence in other areas.


It is unlikely the KRG is unaware of such broad opposition to Kurdish independence – including in the United States – which has led to some analysts believing that the referendum is an attempt for KRG politicians to shore up domestic support by grandstanding, only to later blame the lack of independence on outside forces.

The Iraq report is a new weekly feature at The New Arab.

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