The Iraq Report: The siege of Kurdistan begins

The Iraq Report: The siege of Kurdistan begins
The New Arab's weekly round-up of events in Iraq
8 min read
04 October, 2017
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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In the wake of last week’s controversial independence referendum, Iraqi Kurdistan has been placed under conditions close to a siege, with moves taken by Baghdad and other regional powers threatening the Kurdistan Regional Government’s already fragile economy. The increasingly tough measures against the KRG came as veteran Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani passed away in Germany on Tuesday, removing yet another obstacle to KRG President Masoud Barzani’s continued rule.


Islamic State group militants have continued to hold stubbornly onto what remains of its territory, inflicting significant losses against the Iraqi military and its allied Shia Islamist militias. The pro-Iran militias operating under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces have also been accused of committing grave human rights abuses by major international rights organisations, and not for the first time during the brutal war against IS.


Kurdistan under siege


Following the Kurdish independence referendum on 25 September, the Kurdistan region’s neighbours have been tightening the screws on Iraq’s Kurds in an attempt to force them to renounce their advisory vote to leave Iraq and form a new and independent state.


The deadline imposed by Baghdad on Erbil to hand over control of all KRG-controlled airports to the Iraqi military passed last Friday, as foreign visitors to Iraqi Kurdistan clamoured to depart before the threatened flight embargo came into effect. As a show of goodwill to foreigners visiting Iraq, the federal government said on Monday that it would allow those “stranded” in Kurdish-held territories to depart via Baghdad International Airport. The ban on flights to, from or even via Kurdish airports will be a painful blow to the KRG, as the airport in Erbil handles significantly more traffic than any other airport in Iraq, largely due to the stability enjoyed by the Kurdistan region.



However, perhaps of greater concern to the KRG are measures taken by Iran and Turkey. Tehran not only participated in the flight ban, but also declared an indefinite ban on the transport of all energy products to and from Iraqi Kurdistan. An Iranian official said on Monday that around 600 fuel tankers were now being blocked by Iranian customs from crossing the border, where, just days earlier, Iraqi and Iranian troops were conducting military exercises just 250 metres from the Bashmaskh crossing.


Turkey also conducted similar military exercises with Iraqi troops – their one-time antagonists – last week in a joint show of force on the KRG’s northwestern borders. Turkey also stopped training the Kurdish Peshmerga, with whom they have had a long relationship, particularly in the fight against IS. While the Peshmerga have many veterans of their own, the degradation of their military ties with Ankara – the second largest military in NATO – will have a material impact on their fighting power.


In coordinated efforts with Baghdad and Tehran, Ankara also announced on Thursday that it would henceforth only deal with the central Iraqi government over oil exports, threatening to cut off profits from the Kirkuk pipeline - the KRG’s main source of income – by which oil is sold to the rest of the world via Turkey’s Ceyhan port on the Kurds’ behalf. While Turkish products continue to flow into the KRG – Ankara’s third-largest export market – the financial and economic effect of energy sanctions could prove crippling to Barzani and his supporters.


Jalal Talabani, veteran Iraqi Kurdish leader, dies


As President Barzani grapples with the tightening grip of domestic and foreign powers, one of his main political rivals died suddenly in Germany, removing another contender with enough political stature to challenge his rule.


Jalal Talabani – affectionately nicknamed “Mam Jalal” by his supporters – died at the age of 84 on Tuesday. A family member was reported as saying on Tuesday that Talabani’s health took a turn for the worse before the referendum and he was transported to Germany for treatment where he later died.


As leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Talabani was the main rival to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. The rivalry often turned violent. Between 1994 and 1997, the PUK and KDP fought a bitter Kurdish civil war in northern Iraq, with the PUK relying on support from Iran. After the KDP came within a hair’s breadth of being wiping out, Barzani begged support from Saddam Hussein - who deployed the Iraqi army to northern Iraq for the first time since Kurdish autonomy was established in 1991.


Although the Iraqi army forced Talabani out of Erbil, leaving Barzani firmly in control, he survived the war and lived to become Iraq’s first post-Saddam president. Talabani held the post until 2014, although he became relatively inert and left the public eye after he suffered a stroke in 2012 that rendered him frail.

PMF fighters head towards Hawija [AFP]


Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi returns


Although Russia had claimed to have killed IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive terrorist leader emerged once more in an audio recording released last Thursday.


As Baghdadi’s “state” crumbles across both Iraq and Syria, the hard-line Sunni militant chief rallied his fighters and called upon them to continue to “resist” their enemies, calling upon extremists to target the media operations of IS’ foes.


In the recording, Baghdadi lashed out at “infidel nations headed by America, Russia and Iran” who, along with their allies, inflicted severe losses against the extremist group, often using controversial tactics themselves.


“We will remain, we will resist and be patient… We will not give in,” Baghdadi said, a day after an IS strike force launched a vicious surprise attack in which they took areas of the now-recaptured city of Ramadi in Anbar province. The Ramadi attack mirrored the self-proclaimed caliph’s exhortations for his men to conduct “ghazawat”, or raids, and continued a pattern of sudden-yet-short attacks on recaptured territory that began late last year as the battle for Mosul began.


In what appeared to be an attempt to shore up diminished morale amongst IS fighters, Baghdadi attempted to link his “caliphate” to major Islamic symbols, including a supposed divinely ordained right to rule stretching back to Adam and Eve. He attempted to theologically connect his rule with the caliphates that had come before, attempting to show his followers that their struggle was merely a continuation of millennia of divine providence, and therefore they should not lose heart.


Although it is unclear when Baghdadi made the recording - which refers explicitly to the North Korean escalation of tensions - it is clear that the militant leader was attempting to maintain his organisation’s ailing morale as his fighters are rolled back across the region. However, his call for attacks on the media of IS’ “enemies” raise the spectre that more acts of terror may occur globally.



Shia Islamist militias commit abuses in Hawija


The threat of radicalisation in Iraq continues to pose a major domestic and international threat, as Iraq government-aligned forces commit further atrocities, according to major international human rights organisations.


Human Rights Watch accused Shia Islamist militias on Thursday of illegally detaining villagers near IS-held Hawija in the disputed Kirkuk province, subjecting them to torture and ill treatment. According to HRW, men from villages around Hawija were abducted by the Iran-linked Badr Organisation, one of the main component militias of the PMF, or Hashd al-Sha’abi in Arabic.


“Human Rights Watch has documented that PMF groups, including units affiliated with the Badr Organisation, have screened, detained, and tortured people during the military operations” to recapture Hawija that began on 21 September. HRW based its reports on witnesses who had fled to refugee camps.


Hawija is one of the last bastions of IS rule in Iraq, and IS fighters here have already held out against Iraqi forces and Shia Islamist militias for longer than the Turkmen-majority city of Tal Afar, 80 kilometres west of Mosul. IS have fared well so far against their Shia adversaries, having also managed to kill one of the PMF’s most famous fighters, the “sheikh of snipers”, Abu Tahsin al-Salhi.


While the PMF denies any wrongdoing in Hawija, the HRW report of possible war crimes and abuses is consistent with years of reporting from the human rights group, as well as Amnesty International and the United Nations, that Iraqi government forces and Iran-linked militants have committed atrocities throughout the conflict with IS.


Earlier this year, various sources reported that Shia militias were raping, torturing and murdering mainly Sunni Arabs in and around Mosul in bloody sectarian attacks. In perhaps the highest profile exposé of pro-Iran militant groups in Iraq, Der Spiegel published photographs and the testimony of Kurdish photographer Ali Arkady in May, who caught Iraqi forces committing a number of atrocities on camera.


With no end in sight to these abuses, and with seemingly no action being taken by the Iraqi government, IS propagandists will continue to use these crimes as a rallying cry to their war against Baghdad. Government abuses – whether directed or condoned – will also fuel other insurgent and nationalist groups who have already restarted operations around Iraq, particularly in Anbar, as IS loses territory.

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