In Kirkuk, everyone wants their own private army

In Kirkuk, everyone wants their own private army
Feature: Competing interests and the fog of war have clouded any hope of a united Iraq as rival militias entrench divisions both among and between sectarian power bases.
8 min read
Kurdish fighters have repelled Islamic State fighters across areas of northern Iraq [AFP]

On a scorching morning a couple of weeks ago, Captain Kanan Tuzlu was in a particularly chatty mood.

Driving on the Kirkuk-Leylan road in his decrepit car, he explains that "there are 780 fighters in Leylan training camp", located 20km south-east of Kirkuk city, past a UNHCR-run camp for the internally displaced, on a side street flanked by fields of wheat and barley.

"I am in charge of administration and I know them one by one, as I give them food," he adds.

Apart from the Haqq Battalion, which is composed of Turkmen Sunnis, "Sunni Arabs from al-Zab, al-Abbasi and Hawija make up most of the other three homonymous battalions".

When I ask why the camp has been placed in an area so far removed from the frontline, he candidly replies: "You have to be able to control the security situation and avoid infiltration by Daesh [the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group].

"Some Islamic State fighters tried to sign up for training but their plot was uncovered. You have to know who you can trust and who you can't."

     Arshad says that he speaks for all the Turkmen, but his are just political lies. He doesn't have two fighters, let alone 2,000.
- Abu Ali Tazali, Qaim battalion commander

These days, trust is in short supply in Iraq, and Leylan is a good example of that.

In theory, the camp is under the leadership of Brigade 16, the main formation in Kirkuk of the Popular Mobilisation - the umbrella organisation comprising Iraqi-government affiliated Shia militias.

Brigade 16 numbers more than 2,000 Turkman Shia fighters, who are officially divided in eight battalions alongside a broad array of other militias.

In practice, however, these fighters view with suspicion, if not outright hostility, the Leylan-based Sunnis. In other words, the reality on the ground indicates that the Turkmen Shia have little confidence in the Turkmen Sunnis, and even less confidence in the Arab Sunnis.

Colonel Tariq al-Bayati is the Haqq Battalion commander and the officer in charge at Leylan.

Although he attempts to give the impression that the Turkmen are united in the fight against IS "barbarity", as he calls it, he confesses that only "between 50 to 80 fighters from the Turkmen Haqq Battalion are now engaged at the front in Bashir", a town south of Kirkuk which has remained under IS control since the group overran it last summer.

Mohammad Khalil is a member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council for the Iraqi Republican Rally party.

"Arab Sunnis in Leylan have been trained since March but haven't so far received any weapons or salaries" from the central government in Baghdad, he said. He further elaborates: "Every party has an armed force, and we would like to have our own to achieve a balance of power, but we don't."

Divided as much within as between

This is the crux of the matter. The IS blitzkrieg through Iraq in the summer of 2014 dealt a severe blow to the country's central authority, which had been on the wane after decades of dictatorship, war, sanctions, occupation, corruption and sectarianism.

This yielded the further militarisation of Iraqi society, evident in the desire by all political parties to boost or acquire their own private armies, in order to "protect" the community they purport to represent.

Kirkuk governorate is a microcosm of this broader struggle in and for Iraq.

Divisions here are rife - as much within as between communities, however. Turkmen Sunnis are clearly split between those who support the central Iraqi government and those who look to Turkey for protection.

The former coalesce around the Haqq party of Turhan al-Mufti, a former minister and current adviser to Iraqi President Fouad Masoum - hence the homonymous battalion.

The latter are represented by the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), whose head, Arshad al-Salihi, is a member of the Council of Representatives, Iraq's parliament.

In a recent interview in his spacious Kirkuk office, Salihi ducked questions about his party's military ambitions with the aplomb of a savvy politician, presenting instead a rosy picture of harmony in his community.

"ITF forces are participating in the fight against IS and we have volunteers supporting the Popular Mobilisation," he told al-Araby al-Jadeed. "The Turkmen forces can count on about 2,000 men, and their number is constantly increasing. There is no division among the Turkmen. We are united."

Half a dozen other sources challenged this claim.

When Abu Ali Tazali, the commander of the Qaim Battalion in Brigade 16, hears what Salihi had to say, he throws a fit: "Arshad says that he speaks for all the Turkmen, but his are just political lies. He doesn't have two fighters, let alone 2,000."

A Popular Mobilisation volunteer doubles down: "Sunni Turkmen are not working with us, they are working against us. The ITF works with Turkey. There is no one else but Turkmen Shia and Allah fighting Daesh in Bashir and the Shia areas. This is a Turkmen Shia fight."

Others recalled Salihi's earlier efforts to create an ITF militia in Kirkuk, which were frustrated by fierce Kurdish opposition.

"He agreed to train his own 500-strong armed force in Turkey in coordination with [President Barzani's] Kurdish Democratic Party, with the aim of participating in the liberation of Mosul and Tel Afar. It is said that these men won't enter Kirkuk," said Sami al-Bayati, the Haqq Party representative in Kirkuk.

Kurdish troops tend to be well-trained
and effective fighters [AFP]

"Turkey wants to remain the main power player for the Turkmen and interferes in the internal affairs of Iraq via the ITF."

A house of many mansions

This is the tragedy of Iraq. As the central government is unable to maintain a monopoly over money and weapons, other patrons have filled the vacuum - acquiring a stake in the country either directly or by proxy, or both.

The central government in Baghdad itself relies on an array of international backers in the fight against IS, most prominently Iran and the US-led coalition.

In large swathes of territory, non-state armed actors have either substituted the state - IS in the west - or become stronger than any of its institutions, including security and law enforcement - such as the Shia militias in the south and, in particular, the Kurdish Peshmerga in the north.

In Kirkuk, Kurdish politicians and military leaders alike keenly highlight how the Peshmerga was the only force to avert an IS takeover of the city and its environs, when the Iraqi army melted away in summer 2014.

In the words of Mohammad Khorshid Tawfiq, a member of the city's KDP leadership council, "to this very day, the Iraqi army is a defeated force, whose territories fell in the hands of IS. There is no group [that can protect the city] other than the Peshmerga".

Sheikh Jafar Mustafa, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Peshmerga commander for south Kirkuk, concurs.

"Had it not been for the Peshmerga, Kirkuk would have faced the same fate as Anbar, Tikrit, and Mosul," he said. "Except for us, no other force has protected the city."

This undeniable fact, however, hides the deep internal divisions marring the Kurdish camp, despite their unity of intent in capitalising on Baghdad's weakness.

In Kirkuk, the PUK controls most levers of political and military power, but needs the KDP's international leverage - given its dominance in the Kurdistan Regional Government - to exploit the region's economic potential, most notably oil exports via a pipeline to Jihan port in Turkey.

As a Crisis Group report recently noted, since IS arrived on the scene, the KDP and the PUK "have become even more dependent, not less, on their alliances with Turkey and Iran", respectively.

As a consequence, a much needed reform of the Peshmerga has been put off indefinitely, and the two parties maintain independent command structures for their own forces.

     Had it not been for the Peshmerga, Kirkuk would have faced the same fate as Anbar, Tikrit, and Mosul.
- Sheikh Jafar, PUK Peshmerga commander

This is obvious along the Kirkuk frontline, where Sheikh Jafar commands his PUK Peshmerga at the southern front, while Dr Kirkuki is in charge of the KDP Peshmerga deployed on the western front in Debes.

Both claim to be reporting to the overarching Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs in Erbil, the KRG capital, whose minister belongs to the Gorran ["Change"] Movement, a relatively new Kurdish political formation that gained 25 percent of the popular vote in 2013's parliamentary elections.

Gorran member Ahmed Aziz, however, disagrees that Kurdish troops have a single command structure in the regional capital overseeing the divided frontline forces.

"Of the 21 clauses contained in the law on the unification of the Peshmerga forces, some have been fulfilled and some haven't," he said. "The one concerning the unification of the Peshmerga under one leadership clearly hasn't."

Divisions among the Kurds are replicated in the Assyrian community, where the main parties scramble for patrons for their own newly minted militias.

In June 2014, the Assyrian Democratic Movement formed the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU), which can count on 350 to 400 fighters.

The Assyrian Patriotic Party accuses the NPU of being in cahoots with the PUK Peshmerga, while its own Dwekh Nawsha force is reportedly close to Kirkuki's KDP.

The same can be said of the Nineveh Plains Forces (NPF), the Beit al-Nahrein Party's militia, which also falls officially under the Ministry of Peshmerga.

Ready to explode?

The existence of so many competing and overlapping interests in Kirkuk - often accompanied by the presence of armed factions to enforce them - bodes ill for the future of the city and its region.

For the time being, the Kurds appear in firm control of Kirkuk.

Still, some express concerns over the possibility that the temporary alliance between the Kurdish forces and the Popular Mobilisation may fray once the IS threat recedes.

Others voice fears of a repeat of the intra-Kurdish conflict of the mid-1990s, which risks engulfing other communities.

This is all coupled with widespread resentment directed at the Kurds by other communities for exploiting the situation to create "facts on the ground", nullifying Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution that carefully defines Kirkuk and other areas desired by Kurds for annexation to their autonomous region as "disputed territories".

For now, the only certainty is that the fog of war against IS has all but eclipsed any remaining semblance of a cohesive society or a united Iraq.

Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist specialising in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Andrea Lombardo is a consultant and freelance analyst of Kurdish affairs.