Shia militias and Peshmerga leaders in Kirkuk downplayed tensions before conflict

Shia militias and Peshmerga leaders in Kirkuk downplayed tensions before conflict
Analysis: The Popular Mobilisation Forces and Kurdish leaders said they did not want to see violence, writes Adam Lucente.
5 min read
17 October, 2017
The stand-off between Peshmerga fighters (foreground) and Baghdad-aligned troops hours before violence broke out [YomiKleinmann/AMYKMedia]
The flags of Iraqi Kurdistan lined the streets of Kirkuk in the lead up to the Kurdistan independence referendum on September 25, and remained there following the victory of the "yes" campaign. 

But the Kurdish flag was not alone in Kirkuk, and Iraqi and Turkmen flags were also a common sight.

In a telling move, videos emerged on Monday of people taking down Kurdish flags in the multi-ethnic and disputed Kirkuk, which Iraqi forces and their allies took from Kurdish control later on Monday.

"I saw heavy clashes between the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces and [the Popular Mobilisation Forces]," Saman Gli, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Kirkuk, told The New Arab. "They had heavy weapons, and American ones."

On Monday, Kirkuk witnessed its worst fighting since the Islamic State group's defeat at the hands of the Peshmerga in 2014. But in the days before the fighting, some Kurdish leaders and figures from the PMF - a largely Shia-led, Iran-backed umbrella group of militias which also includes Turkmen fighters - said a battle was not on the horizon.

A Kurdistan flag next to a Shia flag on a busy street in Kirkuk before Iraqi forces took the city Monday [Adam Lucente]

"I, as a Turkmen, am not ready to oppose their right, as Turkmen wish to have a country too," said Sayyid Muhammad al-Musawi, the administrator of the PMF base in Kirkuk, a few days after the referendum on the Kurdish quest for a state. Musawi's base housed the 16th brigade, composed of ethnic Turkmen.

None of the sides want a fight... Only lower-ranking people want problems

Musawi further downplayed long-standing, intermittent conflicts between the PMF and the Peshmerga in Tuz Khurmatu, saying they had been exaggerated by media.

"None of the sides want a fight," he said, speaking beside Iraqi and PMF flags in his office. "Only lower-ranking people want problems."

Musawi spoke of calm before Monday's battle, saying that the PMF had a cooperative relationship with the Peshmerga.

"We've slept in Peshmerga tents in Kirkuk and have given them fronts," he said. "We believe in harmony. The Kurds are trying to deliver a democratic message, and we have no intent to fight anyone."

Sayyid Muhammad al-Musawi, administrator of the Hashd al-Shaabi 16th brigade base in Kirkuk [Adam Lucente]

Peshmerga commander Sartib Hassary, of the K1 base on the fourth front, south of Kirkuk, had similar things to say during the battle for Hawija.

Read more: Abadi's recapture of Kirkuk might just save Iraq

"There are some video threats, but we have direct contact with [PMF] leaders," he said from the base, where US and other troops have been stationed. "It's normal. [The threats] are for media attention."

Hassary said he did not anticipate any fall-out between Erbil and Baghdad pertaining to military matters following the referendum.

"Nothing like this will happen," said Kurdistan Regional Government press officer Abdullah Sabour Jabari in Kirkuk after the referendum. "We have no border with Shia people, only with Sunni Arabs - and we're fine with them."

However, just three weeks later, the fighting in Kirkuk on Monday was very real. Many in the Kurdish region were disappointed by reports that forces connected to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) reportedly surrendered strategic posts in Kirkuk to Iraqi forces, although the party denies this, according to Kurdish news outlet Rudaw.

There have long been conflicting narratives over Kirkuk and its surrounding areas.

"We cannot give the fate of the people to the army who ran away. The Iraqi army has no right to be here," said Kamal Kirkuki during the Hawija offensive, speaking beside a styrofoam Islamic State group drone his forces recovered in battle. Kirkuki is the leader of Sector 5 of the Peshmerga's west Kirkuk front.

"They left Kirkuk for IS and we stopped them."

Many Kurds refer to Kirkuk as the "Jerusalem of Kurdistan", but others claim the city as their own.

"In 1957, 70 percent of Kirkuk was Turkmen, and there were some Kurds and Arabs, but Saddam Hussein changed that," Jasim Muhammad Jaffar, a member of the Iraqi parliament, told The New Arab, referring to the Arab population transfer during the Saddam era.

Read more: Kirkuk has already exposed Trump's incoherent Iran strategy

Kirkuk is home to Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and Assyrians. Opinions on the Kurdistan independence referendum crossed ethnic lines, with some non-Kurds throwing their support behind the initiative.

A large number of Arabs voted 'yes' in Kirkuk... Since 2003, nobody has protected us like the Kurds.

Jawad Jasim Muhammad al-Jenabi is an Arab member of the Kirkuk city council, and supports independence for the Kurdish region.

"A large number of Arabs voted 'yes' in Kirkuk," said Jenabi after the referendum, the ink on his finger from voting in the referendum still visible. Many independence supporters left the ink unwashed in the days following the vote. "Since 2003, nobody has protected us like the Kurds."

The Iraqi army and the PMF were assisted on Monday by Iran, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Iraqi government likewise accused the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) of entering Iraq from Turkey to help the Peshmerga.

An incredibly large statue of a Peshmerga soldier sits on a road leading in and out of Kirkuk. Many people shared images of Iraqi forces reaching the statue on Twitter on Monday.

Hours after the Iraqi victory, the Islamic State group reportedly attacked parts of Dibis, north of Kirkuk, according to local media. If anything was clear from the chaos, it was that, despite recent victories against the Islamic State group and hopes the referendum would not be followed by bloodshed, war has not left Iraq. 

Adam Lucente is a freelance journalist. He has worked in Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and across the region. Follow him on Twitter: @Adam_Lucente

Dana Mahmoud contributed fixing and translation services to this report.