jeudi 18 septembre 2014

Diyala : des tribus arabes sunnites se retournent contre l'Etat islamique... et contre les peshmerga

Sunni tribes turning on ISIS and Peshmerga

By Mohammed Hussein, Patrick Osgood, Rawaz Tahir, CHRISTINE VAN DEN TOORN and Staff of Iraq Oil Report
Published Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Iraq's newest initiative to convince Sunnis to fight alongside the government has combusted into a volatile, multi-sided conflict in northern Diyala province – a strong indication of how difficult it will be to build and maintain a national coalition against extremist militants.

The biggest flashpoint has been around Jalula, a town in Diyala along the disputed border between the autonomous Kurdistan region and Arab-dominated southern Iraq.

Since Saturday, Sunni Arab tribesmen aligned with the Shia Arab-dominated Iraqi government have been shelling Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who have suffered at least three casualties and have returned fire.

The tribesmen and the Peshmerga are supposed to be nominal allies in a fight against the so-called Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS), which captured Jalula last month. But long-standing ethnic rivalries and conflicts over territorial control appear to be trumping their mutual enmity for ISIS.

Many of the tribesmen recently turned on ISIS. They make up a reconstituted local emergency defense force called Tawiri, which in the past was under the Ministry of Interior but is now reporting to the Tigris Operations Command, under a deal reached last week.

"The gunmen who shelled Peshmerga bases in the area of Benzene Khana and Wadi Osaj on the evening of Sept. 13, 2014 are from the newly formed Arab tribal force in Jalula," said a senior Peshmerga intelligence officer in the town, referring to two neighborhoods east of Jalula. The events were confirmed by local leaders from both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the two most powerful Kurdish political parties, as well as three other Peshmerga officials and an Iraqi army official.

The Iraqi ministries of defense and interior did not respond to several requests for comment.

The conflict in Jalula underscores a serious challenge for newly elected Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his U.S.-influenced security strategy, which depends on convincing Sunni tribesmen to turn against ISIS. Abadi has proposed creating a National Guard force that could incorporate not only Sunni tribal fighters but also Shia militiamen, theoretically uniting many disparate armed groups against ISIS, under the banner of the Iraqi government.

Consistent with this initiative, the Iraqi Army is in the process of training and arming about 700 fighters from Sunni tribes to the south of Jalula, according to an army officer based in the provincial capital of Baquba.

The agreement was agreed between the Jalula tribes and the Tigris Operations Command – a controversial body that coordinates various security forces in three northern provinces and reports directly to the prime minister. The Baquba-based officer said that 200 fighters are currently training at Camp Ashraf, with two additional groups slated to begin soon.

"The agreement also provides that this newly formed force is given the management responsibility for the area in question [Jalula], instead of the Peshmerga forces," the officer said.

Jalula sits within a belt of territory stretching across northern Iraq that was subjected to violent campaigns of ethnic cleansing and gerrymandering under Saddam Hussein, leaving a legacy of resentment, distrust, and conflicting claims among Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen. These territorial disputes have been so sensitive and bitter that they have defied resolution, despite a 2007 deadline to implement a reconciliation process outlined in the Iraqi constitution. Frustrated by the delay, Kurds hope that by taking territory they can wrest the initiative over the fate of these areas from Baghdad.

"Jalula is ours, and it belongs to us," said Mahmoud Sangawi, the Peshmerga leader in the Garmian district, in a Sept. 13 statement. "We will never accept any [other] military forces in Jalula. Regardless of who creates the military force there, we will treat them as ISIS."

Iraq's Kurds claim Jalula is historically a Kurdish majority town. It was certainly impacted by Saddam Hussein's Arabization campaign, and at the time of the ISIS invasion only around a fifth of the population was Kurds, the remaining majority Sunni Arab, a demographic that Kurds have all but labeled ISIS collaborators.

Positioned on a trunk road to the majority Kurdish towns of Kifri, Kalar and Khanaqin further north, it is an important strategic buffer for Peshmerga forces.

Since ISIS invaded the area on June 14, Jalula has seen some of the fiercest fighting between Peshmerga forces and militants from ISIS. The Sunni southern neighborhood of Tajnid has been especially difficult for Peshmerga to clear. At one point, the Peshmerga held the whole town, only to surrender it after their own reinforcements failed to materialize due to conflicting chains of command.

According to Khalil Khudadad, the PUK leader in Jalula, after three months, Jalula is "almost abandoned, especially southern and eastern neighborhoods." ISIS snipers pick off wandering animals who otherwise set off mines ISIS has laid for anyone hoping to recapture the town, he said.

It was not immediately possible to confirm accounts from Kurdish military and political official that the attacks on the Peshmerga were deliberately ordered by the same forces that recently aligned with the Iraqi government. It is possible that some tribal fighters in the area remain allied to ISIS, or that they have not yet been given orders from tribal leaders to switch sides, which could account for the ongoing shelling.

"There are still a lot of ISIS militants in Jalula," said Kamaran Hamajan, the KDP leader in Jalula. "After their defeats in Sulayman Beg and Amerli, many of their militants came to Jalula and Tibj," a town southwest of Jalula.

Hamajan believes those firing on the Peshmerga still "belong to ISIS. It is not clear yet who and how many of them have joined the newly formed Arab tribal force."

But regardless of whether the tribes are fighting ISIS or not, Kurdish security officials said they expected the Peshmerga to be targeted.

"I know it is confusing to figure out who they fight for," said a senior Peshmerga intelligence official in Jalula. "They easily shift their directions and loyalties, but the shifting does not change their actual duty, which is fighting Peshmerga in Jalula."

The deal

Iraqi and U.S. defense officials say the only way of destroying ISIS in Iraq is to win back disenfranchised Sunni communities with political reconciliation. Early steps by the new Abadi government have been met with limited praise from Iraq's Sunni Arabs and American officials alike.

Last week, Iraq's newly installed Cabinet ordered the drafting of a law to establish a National Guard force. Over the weekend, Abadi said he ordered an end to Iraqi army air attacks on ISIS in civilian areas, one of the most urgent demands of Sunnis, especially in Anbar province.

President Obama in his Sept. 10 speech announcing an expansion of U.S. military bombing and other assistance in Iraq, allegedly predicated on formation of an inclusive government, said the U.S. would "support Iraq's efforts to stand up National Guard units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL's control."

On Sept. 11, Iraqi Army Lt. Gen. Abdulamir al-Zaidi, the head of the Tigris Operations Command, appears to have taken early initiative. He met with tribal leaders and reached a deal that could be a massive hit to ISIS, according to two Peshmerga officials in the Jalula area.

The two officials said the meeting took place in Baquba, while a third Peshmerga official said the meeting took place at a military base known as Kir Kush, 70 kilometers east of Baquba.

Zaidi "met with a big group of tribesmen and militant delegations from tribes of Qarawi, Lhebi, Jabouri and Qubaisi," a senior Peshmerga intelligence official said. "He successfully persuaded them to kick the ISIS organization out of their area."

According to the main points of the agreement, which was shown to Iraq Oil Report, any family from the tribes who have pledged to the Tawari that has more than three sons of fighting age must send at least one to fight; the Iraqi army must provide logistics and financial support to the Tawari, give general amnesty to those who have joined ISIS in the past three months, and hire into the security forces anyone who joins the Tawari.

Over the weekend, members of the crucial Qarawi tribe returned to Jalula and Sadiya from Baquba. Khudadad and the senior Peshmerga intelligence official said Jalula and Sadiya recruits have already begun training in a military base in Khan Bani Saad, south of Baquba.

The Tawari Battalions are not new. They were first formed in 2003, reporting to the Interior Ministry, and were trained and deployed in each province during emergency situations when order could best be restored by locals.

The new Tawari Battalions essentially have the same role, but with much more at stake: fighting ISIS, using former ISIS fighters to be incorporated into a formal security force structure, without setting off a sectarian fight between Arabs and Kurds.

"Zaidi's agreement is with local ISIS militants in both Jalula and Sadiya as well as leaders of the tribes," said a senior Peshmerga intelligence official in the Jalula area. Sadiya is a town 12 kilometers south of Jalula. "Their main goals are to end local gunmen cooperation with ISIS and bring back the towns into Iraqi federal government control, in addition to prevent Peshmerga forces to enter the towns."

Kurdish security officials worry that the deal Zaidi struck to secure the tribes' commitment implies government approval to fight the Peshmerga so long as ISIS also remains in their crosshairs.

"The second phase of the agreement is about preventing Peshmerga forces from entering the towns and fighting any rising Kurdish influence after the ISIS crisis," the second Peshmerga official said. "We will never tolerate this force in Jalula."
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