lundi 20 octobre 2014

Touz Khourmatou (Irak) : climat de tension entre peshmerga et milices chiites

Shootout between ‘allies’ underscores Iraq divisions

By By Christine van den Toorn, Shwan Lacky and Staff of Iraq Oil Report
Published Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

TUZ KHURMATU - Ethnic and sectarian tensions are approaching a breaking point in the volatile northern city of Tuz Khurmatu, following an Oct. 3 gun battle between Shia militia and Kurdish fighters.

The shootout, which injured at least four people, highlighted not only a rivalry between Kurds and Shia, but also the widespread mistrust and mistreatment of Sunnis. It was another worrying sign that violence and sectarianism will continue to plague Iraq even after the extremist militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS) are dislodged from the country.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Shia militias are nominal allies, and cooperated last month to drive IS fighters out of the nearby towns of Sulayman Bek and Amerli. On Oct. 1, they jointly fought and defeated IS militants who had remained in nearby villages, including Albu Hassan, Chardahkly, Bastemcli, Qaranaz, Peer Ahmed and Brwachili.

But despite their successful cooperation on the battlefield, Kurdish forces and Shia militias are also competing for control over the territory they are supposedly working together to defend.

Those tensions are aggravated by the particularly brutal tactics of the Shia militias, most of which are ostensibly loyal to Iraq's central government but receive significant funding and support from Iran. In recent weeks, as their presence has grown in heterogeneous areas like Tuz Khurmatu, they have executed many Sunnis and chased others from their homes.

This multifaceted conflict flared up on Friday, after a car bomb exploded outside the local headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the dominant Kurdish political party in the area. Kurdish intelligence officials believed the driver – a Sunni member of Iraq's ethnic Turkomen minority, and the son of the mukhtar (or village leader) of the suburb of Engija, which was recently liberated from IS militants – was an innocent victim whose car had been booby-trapped.

His Sunni identity, however, was apparently enough to draw suspicion and hostility from Shia militiamen. After he was taken to a nearby hospital, militiamen accused him of being an IS fighter, and demanded to take him into custody. Armed Kurdish civilians guarding the hospital refused.

As tempers rose, someone fired a weapon, and at least four civilians were injured in the ensuing battle. The fighting ended when troops from the Kurdish Asayesh intelligence service intervened.

Details of the incident were confirmed by Tuz Khurmatu Mayor Shalal Abdul; the deputy head of the PUK in Tuz, Hassan Baram; an Asayesh official; and a member of the Gorran political party.

Later that night, according to Abdul, Kurdish leaders and Shia militia commanders held talks in an attempt to ease tensions and avoid further incidents. In a visit to Tuz Khurmatu on Saturday, which had been planned before Friday's incident, Kosrat Rasul, a senior PUK leader, admonished Peshmerga commanders to avoid further problems with the militias, Abdul said.

There has been no evidence of direct hostilities between Kurdish forces and Shia militiamen since Friday, but the violence has continued. On Oct. 4, according to the Gorran official, a Kurdish police officer was killed and two other police officers were injured by a roadside bomb in the Helaywa village, a mostly Sunni Arab town about 10 kilometers west of the city, recently liberated from IS militant control.

On Monday, a total of four explosions in different villages within the Tuz district killed at least one Badr militia fighter and injured at least five people, including a father and two of his sons, according to an Asayesh officer.

And on Tuesday at about noon, a suicide car bomb exploded at a Badr militia headquarters in the village of Maftul, near Sulayman Bek. Fifteen militiamen were killed and more than 25 were injured, according to an Asayesh officer.

Shia militias arrive

Sectarian violence and ethnic rivalries are nothing new for the district of Tuz, which has suffered almost daily explosions for 10 years.

The problems trace back to the days of Saddam Hussein, whose campaigns to "Arabize" parts of northern Iraq left minority groups displaced. In the wake of that violent history, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomen now lay competing claims to a belt of territory stretching across the country, along the disputed southern border of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region.

Tuz has been a major flashpoint in these territorial disputes, largely because of its demographic complexity. The city of Tuz Khurmatu has large Kurdish and Turkomen communities, each of which claims to be the majority, as well as a Sunni Arab minority. Almost all of the hinterlands – villages and sub-districts south and west of Tuz Khurmatu, such as Sulayman Bek and Engija – are majority-Sunni Arab and Turkomen, with the exception of Amerli, which is majority-Shia Turkomen.

The deepest suspicions lie between Kurds and Shia Turkomen. Kurds accuse Shia Turkomen of siding with Baghdad and Shia national parties; the Shia Turkomen say that Kurds, via the PUK, have taken over the town and left no room for them.

These layers of competition and disputes have pushed and pulled the various ethnic and sectarian groups in various directions over the year, but never together. The area has long suffered from a patchwork of poorly coordinated, rival security forces, with all sides blaming one another for security gaps and governance problems.
Tuz Khurmatu enjoyed a relatively calm period beginning in June, when IS militants launched a massive offensive throughout northern Iraq. Federal forces fled, and Kurdish Peshmerga took primary control of security in the city: for the first time in years, a relatively cohesive apparatus was in place.

But that situation was not sustainable. Turkomen became alarmed when the Peshmerga disbanded the local all-Turkomen Emergency Forces, as well as the Iraqi Police force that had been mostly composed of Turkomen. And by late July, it was clear that the Peshmerga had no interest in securing the non-Kurdish areas of the broader Tuz district – including Sulayman Bek and Engija, which were held by IS militants, and Amerli, the Shia Turkomen-dominated town that had been under siege for months.

In late July, according to local Kurdish politicians and PUK officials, the head of the PUK politburo, Malla Bakhtiar, struck a deal with Hadi al-Amiri, who is not only the head of the Badr Organization, a Shia militia, but was Minister of Transportation and the government official tasked by then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with coordinating security efforts in much of northern Iraq. The two sides would cooperate to fight the IS militants – an agreement that was likely brokered by Iran, which has deep historical ties with both the PUK and the Badr Organization.

Shia militiamen began to arrive in late July about 30 kilometers north of Tuz Khurmatu, in the Zinana sub-district of Kifri. In early August, they took positions south of the town center, ultimately massing over a thousand militiamen in the city.

In late August, the Shia militiamen and Kurdish forces, supported by American air strikes, gained control of Sulayman Bek, Engija, and Amerli.

But those hard-fought military operations look simple compared to the difficult and complex problems that now ensue. While even Kurdish officials will admit Shia militias were needed to drive IS fighters out of the district, and are now needed to secure the areas, the militias are threatening to open a new conflict with the Kurds – and to aggravate the sectarianism from which the IS militants have drawn their strength.

Widespread atrocities

Shia militiamen appear to be committing acts of extrajudicial killing and sectarian cleansing against Sunni civilians throughout the Tuz district.

Among the most brutal incidents came in late August, when a video emerged of Shia militiamen beheading a Sunni man in Tuz Khurmatu for alleged collaboration with IS fighters. In September, Kurdish forces discovered a mass grave containing six bodies of Sunni Arab men.

Several Kurdish officials said that Shia militias are looting and burning homes belonging to Sunni families who fled Sulayman Bek, Engija, and Amerli, to prevent their return. During a recent visit by Iraq Oil Report, Sulayman Bek was a ghost town: much of the Sunni population had left before IS fighters took control, and the remaining Sunni civilians fled after the Shia militias arrived.

Many have sought refuge in central Tuz Khurmatu, but Shia militias also appear to be waging a campaign to chase Sunnis from the city. On Sept. 16 and 17, for example, three bombs exploded at Sunni homes in Heyy Askeri, a centrally located neighborhood with a large Sunni Arab population. One person was killed and 14 were injured, according to an Asayesh officer .

"Every day … Sunni homes are targeted by Shia militias," said a Shia Turkomen resident. "Bombs are put at their doors, and then later the families leave."

On Monday, five Sunni homes in the Heyy al-Teen and Heyy Askeri areas of Tuz were targeted with bombs, said a Shia Turkomen resident who lives near one of the bombed houses. A senior Asayesh officer said these attacks were likely made to avenge a Badr member who was killed Sunday when a bomb exploded as he patrolled Chardakhly village, which had recently been seized from IS militants.

The Badr Organization isn't the only Shia militia in the area. Along the roads out of Tuz Khurmatu and away from Kurdish zones of primary control – heading west to Engija, and south to Sulayman Bek – a medley of Shia militia flags begin to fly alongside those of the PUK and Iraqi Kurdistan: the Hshad Shaabi, or Popular Volunteers, who are loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani; Saraya Salam, or Peace Brigade, which is loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr; and Kataib Hezbollah, a shadowy Iran-backed militia.

The names of the various militias also mark territory with graffiti on walls in Sulayman Bek, Engija, and Amerli. In Amerli, various groups had set up informal headquarters in abandoned buildings along the main road, and young men were milling around storefronts hung with militia flags as if they were tea shops.

With so many armed groups, it is difficult to know who is responsible for sectarian killing.

Ismael, the Badr leader in Amerli, said, "Sunnis of the villages around us [should] come back… they are our brothers."

A commander of the Popular Volunteers, who was wearing an Iraqi Army uniform, said his group "has no political goals here… we are only here to provide security." He also referred to Sunnis as "brothers," said he was against sectarianism, and said his men had been ordered to "only kill Daash," using an Arabic term for the IS organization.

Yet there is nothing in Tuz that resembles a functioning judicial system, and many militiamen appear to be taking it upon themselves to judge which Sunnis might be IS members. On Oct. 2, for example, Shia militiamen stopped a Sunni man at a checkpoint just south of Tuz center and killed him immediately, according to an Asayesh officer and a Gorran official.

"They want to take their revenge on Sunnis," said Abdul, the Tuz Khurmatu mayor.

It is not just Sunnis who are leaving. An elderly Shia Turkomen resident of Hey al-Teen said that, although he had not fled the violence of the past decade, he had finally decided to leave because he anticipated a day that Sunnis would come back for another round of revenge.

Skirmishes for control
Balance of article (subscription required)

Christine van den Toorn and Shwan Lacky reported from Tuz Khurmatu and Sulaimaniya. Muhammed Hussein reported from Sulaimaniya. Ben Van Heuvelen contributed from the United States.
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