The Law of Revenge Deadly Hatred among Anti-IS Alliance in Iraq
The US is fighting together with an alliance of rival groups to defeat IS in Iraq. Deadly violence in a city north of Baghdad shows, however, that once the Islamists are defeated, erstwhile allies may turn their weapons on each other.
It was halftime of the match between Real Madrid and Manchester City when the young boy was burned alive. Abdullah Fakr was 12 years old and loved football. A Kurdish sixth-grader, Fakr and his family had tuned into the Champions League semifinal on the evening of April 26 along with many others in the Iraqi city of Tuz Khurmatu.
For the last three nights, militias controlling opposing halves of the city had once again been shooting at each other. "But they stayed on the frontlines," says Abdullah's father, as though it was some distant warzone and not right in the center of their small city.
At halftime, the score was 0:0 and Abdullah took advantage of the break to run out to the outhouse in the courtyard. The diesel tank was installed directly above it so that should it ever spring a leak, the fuel would not flow directly into the house. It was a sensible safety measure in peacetime, but not in moments when neighbors are firing mortars toward you from 300 meters away.
One of the projectiles struck the full tank and some 1,200 liters of burning diesel instantly transformed the outhouse and the courtyard into a sea of flames. In the middle of it was Abdullah, whose absence the family only noticed several minutes after they fled to the back of the house in panic. When they finally found him, he was severely burned. He survived for a few more hours and even briefly regained consciousness in the hospital and asked sobbing when they would be able to go back home. He died at around 4 a.m. that morning.
The two halves of Tuz Khurmatu waged war against each other for almost a week in April: Shiite Turkmen from the central and southern parts of the city fired on Kurds in the north, while Kurds burned down an entire housing complex inhabited by Turkmen. Dozens of people lost their lives before a cease-fire put a stop to the fighting.
Nobody emerged victorious. Nor is anybody admitting to having started the violence, with both sides insisting that they were only defending themselves. But why would two groups that used to live peacefully side-by-side suddenly start shooting at each other? In the decades under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, they were on the same side: that of the powerless. Neither the Kurdish people nor the Shiite confession had a voice in Saddam's empire. His power was dependent on Sunni Arabs.
Canary in a Coal Mine
Tuz Khurmatu, located 175 kilometers north of Baghdad, is an unremarkable city of 60,000 residents. But a search for the origins of the sudden violence reveals dark ghosts of the Iraqi past butting up against gloomy prospects for the future. And that makes Tuz Khurmatu something like a canary in a coal mine, particularly as the battle against Islamic State (IS) heats up, most recently with this week's Iraqi military assault on IS-held Fallujah.
Precisely those groups that went after each other in Tuz Khurmatu are working together as allies in the fight against IS outside of Mosul, 200 kilometers further north. Indeed, the violence in Tuz Khurmatu clearly demonstrates that the assumption that the Kurdish Peshmerga, together with Shiite militias and the desolate, US-backed Iraqi army, can defeat IS and establish stability is little more than a fragile hope.
For the time being, the allies on the frontlines of Mosul are bound together by their common enemy. But even now, all sides have made it clear that the retaking of the city will not mark the end of the war. Rather, it will be the beginning of a fight for supremacy and resources that could tear Iraq apart.
For over a year, the US has been pushing for the launch of an offensive on IS-held Mosul and has been bombing the city almost daily. But despite repeated announcements that an attack was imminent, very little has happened on the ground aside from the recapture of a handful of surrounding towns and villages. Nevertheless, Iraqi commanders have already made competing claims on the expected spoils.
"Nothing and nobody will stop us from marching into Mosul," says Hadi al-Ameri, the top commander of a conglomerate of Shiite militias that are officially called the Popular Mobilization Units but which are widely known as Hashd.
"All areas of Mosul east of the Tigris belong to Kurdistan," counters Brigadier Halgord Hikmat, spokesman of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, which controls the Kurdish fighting force. "We aren't demanding any more than that, and the river is a clear border."
What's more, the Sunni ex-governor of Mosul -- together with several thousand fighters and the support of 1,200 Turkish troops whose presence in Iraq is tolerated by the Kurds -- is planning to invade the city from the north. Under Sunni leadership.
Right in the Middle
The government in Baghdad, under the leadership of the respectable yet weak Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has mostly stayed out of it -- despite the fact that the Iraqi army would seem best positioned to prevent a fight among the allies over the spoils of Mosul. But Abadi has been fighting for political survival ever since followers of the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the government quarter in Baghdad a short time ago, the second such incident in a month. Instead of recapturing Mosul, once Iraq's second-largest city, the military has now been tasked with first liberating Fallujah, the much smaller IS stronghold west of Baghdad.
Right in the middle, located at the halfway point between Baghdad and Mosul, is Tuz Khurmatu -- the harbinger of Iraq's future. It is a place where those groups fighting together to defeat IS are killing each other away from the front lines.
After 12-year-old Abdullah died, "some Turkmen friends called the next day," says his cousin Haroun. "They apologized -- not for the mortar, but because they wouldn't be able to attend his funeral." Haroun, too, had joined the fight "as a volunteer, to protect our district. In the first night, there were only a few exchanges of fire after Turkmen threw a hand grenade at the house of one of our commanders. But on the morning of the 24th, they fired on us from several directions and killed another Peshmerga officer. That's when we knew: This is going to be big!"
The young men from his neighborhood grabbed their black-market Kalashnikovs, ammunition boxes and grenade launchers and ran to the city hall in the center of town. Backed by tanks and regular Peshmerga forces, they stormed the opposing leader's neighborhood.
Earlier, Haroun relates, he used to have a vegetable shop in the central bazaar that he rented from the Turkmen who own the market buildings. "We were friends. But last fall, I began finding notes under my shop door reading 'Get lost or die!' And when fighting broke out in November, my shop was plundered and burned down -- by my Turkmen neighbors. They started it."
The stories told by the other side are similar, but they point the finger at the Kurds. "The Kurds came to first plunder my house and then burn it down," says Named Ibrahim, a Turkmen man. He lost his house, but he is most pained by the loss of his peacocks and bees. "I raised them myself. I had 32 peacocks and nine bee colonies. My honey was well known, it was my livelihood. Everything is gone, stolen." In response to the question as to whether he intends to take revenge, he stares back in disbelief. "Of course!" He translates the question into Turkmen for the others and they all laugh as if someone had just asked if water was wet. "Of course I'm going to take revenge! And if I die, I will entrust my son with taking revenge for me!"
A Miniature Version of Cold War Berlin
In order to move from one half of the city to the other, one must pass back and forth through paradise. Just outside the city is a heavily secured highway rest stop called "Paradise of Iraq," where an al-Qaida suicide bomber took the lives of a dozen motorists several years ago. Even after the bombing, "we kept the name," one of the guards says. The restaurant is neutral ground, a place from which it is possible to travel to both halves of the city.
It's mid-May and the situation is calm. But the city center looks like a miniature version of Cold War Berlin, with high walls topped with barbed wire and floodlights running right through the heart of Tuz Khurmatu. Half the buildings on some streets are abandoned and one should avoid coming too close to the wall at night. But the walls were not erected in the wake of the April violence -- they were built before the clashes. For weeks during the winter, the Kurds heaved heavy cement wall segments onto the Kurdish bazaar, while Turkmen militias collected old freezers, dragged them up to the roofs of the buildings across from the market and filled them with debris to create perfect sniper positions in the gaps between the freezers. The fighting resumed only after the preparations had been completed.
"For now, we have the situation under control once again," says the Kurdish Mayor Shalal Abdul. But in his office, he suggests sitting a bit further to the left and points to a bullet hole in the upper right corner of the window pane. "That happened two weeks ago," he says.
Abdul likes Germany: He was treated in Hanover following the last bomb attack, he says. Behind him is a plaque listing all of the city's mayors since 1951 and Abdul is the first Kurd on the list. "Under Saddam, we weren't allowed to hold official positions." He isn't neutral, nobody here is neutral, nobody here trusts the others. Just like in the rest of the country.
- Part 1: Deadly Hatred among Anti-IS Alliance in Iraq
- Part 2: The Demographic Time Bomb