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.
The Demographic Time Bomb
When Saddam was toppled in 2003, the Kurds advanced out of their autonomous region in northern Iraq to take back those areas that Saddam once stole from them. That, at least, is their interpretation of events. The result was that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters became the only military power in Tuz Khurmatu. The Turkmen didn't have their own militia, but claimed that they represented the majority of the city's population. But there hasn't been a census for decades. Indeed, even preparations for such a project wouldn't likely get very far given the sensitivity of even basic questions such as: Who should be counted? Those driven away? Their descendants?
The Kurdish side argues that the Tuz quarter belongs to Kirkuk Province, thus falling under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. That article holds that a referendum should be held to determine which province "disputed" territories belong to -- but that referendum has been delayed for years. Further complicating the issue, Saddam Hussein in 1976 assigned the quarter to the newly founded Salaheddin Province surrounding his hometown of Tikrit. But Article 140, which applies only to the Kurdistan region, does not pertain to that province.
In short, the demographic make-up of Tuz Khurmatu was a time bomb, one ultimately set off by IS, even though the Islamist extremists never managed to take over the city. But fear of IS proved sufficient to trigger a fatal chain reaction. When the Sunni jihadists of IS were nearing Baghdad in June 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a call for the population to join the fight and defend the country. There was suddenly plenty of money and arms available, with the mobilization largely taking place under the control of the Hashd, the new alliance of Shiite militias.
While IS was unable to take Tuz Khurmatu in the summer of 2014, the jihadist group did manage to take control of almost all of the surrounding villages and fired on the city from there. The "emir" threatened by video to slaughter all his enemies as soon as IS managed to take the besieged city. At the time, the Kurds and the Turkmen in the city closed ranks more tightly than ever before.
The trouble between the two groups started when thousands of fighters from half a dozen Shiite militias flowed into Tuz Khurmatu. Suddenly, the Turkmen also had military power. "Since then, we have been able to defend ourselves," they claim. "Since then, they have become aggressive," say the Kurds in response.
Once IS was driven off, though, the mission of the Hashd militias wasn't even close to being completed. As is so often the case in Iraq, the next horrific story lies in wait behind the first. Because as it turned out, the Kurds were not the militias' primary target. Rather, as Mayor Abdul laconically puts it: "Actually, the Shiite militias wanted to get revenge on the Sunnis, but there aren't enough Sunnis left for them to kill. That's why they turned their attention to us."
Sunni Arabs in Iraq formed Saddam's power base. The terror of al-Qaida and IS grew out of that population and many of them joined their IS conquerors in 2014. Now, they too have become the hunted in Tuz Khurmatu.
But those who were targeted here were not the IS sympathizers, rather it was those Sunnis who fled from the Islamist terrorists. At the end of April, the remaining 300 Sunni families left their previously mixed quarters in the Turkmen part of the city for the safety of the Kurdish sector. Only with the help of the city's Committee for the Monitoring of the Status of Expellees, which is run by the Kurds, were we able to convince a victim of repeated displacement to speak with us. "I was an official at the oil refinery in the city of Baiji," he says. "When Daesh" -- the Arabic acronym for IS -- "took over the refinery and then my home village not far from Tuz, I didn't know where to go. So we moved into the city, thinking it would be peaceful here."
Before long, though, death threat notices began turning up at night and then a bomb exploded in front of their house. He insisted on leaving the mixed neighborhood, the man continues, but his brother's family remained. One day in December, the brother's two sons both disappeared within hours of each other. One of them was kidnapped across from his school at midday and the other was taken in the afternoon, picked up by men driving slowly through the streets in a white pick-up. After two days, the father received a call from the telephone of one of his sons, with the caller saying that, if an $80,000 ransom was paid, the two boys would be freed within half an hour.
Over the course of several further calls, the ransom was negotiated down to $60,000 and the family sold what they could and borrowed and begged for the rest. They placed a bag holding the money not far from the local headquarters of a Shiite militia and it was picked up. But the phone went silent. "We kept calling and calling. But ... nothing."
There is a list of Sunni men who have been similarly kidnapped in Tuz Khurmatu in the last year and a half with 156 names on it. But it only includes those whose families "are brave enough to follow up," says a resigned Ayoub Jumaa, head of the city's committee. "In total, we believe there have been almost 1,000 such cases in the surroundings." Now, says the uncle of the two kidnapped boys, nobody is paying the ransoms anymore. "Everyone knows: My son is dead whether I pay or not. Daesh or Hashd, what's the difference? The Kurds here at least allow us to live."
'It's Over for This City'
The roughly 30 Sunni villages surrounding Tuz Khurmatu are completely empty today. Where houses stood until just a few months ago, there are ruins today. Or, in the case of the village of Hweila, there is nothing left at all. It was bombed and flattened down to knee level, with just a bit of re-bar, some piles of rubble and bits of concrete pillars sticking out above the undulating grass. It is silent but for the sound of crickets and a few birds. Clumps of flowers reveal where yards once were.
It is as though IS has set in motion a distinctly Iraqi machinery of barbarism, one which can also function just fine without the jihadist group. But the fact that the Hashd militias are now going after the Kurds in Tuz may have less to do with a carefully considered plan and more to do with internal rivalries within the groups. For roughly the last six months, the Iraqi state has been almost completely insolvent. The price of oil is too low to continue financing the state amid rampant corruption in the country. In Tuz Khurmatu, construction has stopped on a new hospital and school and the hollow structures stand empty.
Even the Shiite militias, who had been able to pay substantial salaries until now, are no longer able to buy their fighters' loyalty with money alone. So they have been trying to outdo each other with brutality. "I will say this completely openly," says the local commander of Asaib Ahl al-Hakk, the "League of the Righteous," which is fighting on the front, "I am not happy with this cease-fire. It is perhaps possible to reach a compromise with other groups, but not with us. We will fight. There will be no solution without the Kurds leaving Tuz. And it will blow up here again!"
That prediction, at least, is one shared by all groups in the city. He is going to get his revenge, says the Turkmen beekeeper. He can't trust the Turkmen anymore, says Haroun, the Kurdish vegetable seller. "Everything will keep happening over and over again," says the elderly Chorshid, who once owned a profitable roast chicken restaurant in the Kurdish bazaar and who is now sitting in front of his shot-up restaurant on the demarcation line. "It's over for this city."
The smallest provocation could be enough and the law of revenge prevails. Every act of vengeance establishes a wrong which must then be avenged.
The football match between Manchester City and Madrid, which was 0:0 after the first half that 12-year-old Abdullah was able to watch, also remained scoreless in the second half, as the boy was dying. A game without a victor.