Mixed groups of fighters together in a “marriage of convenience” to oust Isis fighters from their towns and villages.

April 20, 2015 11:30 pm

 

Kurdish
security forces attack Islamic State extremists outside the oil-rich
city of Kirkuk, 290 kilometers north of Baghdad, Iraq. Photo / APMixed groups of fighters have come together in a “marriage of convenience” to oust fighters from their towns and villages.

Among the lush meadows that cover the countryside around Kirkuk,
fighters from the village of Bashir look toward their home. Flanked by
the brightly coloured banners of one of Iraq’s Shia militias, they are
preparing an attack on the Isis snipers who stalk the otherwise empty
streets of the village, one mile away.
Not far off are the
Kurdish Peshmerga, waiting for the command to push Isis further back
from the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk, the capital of its eponymous
governorate, 12 miles to the north. The fighters have a common foe, but
on the ground cooperation is carried out warily.
Situated on the
edge of Iraqi Kurdistan – protected by the Peshmerga – rows persist in
Kirkuk over ethnically mixed pockets of land. Some Arabs and Shia
Turkmen remain wary of Kurdish control.
The rise of Isis has
meant a need for battlefield cooperation between the groups. Jabar
Yawar, the secretary-general of the Ministry of Peshmerga, said that
Shia militias have no place in Kirkuk city but have fought on the
outskirts.

“They took part in some military operations after Isis
attacked these areas. We will deal with them as volunteer forces,” he
said.
The coordination is “a marriage of convenience, not a
strategic alliance”, according to Michael Stephens, the research fellow
for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.
Following
a call to arms by Iraqi Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani last
summer, thousands of men have joined the popular mobilisation forces –
an alignment of government-supported paramilitary groups.
The
role of these militias – many of which are supported by Iran – is
growing, following victories in the city of Tikrit and province of
Diyala alongside regular forces earlier this year. But in historically
diverse areas such as Kirkuk, their presence is not without its
controversies.
It has been 10 months since Isis captured the
village. Last June, residents from Bashir described how they buried 18
bodies in the nearby town of Taza as they fled Isis, who view Shias as
apostates.
“We didn’t have the power or the force,” said Major
Abdul Hussein Abbas, reflecting on their defeat last year. He is now
training new fighters from the popular mobilisation at a base near the
front line.
But the advance on their hometown has been stalled.
During one attempt to retake the town last month, militiamen took three
miles of territory and a smattering of villages from Isis. They then had
to wait for reinforcements and teams to defuse IEDs – the homemade
bombs Isis have deployed widely and to deadly success.
Sectarian
and religious fervour is apparent among the fighters. Many directly
reference Ayatollah Sistani’s call to arms, and speak reverentially of
martyrdom.
Abu Mikhail, 24, a carpenter and now a fighter on the
Bashir front, told The Independent he joined the force after Ayatollah
Sistani’s fatwa. “I am fighting for my faith, my country and my brother
who was martyred here trying to take back Bashir,” he said. A week
later, Mikhail died, a victim of an Isis car bomb.
Major Abbas
was based in Kirkuk with the Iraqi army before they fled in the face of
the Isis attack, but this time around, he says: “We are fighting with
faith because the fatwa gave power to the Iraqi people.”
Kirkuk
has long been home to a diverse population and is dotted with Sunni Arab
villages. The legacy of displacement during the rule of Saddam
Hussein’s Sunni Baathists has further undermined relations.
Major
Abbas, a Shia Turkmen and native of Bashir, was displaced in 1986.
“Saddam destroyed our houses and brought in Arab [villagers]. He cleared
the village and made us refugees inside Iraq,” he said. He adds that he
won’t be forced to leave again.
Major Abbas and Shaker Hassan
Ali, a spokesperson from the Shia Badr Organisation in Kirkuk, are quick
to point out that they have Sunni fighters among their ranks. They
rubbish suggestions that the heightened religious overtones to the
battle could deepen divisions between Iraqis.
But human rights
organisations have documented killings and abductions by
government-backed Shia militias, as well as the burning and looting of
property in towns retaken from Isis.
Major Abbas tells The
Independent that in a town retaken from Isis last month he stopped
another unit trying to steal a resident’s belongings. “I am military, I
know what would happen,” he says. “I don’t want my unit to have a
problem with that.” He also blames the media for reporting that the
popular mobilisation forces were blowing up mosques when, he says, Isis
fighters were responsible.
If operations south of Kirkuk are
successful, it may be because the militiamen come from the local
population, said Ahmed Ali, a senior fellow and director of the Iraq
Security and Humanitarian Monitor project at the Iraqi peace NGO Epic.
“This
fact makes it easier for them to act as an attacking and holding force,
since they know the area and can potentially get the support of the
locals. This method could be used in other mixed areas of Iraq,” said Mr
Ali.
But the challenge will be for the popular mobilisation
forces to avoid acts of retribution in areas cleared of Isis. “That’s a
pitfall some popular mobilisation forces have jumped into in other areas
of Iraq,” he said.

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