The Iraqi Town Where Kurds and Turkmens Shoot Each Other, Not Islamic State

Tuz Khurmatu sits near the front line, and offers a grim preview of what northern Iraq might become if and when the jihadist troops are defeated.
May 4, 2016, 6:00pm
Un combatiente peshmerga posa cerca del frente de Tuz Khurmatu en Irak. (Imagen por Cengiz Yar / VICE News)

A blast wall across a shopping street in the northern Iraqi town of Tuz Khurmatu separates a knot of grim-faced Kurdish stallholders from their Shi'a Turkmen neighbors.

The Kurds and Turkmens have been somewhat testy allies against the Islamic State, whose forces are assembled a short drive away. But here, they are enemies — and their murderous feud bodes ill for the future of this corner of Iraq, once the jihadists have been driven away from the area.

Cinder blocks stacked above the T-shaped sections of preformed concrete raise the dividing wall in the Komari neighborhood by another meter. Even so, shops are pockmarked by shrapnel, and windows bullet holes spider-web the windows. A scant 100 meters beyond the wall, an outpost cloaked in camouflage netting is perched atop a building.

"The more we raise the walls, the more they raise their sniper positions," said Tarek Aziz, a Kurdish shopkeeper.

A blast wall designed to protect Kurdish neighborhoods from snipers in Tuz Khurmatu, Iraq.

The wall is a potent symbol of the escalating hostilities and tit-for-tat violence between two uneasy allies in the war against Islamic State, in this divided town of 60,000. In April, hostilities exploded into several days of intense fighting between local Kurds and Turkmens. Militia members fired small arms, heavy machine guns and mortars at gunmen and civilians alike, leaving scores dead. Local leaders eventually brokered a tense ceasefire, but in a place where the militias regard each other as being as bad as ISIS, peace is fragile.

Tuz Khurmatu is a microcosm of some of the problems facing Iraq today. It illustrates the difficulty in reining in militias and reasserting state control in areas where ISIS has been pushed back. It's also a powder keg which threatens to ignite violence elsewhere and an example of what large swathes of Iraq could look like if the weak central government collapses, leaving local armed groups to contest disputed territories. The only force that could bring a lasting peace is the federal government's, an option that looks increasingly unlikely.

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On the road between the capital Baghdad and the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, now controlled by the Peshmerga fighters of the autonomous northern Kurdish region, Tuz Khurmatu is both strategically important and underdeveloped.

Inhabited predominantly Iraqi Turkmens — people of Turkic rather than Arab heritage, most of whom are Shi'a muslims — the city also has large Kurdish and Sunni Arab populations. With both Kurds and the federal government exerting claim over disputed territories like these, neither side has been willing to invest in development. It's a hardscrabble place where mangy dogs scavenge in garbage piles and hard-eyed men stare at unfamiliar vehicles.

When the Iraqi army left the area in disarray as ISIS advanced in summer 2014, the Peshmerga came from the north to protect Tuz Khurmatu. But the local Turkmens, long targeted by al-Qaeda and other Sunni Arab terrorist groups with deadly bombings in the city, were wary.

"The Kurds are trying to make the Turkmens go away from this region," said Ali Akram Albayati of the Turkmen Rescue Foundation, a local advocacy group.

Many Turkmens embraced their fellow Shi'a militias, which were sanctioned and funded by the federal government and backed by Iran. A bewildering array moved in, all vying for influence with the local population. "Absolutely, they are here to protect us," says Abbas Ali Mohamed, a local Turkmen doctor.

The Kurds don't see it that way. Peshmerga captain Ibrahim Ali believes the Shi'a militias are manipulating local Turkmens in order to build up their forces in the area and ultimately fight for the oil-rich parts of Kurdistan. "The purpose of this force is to move from Tuz to capture Kirkuk," he said. "We believe that the Shi'a militias represent another ISIS for Kurds."

While both sides see grand designs in their enemy's machinations, it's also true that smaller issues are now viewed through a sectarian prism. "The problems in Tuz are a mix of political, ideological, religious, and general lack of accountability," said Barhan Ghazi Ahmed, a local Kurdish doctor. "They're so complicated that you can't always distinguish between them."

An armed civilian in Tuz Khurmatu. (Photo by Cengiz Yar/VICE News)

The cops in Tuz Khurmatu can't do much against heavily armed militias, either.

"Local people have turned to tribal ways of resolving issues and the police are scared of the power of the tribes," said Peshmerga colonel Kawa Abdel Aziz. The tensions have run high for years: in 2012, an attempt by federal police to arrest a Kurdish man sparked a gunfight between Iraqi soldiers and Peshmerga.

Similar scenarios have since repeated themselves in an escalating cycle of street violence, drive by shootings, abductions, arson attacks, bombings and random sniping. Local councillors estimate there were 250 murders in the town in the last year — almost as many as New York City, which has eight million inhabitants. Perhaps as much as two million US dollars was paid in ransom demands.

Both sides now feel like victims, and it's not just the militias who are getting serious weaponry – local men have been buying up guns for personal protection, too. Sayid Razwan keeps a pistol on his belt and an AK-47 within reach at all times, even when playing with his three-year-old son.

The 34-year-old truck driver said he was one of the last Kurds living in the mixed Hay Askari neighborhood, but fled his home of 14 years during the recent fighting. His house was burned down shortly after. He's moved to a Kurdish part of town, but he still fears for his life: "I can't go back to my old neighborhood."

The recent ceasefire agreement stipulates that both sides will gradually withdraw their fighters from the town, each leaving behind a regiment to be integrated into a local security force. That will be a tall order. "Although there has been a ceasefire, we have no trust in the commitment of the Shi'a militias," said Captain Ali. "The Iraqi government is supposed to support the agreement by reinforcing the local police, but its unclear if it will still be around in two months."

Peshmerga fighters mill around a blast wall designed to protect Kurdish neighborhoods from snipers in Tuz Khurmatu (Photo by Cengiz Yar / VICE News)

Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi's rule is shaky, with politicians blocking the appointment of new ministers. On Saturday, protesters stormed Baghdad's Green Zone to occupy the parliament.

Numerous previous demilitarization agreements in Tuz Khurmatu have failed to last, pointed out Christine van den Toorn, director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani: "These things are never enforced, there's no one at a mid or lower level who can enforce them, and there's not enough buy-in."

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Across much of northern Iraq, the fragile balance between Kurds and Shi'a could break out into all-out conflict. "It's a powder keg that could set other places off where you have similar dynamics," said van den Toorn, who has conducted field work in Tuz Khurmatu and other disputed areas.

Back in the Komari neighborhood, Mohieddin Qassem, an 18-year-old student with a downy moustache, flicked through photos of his brother Abdullah on his phone. A small man with big ears and a gentle demeanor, Abdullah had recently graduated from Baghdad University and returned home, his brother said. Photos showed him posing in front of an airplane, smoking a water pipe with friends, and standing with his arm around his younger brother. He was killed by a Kurdish sniper a week ago as he stood on the doorstep of his family home.

"Imagine, your own brother," Qassem said. "What would you do?"