Iraq’s Kurdish infighting highlights power struggle

Sunday 12/03/2017

Kurdish crossroads. Iraqi Kurdish fighters look on as smoke billows in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar. (AFP)

London - Clashes between rival Kurdish groups in Iraq’s north-western Sinjar district in early March highlight the resurfac­ing power struggle in the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan re­gion.

Fighting erupted when Peshmer­ga Rojava, Syrian Kurds backed and trained by Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), encroached on an area controlled by the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), an Iraqi af­filiate of Turkey’s Kurdistan Work­ers’ Party (PKK).
The number of fatalities remains unconfirmed but different sources put the deaths at between two and nine, mainly on the YBS side.
Sinjar is a Yazidi-majority area in Nineveh province. It was under Iraq’s central government control before being captured by ISIS in August 2014, when militants sub­jected the Yazidi population to rape and enslavement.
An international campaign to save the Yazidis from ISIS was launched. Included in the effort were Syria’s People’s Protection Units (YPG) — widely seen as a PKK-affiliate — and later joined by the Iraqi KRG’s peshmerga forces.
Sinjar fell under the control of KRG President Masoud Barzani, who refused to return the territory to the authority of the central gov­ernment in Baghdad.
Many of Sinjar’s residents view the KRG with suspicion, accusing the peshmerga of deliberately al­lowing the area to fall to ISIS.
Critics say the KRG is prevent­ing Yazidis from returning home to change Sinjar’s demographic make-up, favouring Barzani loyalists, as it seeks to formalise its control of the territory.
The KRG denied the allegations, arguing that its peshmerga forces were too weak to support the Yazid­is initially and that they did help the minority community at subse­quent stages, promising to allow civilians in once the threat of ISIS is eradicated.
The KRG also argued that it does not want the areas it controls to host the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and Turkey — Barzani’s ally.
“The PKK used the plight of the Yazidis to get another foothold in Iraq,” said Bora Bayraktar, a profes­sor at Istanbul Kultur University. “It was an opportunity to turn Sinjar into another base for the PKK, like Qandil.”
Bayraktar said Ankara needs the help of Iraq’s KRG to prevent terror attacks by the PKK and ISIS inside Turkey.
The mutually beneficial econom­ic relationship between Ankara and the KRG is also meant to send a message that the Kurds who do not threaten Turkey’s security will be rewarded, Bayraktar added.
There is also the perceived threat from Tehran. “Both Turkey and the KRG want to push back the influ­ence of Iran,” which backs the Pa­triotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a rival to Barzani’s Kurdistan Demo­cratic Party (KDP), said Bayraktar.
Ali Murat Yel, a professor at Tur­key’s Marmara University, said Iran, which cracks down on its own Kurdish opposition, is thought to be supporting the PKK in Iraq.
Iran also has a strong influence in the Shia-majority government in Baghdad, which has several dis­putes with the KRG, albeit current­ly on hold due to the military cam­paign to root out ISIS from Mosul, Nineveh’s provincial capital.
Following the clashes, Iraqi me­dia quoted a commander from the Shia militias meeting with YBS rep­resentatives saying: “We will come to the defence of oppressed regard­less of religion or ethnicity”. There are conflicting reports about who pays YBS salaries: the PKK, the Iraqi government or both.
The intra-Kurdish fighting prompted Germany to question the KRG’s alleged use of German weap­ons, which were intended by Berlin to be used against ISIS alone. The peshmerga denied using weapons supplied by Germany, which also trains Kurdish forces.
The infighting casts a shadow on the future of Iraq’s northern ar­eas once ISIS is ousted from Mosul and rival parties compete over the spoils of war.
Tense relations among Kurds also threaten to complicate anti-ISIS ef­forts in neighbouring Syria.
The Peshmerga Rojava and Syr­ia’s Kurdish National Council (KNC) are backed by Turkey and Iraq’s KRG but are at odds with the YPG, which is accused of cracking down on rival Kurdish parties.
Sharvan Diroki, a commander in Peshmerga Rojava, said the United States has given the green light to his forces to enter Syria to fight ISIS, despite objections from the US-backed YPG.
“We have plans to boost the num­ber of our Peshmerga to around 10,000 [from a current 7,000] in three months’ time after new train­ing sessions,” Diroki told Kurdistan-based media outlet Rudaw.
“The United States has officially asked us to be prepared for deploy­ment into Rojava, but the PKK and YPG were opposed to the move,” he added.