Iraq’s Kurdish infighting highlights power struggle
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.