Sectarian impasse in Iraq

Submitted by AWL on 3 September, 2014 - 12:18 Author: Simon Nelson

On 31 August, the Iraqi army, Kurdish troops (peshmerga), and the “peace brigades” linked to Iraqi Shia-Islamist leader Moqtada al-Sadr reached the town of Amerli in northern Iraq and lifted its siege by the “Islamic State” movement which has taken control of a big swathe of northern Iraq and of Syria.

Amerli’s inhabitants are mainly of the Turkmen minority, but many had already fled the siege. It is reported that the Turkmen themselves had dug mass graves because they planned to kill their families and themselves if they lost their fight to defend the town.

Otherwise they feared forced conversion, sale into slavery or execution by the “Islamic State” movement (IS, previously called ISIS). The UN estimates that 1.6 million Iraqis including Kurds, Yazidis, Shabaks and Christians are refugees inside Iraq from the IS offensive.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 27 captured Yazidi women, many of them children, have been sold for $1000 to IS fighters in Syria as wives. They will have undergone forced conversion to Islam as part of the sale.

IS has continued to kidnap Peshmerga fighters and promise execution for any Kurdish prisoner who refuses to pledge allegiance to “the caliphate” (I.e IS).

US airstrikes on IS positions assisted the militias and army in reaching Amerli.

The third attempt to regain control of the city of Tikrit since the Iraqi Government lost control earlier this year has failed, despite Kurdish forces aiding the Iraqi army.

The Iraqi army is still in disarray. US military sources indicate that up to seven brigades have disbanded. The US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the UK are now in an undeclared alliance against the rise of the IS.

Iraqi Shia militias under the patronage of different politicians and clerics are also part of this tacit alliance. The most powerful fall under the control of Hadi al-Amiri, commander of the Badr brigades, who is able to channel Iranian funds directly.

The Shia militias oppose IS’s Sunni ultra-Islamism, and most are less extremely sectarian than IS; but the destruction of a Sunni mosque in Diyala on 22 August, with the deaths of 70 worshippers, most likely was the result of a Shia militia attack.

The sectarianism is ruinous both in Iraq and in the region. Many Shia militia fighters, like the IS fighters, have fought in Syria. The Shia have fought for the Assad government. A senior Iraqi Shia politician is quoted in the Guardian: “Where will they (the militias) go when the fight is over here? They will take their wars and go to Saudi and Yemen. Just like the Sunni jihadis migrated, so will the Shia militias”.

Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK, based in the Kurdish areas of Turkey) have increased their presence in northern Iraq, but in distinct brigades with their own command structure. Some claim that Iraqi-Kurdish forces have backed away from confrontation with IS while the PKK have continued fighting.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly backed arming of the peshmerga (Iraqi-Kurdish regional government forces), but not the PKK.

The PKK remains listed as a “terrorist” organisation by both the US and EU. Denmark is lobbying for it to be removed, but the Turkish government will insist it remains on the list, despite ongoing talks between the government and the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

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