Trouble still brewing in Iraq's hotspots

Trouble still brewing in Iraq's hotspots
4 min read
26 Apr, 2017
Comment: Intensifying the fight against IS in Iraq is just one conflict within a country with countless hotspots that see competing groups clashing violently, writes Mona Alami.
Peshmerga forces in Iraq's Sinjar province, recently a flashpoint for violence [Anadolu]
Turkey targeted this morning Syrian Kurds groups located in Iraq's mount Sinjar. The bombing which resulted in over a dozen deaths is a reminder of Iraq's multiple hot spots that will constitute a security threat after the fall of Mosul.

These hot spots, as demonstrated in Sinjar, could flare up at any time, some stemming from geopolitical and ethnic rivalries, others from the continued presence of the Islamic State group (IS).

Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish militants in Iraq's Sinjar region in a dual attack that also targeted northeastern Syria on Tuesday. Sinjar, home to a Yezidi minority which was persecuted by IS, is located in a mountainous area on the border with Syria and Turkey.

At least 18 fighters affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were killed. The Turkish military argued Sinjar had become a terror hub due to the PKKs presence, which is also rejected by Iraqi Kurdistan authorities, who maintain good relations with Turkey.

Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, a journalist and expert on Kurdish affairs explains that more instability could take place in Sinjar, where he believes that "PKK and KDP positions are irreconcilable" with both parties seemingly incapable of making concessions over Sinjar territory.

As the recent Turkish strikes show, Sinjar is a flash point for geopolitical rivalries, ones also fueled by inter-Kurdish mistrust. The PKK, Turkey’s arch enemy, is allied to Yazidis Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) which clashed last March with Syrian Kurds known as "Roj peshmergas" affiliated to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in power in Iraq.

As the recent Turkish strikes show, Sinjar is a flash point for geopolitical rivalries, ones also fueled by inter-Kurdish mistrust

Turkey's rivalry with Syrian PKK Kurds has grafted itself on tensions between Yazidis and the Iraqi Peshmerga, who they accuse of abandoning them in 2014 when they were under attack by IS. To complicate matter further, sources in Erbil accuse the PKK and the YBS to be backed by the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), close to Iran, Turkey's regional nemesis.

Similar geopolitical calculations prevail in the town of Tuz Khurmato. The city which is home to a population of 100,0000 Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens of Shia and Sunni backgrounds is a disputed zone, claimed by both the Kurdish administration and the central government in Baghdad.

Located on the border with Kirkuk and close to the Iranian border, last year the city witnessed several rounds of clashes between the PMF and Kurdish Iraqi Peshmerga forces. Like in Sinjar the struggle is twofold. On one hand it has an Arab-Kurdish dimension, and on the other a geopolitical one.

According to some observers, the Iranian backed PMF have a plan to clear out Sunni Arabs and Turkmens from the Diyala region and part of Kirkuk. This will create a Shia bloc stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria and onward to Lebanon, home to Iran's proxy Hizballah. If true, such a plan would be fiercely opposed by Iraqi Kurds and their Turkish backer.

"After ISIS is crushed, clashes could possibly erupt again between Peshmergas and Shiite paramilitary groups over disputed territories in Tuz Khurmato," adds Van Wilgenburg.

Another Iraqi hot spot lies in the city of Hawija where the main threat unlike Sinjar and Tuz Khurmato does not reside in geopolitical rivalries but in the continued presence of IS.

Hawija may be next after the fall of Mosul

While the city is an IS stronghold, the number of fighters there remains unknown. Colonel Harru Schute, an advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government describes it as long being "a hot-bed of pro-Saddam and anti-Government sentiment." It is only logical therefore that "it has been a safe haven for opposition and terror elements for years…even before ISIS".

The Sunni-dominated town, home to some 450,000 residents sits in close proximity to the cities of Qayyarah, Kirkuk, Mosul as well as Salahudin province.  

Despite its strategic importance, military operations aimed at retaking the city have been delayed due to disagreements between Kurds on one hand and Iraqi forces on the other. "The rationale was that Iraqi forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces would attack from the three sides under their control and the Kurds from another side," says Colonel Schiute. 

IS militants have also used the city as a platform to launch attacks to others areas. Last October, IS militants launched a major operation on Kirkuk as well as on Tikrit where last April it targeted the city with several suicide bombers.

Hawija may be next after the fall of Mosul. But even a decisive blow to IS in its largest stronghold will not end Iraq's security tribulations as Hawija, Sinjar and Tuz Khurmato will continue posing a threat to the country’s stability.

Mona Alami is a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council covering Middle East politics with a special interest in radical organizations.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.