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Iraq Crisis: Dispatch from the North

Commentary, 17 June 2014
Middle East and North Africa
This week, as the international community considers how best to reverse the gains of ISIS, RUSI analyst Michael Stephens offers first-hand perspectives from Erbil, in the Kurdish heartland of what is still Iraq. Each day he will be offering his thoughts and encounters from the ground.

Michael StephensThis week, as the international community considers how best to reverse the gains of ISIS,  RUSI analyst Michael Stephens offers first-hand perspectives from Erbil, in the Kurdish heartland of what is still Iraq. Each day he will be offering his thoughts and encounters from the ground.


Saturday 21 June: Talking with Iraq’s Sunnis

Erbil is full of refugees from many different parts of Iraq, but recently I’ve begun to notice an increasing number of Iraqi Sunnis arriving from Baghdad.

I took the chance to speak to three Sunnis, Abdu, 24, his brother Mustafa, 25, both from Baghdad, and Ibrahim, 24, originally from Baghdad but now studying in Mosul University. we were joined by Kurdish Mustafa from Friday’s entry (see below).

'There are two types of ISIS, those with the religion and the long beards, and those who are fighting to free us, don’t confuse the two.' For Ibrahim the takeover of Mosul by ISIS really has been something of a quasi-liberation, 'there were so many checkpoints before, a guy from Basra would just hold you there and there was no way you could even complain! The Shia want revenge against us because of the past'.
'It almost sounds to me like you feel the army of your own country is an occupying force' I noted,  'Yes that’s exactly what it is, an occupier' Ibrahim insisted.

The sense that what is happening in the country is a legitimate and proper reaction to the way that Prime Minister Maliki, and Iran have ruled the country was particular potent. All three men used the word 'thawra' or revolution to explain the recent events, a term widely used in the Arab Spring.

'This is war between Sunni and Shia is for control, one will win, one will lose.’ Upon being asked if they thought it better the country should split into three. 'No that’s not what’s happening, this is an outright war for control. One will win and rule, and the other will be ruled' noted Mustafa.

Ibrahim then added something which I think sums up the state of Iraq very well right now, 'we don’t have any ground in the middle where we can meet anymore, this is the biggest problem we have. No middle ground.'

'But don’t you feel like Ayatollah Sistani is trying to find that middle ground?' I asked. 'No of course not, he was talking to Shia when he made that fatwa [to encourage volunteers to join the army], who else is he talking to?' said Abdu, there was no disagreement.

Upon asking if any of them had Shia friends, 'Yes I have one or two, but they’re not religious' said Mustafa. Abdu and Ibrahim shook their heads 'no I wouldn’t have a Shia friend' said Ibrahim, 'even if they were nice to me for ten years, how could I ever trust them?' Abdu, felt likewise.

'You’ll hear something different if you talk to the Shia for sure, but if you want a moderate opinion, don’t talk to a religious one, they do what they’re told', added Mustafa, 'like robots?' I interjected, 'yes exactly like robots, even the intelligent ones.'

The current situation has left people clueless as to what to do, but for Iraq’s Sunnis, at least the events of the last two weeks mean that something positive is happening. Whilst none of them condoned the violence that has spread across Iraq, it was clear from these Sunni men that returning Iraq to the days of Baathism might not be such a bad idea.

'Iraq has gone backwards since Saddam. Yes he killed people, but at least you could live your life. He brought us security and safety', said Mustafa, 'yes security, what do we have now? Democracy? It doesn’t work here'.

As with my conversation with Kurdish Mustafa and Maryam on Saturday, there was no real way of looking beyond the immediacy of the day’s problems. When asked what future he saw for Iraq Mustafa glumly replied 'Iraqis don’t think of the future because we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow'.
The conversation slid toward them asking me questions about Britain and our attitude to the current problems: 'the US and Britain have the power despite your economic problems' stated Mustafa, 'you can still do something here to fix this, you should, it’s your responsibility.'

Of all my conversations in Iraq I think it was with this group of young men, well educated and moderate in their views that has been the most depressing of all. Angry and frustrated at the way post-2003 Iraq has been run, it is clear that they above all feel the most acute sense of loss from the way Coalition forces removed Saddam from power.  Their lives are no longer secure, their hope for jobs in the government gone, and the only way to redress the imbalance might be for ISIS to take back Baghdad from the hated pro-Iranian government once and for all.

Friday 20 June: Speaking with Young Iraqis

Even in Iraq the weekend is a good chance to be able wind down and discuss issues in a relaxed fashion, at a popular coffee spot in Erbil I got the chance to sit down with two well educated young Iraqis who were willing to talk openly to me about the state of their country. Mustafa, 24,  is a Kurd from Baghdad now living in Erbil, and Maryam (who asked for her real name to be withheld), 23, a Christian from Baghdad now living in the Christian enclave of Ainkawa.

The relative quiet in Erbil offers a more relaxed atmosphere to discuss the problems of the country, but the ring of checkpoints around the city stop weapons and potential terrorists, not thoughts and feelings. I discovered that for both of these young Iraqis, the disillusionment at the state of the country was extremely real.

Mustafa, although nostalgic for his home, described a bleak and depressing daily existence before he made the choice to move North from the capital.

'Honestly life in Baghdad is just about making it through the day, you don’t have time to think about any other problems in your life. You spend hours at militia checkpoints. You think am I safe? Can I get to university, do I have water when I get home, or electricity, or enough food? You think of nothing other than merely surviving.'

'It doesn’t allow us time to think about anything else' added Maryam, 'if you spend all your day just thinking about little things, you have no time for thinking about the big issues, like what government you want, or if you can get a better salary.'

They pointed also to the economic problems of being Iraqi, as an engineer in Erbil, Mustafa has found a solid wage and lives a relatively comfortable life, but 'an engineer might graduate and earn $800 a month in Baghdad, but rent costs $500-600, so there’s never enough money there. Not enough money for basic things to live, let alone getting married.'

'No one really talks about getting married anymore' Maryam added.

As with all conversations that I have had in Iraq, there seemed almost no sense of a better way forward for the country. Stay together? Not a fantastic option. Split up? Equally unappealing.

But it wasn’t always like this, both mentioned a time when Iraq was not so divided. According to Maryam 'this whole Sunni-Shia issue was a seed planted by Saddam’s religious education reforms in the 90’s.' 'That’s right' added Mustafa 'all it needed was 2003 to water the seed.'

Sadly the seed has sprouted and the very fabric of the country appears to be tearing.

'I don’t see much desire among many Iraqis to be Iraqi anymore, I fact I don’t know anyone who wants to be Iraqi anymore.' Said Mustafa, Maryam agreed 'I’m proud of my homeland, but what good is an Iraqi passport anymore...Ten years ago when people spoke of splitting up the country I totally rejected it, now maybe it’s the only way, those people got what they wanted.'

Another frustration for young people here in Iraq is the pressure to conform to certain societal stereotypes in order to fit in, and belong to an ethnic group, 'I am a Kurd and I am proud of it, but there’s pressure here for me to abandon my roots in Baghdad, how can I do that when it’s been my home for 20 years?' noted Mustafa.

'Yes there’s pressure to behave and think a certain way, as an Arab Christian you are not supposed to speak Kurdish, or to hang around with Muslims' added Maryam.
I feel increasingly like the more time I spend in Iraq, the more complicated the country appears, and the more I see divisions that exist within divisions. It is a mind-boggling complexity of ethno-cultural, sectarian, and religious differences, that are also affected by a person’s town or region, accent and educational level. It might take a person a lifetime to fully understand.

Nevertheless I found one thing that unifies all Iraqis, according to Maryam 'when someone from outside, especially from another Arab country, comes to Iraq and criticises us, we all join together as one, that’s the Iraqi way.' Mustafa nodded in approval.

Standing with Peshmerga forces outside Kirkuk souq ©Sofia-BarbaraniThursday 19 June: In Kirkuk

The fighting between the Iraqi Army and ISIS has opened up security vacuums across the country. Both Shia militias and the Kurds of Iraq have grabbed the opportunity to fill this gap. No better has this been shown than the recent takeover of the city of Kirkuk by Kurdish Peshmerga after the Iraqi Army simply melted away.

The city underwent heavy social engineering in the Saddam years in which traditional Kurdish and Turkmen populations were then mixed with a large number of Arabs from southern areas of the country. As a result the Kurds have often felt aggrieved with Saddam whom they feel stole the heart of Kurdistan from them and and left some parts of the city into disrepair. For decades the Kurds have dreamed of once again regaining their lost city.

Entering through the Kurdish northern part of the city which shows signs of new investment and development, we made our way to a heavily fortified compound in which Kirkuk governorate is housed. The Governor, Dr Najmeddin Karim of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an extremely busy man, allowed us twenty minutes of his time to talk about the security situation and political upheavals that had taken place in his city.

'There has been no change in governance here' noted the Governor, 'and no Peshmerga are present inside the city'. Whilst this is mostly true I did notice two Peshmerga trucks speeding through the city loaded with soldiers, 'they’ve come from Bashir (a Shia town 15km to the south of Kirkuk, and the front line of battle between ISIS and the Kurds)'.

There seemed to be universal agreement that the divisions in the city were being overplayed by the media. The Governor was keen to stress that he was in regular contact with Turkmen and the tensions in the city were under control.

A walk into the city’s main souq revealed similar sentiments,  'We are all brothers, Kurd, Arab, Turkmen, we all live here together and have done for years, nothing will change', noted Nazem Ali Ahmed amongst a crowd of onlookers, which included two Turkmen, and three Kurds, and an Arab.
This seems for the most part true, although I noted that a security guard standing nearby would ask approaching men 'Kurdi? Arabi? Turkmani?', Kurds and Turkmens were allowed to pass, Arabs received a more thorough checking over.

The people in Kirkuk that I had a chance to meet were some of the most friendly and welcoming I have encountered in nearly ten years in the Middle East. For all the bad stories I had heard about Kirkuk and its security situation, no one seemed to have told me how genuinely kind the people were. 'Welcome', 'happy to see you' people blurted out from passing cars in broken English, street vendors offered free food and a chance for photos, or just to talk.

This offered me a chance to get into conversation about the situation 15km to the south where Peshmerga forces were engaged in battle with ISIS, with a few Peshmerga dying in recent days. Everyone was in agreement however that the recent takeover of the city by the Kurds was a good thing. 'People in Kirkuk want to be part of Kurdistan because of the security it provides', noted one elderly shopkeeper.

One thing that struck me was the willingness of most citizens I met to blame Iran openly for the troubles of the country. When the issue of ISIS came up 'we know who started this, it’s Iran!' shouted a voice to my right, 'yes it’s definitely Iran, their Army is in our country' noted another.
Given that the local population all seemed convinced of Iranian guilt, I thought it prudent to ask the people who were actually doing the fighting. Mohammed a 38 year old Peshmerga of nine years agreed, 'this is all because of Iran, and America. Look at them now, it’s like they’ve become best friends.' I mentioned Saudi Arabia, 'who knows about them, but it’s America and Iran'.

'My cousin was a 'shaheed' fighting ISIS' Mohameed continued, 'if they come here we will stand and fight them'.

Even in these rather tense times some clearly had other things on their mind. One Peshmerga, a young man of 20, struck a conversation with me, 'there’s this girl in America, I have her number, if I call would you translate for me?'

Photo: Standing with Peshmerga forces outside Kirkuk souq Photo: ©Sofia Barbarani

Wednesday 18 June: Insecurity in Iraqi Kurdistan Kurdish Peshmerga forces manning a checkpoint near Mosul ©Sofia Barbarani

The Kurdish Army, known as the Peshmerga (‘those who face death’) have expanded their control over the disputed regions of northern Iraq at the expense of both ISIS and the Iraqi state, with the belief that now the borders of a new entity may finally come to be realised. Relative stability still exists here despite the gruesome images on TV screens of ISIS killing and executing their way toward Baghdad.

As result there is a tendency for journalists to follow the fighting down to Diyala and Saladin provinces, believing that Erbil is no longer exciting enough. ‘There’s no story here anymore’, one journalist from the Los Angeles Times told me. Twenty four hours ago I would have believed him, now I’m not so sure.  While it may be more interesting to watch oil refineries in Baiji engulfed in heavy fighting, the truth is that much of north and central Iraq is currently in conflict.

The border of the Kurdish administered areas is still relatively insecure. ISIS and the Iraqi Army continued to clash today at Tal Afar. On Tuesday at a checkpoint near Mosul two Peshmerga were kidnapped by an ISIS hit and run operation, and today clashes to the south of Kirkuk have led to a number of Peshmerga forces being injured.

Today a Kurdish security official in Kirkuk told me ‘There’s been a lot of fighting. For the most part we’ve been able to hold our positions, but it hasn’t been easy. They [ISIS] are well armed and well trained.’ A Kurdish official in Erbil also confirmed, ‘ISIS have some very good equipment now, and they know how to use it, this is a challenge for us.’

For the moment at least the relative safety of Erbil remains unbroken, but the conflict has been affecting daily life here now. Long queues, sometimes over a kilometre long, have appeared at petrol stations across the city in the last two days as the availability of refined fuel dwindles due to problems elsewhere in the country.  As the fighting rages in the south the Kurds, try as they might are being slowly sucked into conflicts that are not of their own making. The Kurdistan Region’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has stated that the Peshmerga would defend their own territory, and not to intervene in the fighting raging further south, but there is an increasing sense that this may not be possible.

As if to reflect this sense of insecurity, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani has announced that all those Peshmerga eligible for retirement must postpone exit and prolong their service, while some journalists might think the problem is over, the Kurdish leadership do not.

The situation remains dynamic and it is difficult to get a read on what ISIS is planning next.  The sense that tomorrow they may launch an attack either at Kirkuk, or continually probe Kurdish defences for weak points is, sadly very real.

According to a Western security official in Erbil: ‘There are a number of fronts where ISIS is looking to penetrate, and we know that these include parts of the Kurdistan region’. The belief that we are in the clear here is therefore seem premature, and the jubilation which I referred to on Monday now appears to be coming with a price.

Photo: Kurdish Peshmerga forces manning a checkpoint near Mosul © Sofia Barbarani

Tuesday 17 June: Speaking to Those Who Fled Mosul

KRefugees fleeing the fighting from Mosul and Tel Afar sheltering in Khazer Refugee Camp ©Michael Stephensalak, Iraqi Kurdistan

Half an hour west of Erbil on the road to Mosul a barely noticeable path leads off the main road, a short climb leads you to a grouping of tents, and what has become known as the Khazer Refugee Camp.

The place smells of diesel fumes from power generators and the air is thick with dust. It is a desolate place, littered with water bottles and plastic wrapping. Around 1600 people live here, or some 250 families, all having fled the fighting from Mosul, with a few others arriving that day from the recent fighting in Tel Afar (west of Mosul) between ISIS and the Iraqi Army.

 ‘We didn’t expect Mosul to fall in just a day, we have only our clothes and what God gives us’, explained Saad Younis, 56, and his brother Wa’adullah, 53, ‘we won’t go back right now, it’s not safe”’

Indeed most refugees seem adamant that for the time being they will be staying put, even in these grim conditions.

Raed, and a father of nine exclaims ‘what am I going to do if I go back, we’ve got no money, I can’t find a job. We need a new government there’s no chance of me returning. Maliki is the problem, I had work where is it now?’

But one younger individual in his twenties, Ahmad,  an Iraqi army soldier from Mosul took a different view, ‘they (ISIS) don’t treat the people well, especially the when the Iraqi Army comes back, I will go back. I think they will defeat ISIS, we have a strong Army, and I will be the first to sign up again.’

For many, the endless conflicts in Iraq had wearied them. Many commented how in their lives they had seen few years of peace and quiet in their nation. And with resigned misery a few had made up their minds that this time they would leave for good.

Another local also by the name of Ahmad says ‘I just want security, I want stability, that’s all I want. That’s the main thing, security.’ The crowd around him nodded in agreement, ‘perhaps we can get refugee status to get out of this country. Too many countries are interfering in our business, I am 34 and I can’t remember a year of peace.’

I bumped into three men from Mosul, Ali, Khaled and Mohammed, all ethnically Kurdish, who left because they were afraid ISIS would target Kurds in the city. Ali, 54, noted, ‘ISIS are not Muslims, we don’t want them there, we need more than just airstrikes, we need help on the ground, soldiers, whatever you can send to get rid of them.’

I asked the three men what future they saw for Iraq, ‘we should all stay together, I think this is the best way for us’ said Ali. Khaled interjected, ‘no, no, we should build walls between us, Sunni, Shia and Kurd, we’ll get on better that way.’ Mohammed added ‘until the Sunni and Shia can learn to get along and live together there will never be peace.’

My three hours in the camp raised more questions than answers, such was the difference of opinions and views on how to handle the crisis unfolding just twenty minutes down the road. Perhaps the camp was a reflection of the general state of Iraq, divided and unsure of a way forward, and whose politicians seem unable to find a solution to the myriad of problems that are currently besieging the country.

In a lighter moment the conversation switched to what football team everyone supported, ‘Barcelona’ shouted Walid, ‘No! Real Madrid, I love Ronaldo’, said Mohammed. Once again disagreement, but at least for these kids it was something positive for them to focus on. 

Photo: Refugees fleeing the fighting from Mosul and Tel Afar sheltering in Khazer Refugee Camp ©Michael Stephens 

Monday 16 June: On the Border of a Jihadist Quasi-State

 photo [c] Michael StephensArriving into Erbil and walking around it is difficult to imagine that you are in Iraq. Walking out of the airport I bumped into a local journalist whom I know well, 'it’s quiet here, life is going on as normal you wouldn’t think less than an hour’s drive away you have all these problems'.

Another of his colleagues joked 'so have you come here to make friends with Da’ash (the Arabic term for ISIS)', half joking. Erbil is filled to the brim with journalists from all corners of the world searching for ISIS; the group that calls for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate across Syria and Iraq, and calls for further attacks into the heartland of Shi’ism, in particular the cities of Najaf and Karbala.

You won’t find them here in Erbil, but many who have taken a short drive outside the city west to Mosul and further south outside the Kurdistan Region have done so.  According to local journalist Sofia Barbarani 'the further into the disputed territories you go, the less it feels like a Kurdish area and the more desolate and run down the scenery becomes.' ISIS flags fly just 700m away from the final Kurdish checkpoint in an area littered with abandoned vehicles from the fleeing Iraqi army. 

With ISIS so close to the Kurdish heartland, their Peshmerga forces have been on high alert, although it appears the Kurds have been placed in defensive formations around major urban areas. There are visibly more troops inside the city of Erbil, although judging by the relaxed attitude of most there is little sense that trouble will head this way. Indeed the mood is one of jubilation as it becomes ever more clear that the Kurds have finally retaken Kirkuk (a city of huge historic importance to them) and now enforce security there, reversing years of Saddam’s social engineering in favour of Arabs.

For now the Kurdish region is quiet, but the prospect that the quasi-Kurdish state may well border a quasi-ISIS state in coming years should not be such a cause for celebration. The Iraqi army may well be able to ensure security further south, but in Mosul that seems a dim prospect without a protracted conflict. While it appears ISIS may have over stretched in its ambitions, it is not a given that the gains they have made can so easily be reversed.


Michael Stephens
Associate Fellow

Michael Stephens was the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies. He joined RUSI’s London office in September 2010, first in the Nuclear... read more

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