The group sometimes launches raids on the strategic road linking Baghdad to the northern oil city of Kirkuk, intercepting trucks, looting some and burning others, residents and local security officials told Arab News.
“These are extremist groups who were oppressed and prevented (by the Kurdish authorities) from working before,” Najat Hussien, the acting mayor of Tuz Khurmatu, told Arab News.
“They are Kurdish militants (and are) joined by Daesh militants who fled the neighboring areas,” Hussien said. “They are sleeper cells that were waiting for the right time and place to resume their activities.”
Tuz Khurmatu is one of the disputed areas between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish region. The Kurdish region has taken advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi Army in the summer of 2014 to extend its control over most of the disputed areas including Tuz Khurmatu.
On Tuesday, a mortar attack hit the center of the town, killing two civilians and injuring a further dozen, security sources said.
A few days earlier, three trucks on the main Baghdad-Kirkuk way were burned after their drivers were kidnapped, sources said. Last month at least 24 people were killed when a suicide car bomb exploded in central Tuz.
The group, which residents call “the Owners of the White Flags,” has emerged over the past two months after Iraqi security forces backed by the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) drove the Kurdish forces out of almost 95 percent of the disputed areas and pushed them back into the 2003-constitutionally agreed border of the Kurdish region on Oct. 16.
Kurdish sources and residents of Tuz Khurmatu told Arab News that the group is led by Assi Al-Qawali, a Kurdish Peshmerga “volunteer” of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the biggest Kurdish political parties to govern Kurdistan. Al-Qawali and his group are fighting to “liberate the Kurdish lands — occupied by the Iranian Shiite militias.”
“Sheikh Mujahid Assi … is leading an armed group in Tuz Khurmatu as a part of the Kurdish popular resistance against the Shiite terrorist militias,” Kurdish Peshmerga Maj. Islam Chali tweeted on Tuesday.
“The Kurdish popular resistance launched Katyusha rockets (targeting) the Shiite militias and the terrorist Shiite Turkmen Hashid in Tuz Khurmatu,” Chali, tweeted hours after Tuesday’s rocket attack on Tuz.
Chali and other local Kurdish sites have circulated several photographs showing Al-Qawali and his fighters, all of whom were masked except Al-Qawali.
Al-Qawali has posted photographs of himself wearing traditional Kurdish dress and carrying a Kalashnikov on his Facebook page. Other photographs show him sitting next to sophisticated machine guns.
Residents of Tuz Khurmatu contacted by Arab News said that Al-Qawali used to live in Al-Jamhouriya district until Iraqi security forces arrived. They say Al-Qawali was a poor and simple Kurd who was transporting water from a nearby river to people in Tuz by using a small tanker attached to his tractor for a fee, but has become well-known after he led the Kurdish groups that fought the Iraqi federal advance troops in October.
“We know him because he previously participated in the riots in Tuz in 2015 and 2016 and he was burning the houses of Turkmen at that time,” Jankiz Tuzlu, a Turkman resident of Tuz, told Arab News.
“Also he fought the Turkmen Hashid (local troops) and attacked their headquarters in Tuz when the (Iraqi) army arrived in the town (in October),” Tuzlu said. Kurdish media have published his photo while he was taking off the flag of Kata’ib Hezbollah in Tuz.”
Iraqi security and intelligence officials have ruled out the emergence of a new armed group and say intelligence reports suggest that “the Owners of White Flags” are actually the Kurdish radical group Ansar Al-Islam or “the Supporters of Islam,” which settled in the villages between the mountains of Hamrin and the Iraqi-Iranian border, and Daesh militants who fled the nearby towns and cities.
“The area of Hamrin Hills is still not cleared and the villages there have not been entered by Iraqi security forces since 2003,” a military officer deployed in the area, who declined to be named, told Arab News.
“Hundreds of fighters benefit from the rigidity of the region, their knowledge of it and the difficulty of deploying regular forces there to freely move about,” he said. “Most of the rocket attacks are launched from behind the mountain.”
A military operation is being prepared by Baghdad to clear the area, military and intelligence sources told Arab News.
Earlier this week, Iraq had declared the end of the war against Daesh and the full liberation of its territories.
Ansar Al-Islam seeks to apply 7th-century Islamic rule in Iraq. Mullah Krekar, also known as Faraj Ahmad Najm Al-Deen, reportedly founded Ansar Al-Islam in 2001 with funding and logistical support from Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The group pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2014 and fought with them under their banner.
The intelligence officer told Arab News that their initial reports indicated that was not the real leader of “the Owners of the White Flags,” but a front to hide the real links and goals behind the recent attacks in the northern disputed areas.
“ is a simple person who has nothing to do with leadership and radical Islamic ideas. They (Kurdish parties) use him as a facade to hide behind the group of Ansar Al-Islam and Daesh,” a senior intelligence Iraqi officer, who declined to be named, told Arab News.
“All this (the daily attacks) aims to force Baghdad to negotiate with them (the Kurds) and allow the Kurdish forces to come back and gain control over the area again,” the officer said.
“We are totally aware of this and it’s a matter of time to end it.”