Turkey threatens to clear terrorist group from Iraq’s Sinjar mountains

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a meeting in Ankara on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Updated 22 March 2018

Turkey threatens to clear terrorist group from Iraq’s Sinjar mountains

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to clear terrorists from northern Iraq’s Sinjar mountains if Baghdad does not act on his warning that the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has set up a headquarters there.
Speaking on Monday, the president said: “We have told the central (Iraqi) government that the PKK is establishing a new headquarters in Sinjar.
“If you can deal with it, you handle it. But if you cannot, we will suddenly enter Sinjar one night and clear this region of terrorists.”
Erdogan said he told Baghdad to deal with PKK camps and warned Sinjar may become a stronghold for the group. “If we are friends, you will make it easy for us,” he said.
The PKK have waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state and are considered a terrorist organization by Ankara, Europe and the US.
For the past few months, Turkish and Iraqi officials have engaged in high-level political and military talks to discuss potential joint action against the PKK in Sinjar along the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Ankara has justified its previous operations against PKK hideouts in Iraq using Article 51 of the United Nations Charter on a country’s right to self-defense against armed attack.
Sinjar is strategically important because it unites the Kurdish areas in Syria to Iraq. The Syrian town of Afrin was captured by Turkish troops on Sunday in what it called Operation Olive Branch. Erdogan said Turkish forces and allied Syrian forces would press eastwards to Kobani, Manbij and Sinjar.
Some analysts interpreted Erdogan’s threat against Sinjar as a means of putting pressure on Washington, which partnered with Syrian Kurdish fighters against Daesh. Thousands have fled Afrin and the US State Department has declared itself “deeply concerned” about the humanitarian situation there.
Sinjar, 100 km west of Mosul, is one of the disputed areas claimed by both the Baghdad central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Although Baghdad fiercely opposes it, Kurds would like to incorporate this region into their autonomous territories.
Last October, a month after Iraqi Kurds voted for independence from Baghdad in a referendum, Iraqi central government forces took Sinjar after Kurdish forces pulled out. The region had been captured from Daesh by Kurdish troops in 2015.
The mountainous heartland of Sinjar is the ancestral land of Kurdish-speaking Yazidis. In 2014, thousands of Yazidis were slaughtered and others held as sex slaves by Daesh, focusing international concern on the plight of this minority group.
The UN concluded that Daesh had committed genocide against the Yazidis, many of whom volunteered to fight against the extremist group in the ranks of the PKK.
Hashed Al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary force mostly made up of Iranian-trained Shiite militias, also had Yazidis in its ranks. Any Turkish attack on Sinjar would risk being seen also as an attack against Yazidis.
“While Turkey could conduct an operation against the PKK in Sinjar based on Article 51 of the UN Charter, acting with the direct or silent approval of Bagdad and Irbil would invalidate any question on legality,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Arab News.
Iran’s approval would also be key for such an operation not only because of the leverage that Tehran has over Baghdad, but also because of Hashed Al-Shaabi’s presence around Sinjar, he said.
“As Sinjar was one of the scenes of atrocities by Daesh in 2014, it is natural that the international community will be exceedingly sensitive about civilian casualties and the PKK can be expected to make a hybrid response to Turkey, not only through terrorist attacks but also media and social media campaigns,” Unluhisarcikli said.
According to Barin Kayaoglu, an assistant professor of world history at the American University of Iraq, a Sinjar operation was more likely after Afrin.
“It’s not clear how the federal government of Iraq or the KRG will respond to the Turkish government’s statement regarding Sinjar. But given the recent results of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, it would be prudent to take Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his administration at their word,” he told Arab News.
Should a Turkish operation in Sinjar proceed, it would need some co-ordination with Baghdad and Irbil, if not a joint operation with both, Kayaoglu said.
“(Co-ordination was) less likely with the KRG,” he said. “There’s much anger in the Kurdistan region of Iraq toward Turkey because of Olive Branch.”

In power for 15 years, Iraq’s Shiites split ahead of crucial vote

Updated 25 April 2018

In power for 15 years, Iraq’s Shiites split ahead of crucial vote

  • About 60 percent of Iraqis are 27 or younger and many young people in urban areas say they want a secular government
  • If no clear winner emerges, Iran could have more of a chance to act as a broker between the Shiite parties and influence who becomes prime minister

BASRA/NAJAF, Iraq: United in their fight against Saddam Hussein’s oppression for decades, Iraq’s Shiites have become deeply fragmented and disillusioned with their leaders after 15 years in power.
In Iraq’s Shiite heartlands, many who once voted blindly along sectarian lines are now turning their ire against the Shiite-led governments they say have failed to repair crumbling infrastructure, provide jobs or end the violence.
The divisions within the community now risk splitting the Shiite vote in a May 12 election, which could complicate and delay the formation of a government, threaten gains against Islamic State and let Iran meddle further in Iraq’s politics.
In the oil-rich southern province of Basra, 81-year-old retired teacher Mowafaq Abdul Ghani is disappointed with the performance of the Shiite leaders since Saddam fell in 2003.
“I’ve been waiting for Saddam to fall since the 1970s. I’ve been waiting for you! Why would you do this to us?” he said.
“Look around. The streets are filthy, there are flies everywhere, pot holes at every step. Twenty years ago Basra was terrible but it was better than this,” Abdul Ghani said.
In the holy city of Najaf, home to Imam Ali’s shrine and Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, there was a similar feeling of disillusionment.
At midnight on April 13 when official campaigning began, hordes of party activists plastered campaign posters on every visible surface, in same cases covering pictures honoring those who died fighting Islamic State.
“They took down the martyrs and replaced them with thieves,” said unemployed 29-year-old Abbas Saad.
Even Sistani seems unhappy with the performance of the politicians, issuing a fatwa recently implicitly calling on Shiites to vote for new blood.
“The tried should not be tried,” said the fatwa from Sistani, whose decrees are sacrosanct to millions.

New generation
Under the informal power-sharing arrangement in place since Saddam’s fall, the prime minister has always come from the Shiite majority with a Kurdish president and a Sunni speaker.
In the past, while no party has won enough seats to govern alone, there has typically been one Shiite leader with enough support to shape a ruling coalition government.
This time there are three Shiite frontrunners: incumbent Haider Al-Abadi who has promoted a more inclusive government, his overtly sectarian predecessor Nuri Al-Maliki who failed to inspire unity and Hadi Al-Amiri, a military commander close to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards seen as a war hero by many.
If no clear winner emerges, Iran could have more of a chance to act as a broker between the Shiite parties and influence who becomes prime minister, while Daesh could capitalize on any power vacuum and exploit Sunni feelings of marginalization.
At a party for university graduates in Najaf, dozens of young people danced under a glittering disco ball and listened to poetry in a packed hall. At the event sponsored by Adnan Al-Zurfi, a former governor running on Abadi’s Victory Alliance list, the talk was of inclusiveness.
About 60 percent of Iraqis are 27 or younger and many young people in urban areas say they want a secular government, underscoring the split within the Shiite voter base.
“I’m against voting based on sect,” said student Ali Reda.
Abadi’s list, touted by Zurfi as “cross-sectarian,” is the only one contesting the election in all of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
“The youth care about unemployment, education, and freedoms,” he said at a nearby cafe surrounded by young men playing billiards. “The Shiite majority has a responsibility to calm the fears of other communities. We are proposing an inclusive government in which everyone is represented.”

Shiite rule
Just an hour away from Najaf in Karbala, the holy city visited by 30 million Shiite pilgrims a year, sharing power with Sunnis and Kurds is not seen as a solution.
“Iraq has a Shiite majority. It is natural that it be ruled by a Shiite,” said Muntazer Al-Shahrestani, who runs a school for Shiite clerics.
While there has been no census for a long time, US figures from 2003 put the breakdown of the Iraqi population at roughly 48-60 percent Shiite Arabs, 15-22 percent Sunni Arabs, 18 percent Kurds with other groups making up the rest.
Shahrestani said while the rights of minorities should be protected there should be a Shiite government, echoing a popular opinion among religious Shiites.
Many campaign on that sentiment, none more than former prime minister Maliki, who is widely viewed by Sunni and Kurds as sectarian and oppressive.
Maliki is also blamed by many Shiites for losing a third of Iraq to Islamic State in 2014 before being replaced by Abadi, but he remains popular with others who credit him with signing Saddam’s death warrant.

Men of God
In Hayaniya, one of the poorest parts of Basra, Ali Khaled plans to vote for Amiri’s Conquest Alliance, as do many in his neighborhood.
Khaled’s brother was killed fighting Islamic State for Amiri’s Badr Organization, an Iran-backed militia that is one of the many state-sponsored groups collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that emerged as a response to a Sistani fatwa calling on Iraqis to fight Islamic State.
He receives up to $675 a month as payment for the death of his brother but he’s not thanking the current government.
“The PMF follow God, they don’t have bureaucracy like the government,” Khaled said. “Hadi Al-Amiri fought with us. He left his cushy post as a minister to fight for us. He eats our food. He lived with us.”
But many others view Amiri, whose candidates hang photos of Iranian Supreme Leaders Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in their offices, as having a stronger allegiance to Iran than Iraq.
“Amiri is a hero but he is too close to Iran. A vote for him is one against Iraq’s sovereignty,” said Abdul Ghani, the retired teacher in Basra.

Neglected heartland

For years, the province was a support base for Shiite leaders. Now, many Basrawis are fed up.
Basra produces about 3.5 million barrels of oil per day, the vast majority of Iraq’s oil wealth equivalent to more than 80 percent of the federal budget.
But many in the city don’t believe they get a fair share of government revenues handed out to the 18 provinces and say what little they do get is squandered by local officials.
The city’s water is undrinkable, its roads neglected, and its streets overflowing with waste. The Al-Ashar river that divides the city was once a source of prosperity for its people, but now its clogged with rubbish.
Jobs are scant, as are school supplies and medical equipment but there is no shortage of posters for the Shiite candidates.
At the same house in Hayaniya where Khaled was speaking, his neighbor, a soldier with an elite Interior Ministry unit, said he would just not vote, even for Abadi, his commander-in-chief.
Many do still plan to vote for Abadi, though more out of pragmatism than passion with some describing him as “the best of the worst.”
Wounded fighting Islamic State in Mosul last year, the soldier, who requested anonymity, sipped tea sitting on the floor, his leg still in a cast he was forced to pay for himself.
“When I was first injured I got visits and promises (from officials) but nothing, ultimately. I have no faith in the government or parliament,” he said.
A majority of those interviewed by Reuters in Basra said they would not vote. Two men, who declined to be named, said they planned to sell their families’ votes to the highest bidder, just to help make ends meet.
“I am hungry. I have eight votes and I want to sell them,” said one.