The turn currently happening in Iraq can be analysed as a social crisis in which the bonds between individuals are weakening and recomposing under the conflict’s pressure. Reflecting upon the social trajectories of Iraqis enables us to deepen our understanding of the military upheaval of the summer of 2014.
Abu Marwan (pseudonym), Kurdish officer in the Iraqi army between 2003 and 2014, interviewed in Erbil in October 2014
“I am a Peshmerga and have fought for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) since 1994. In 2003, I was transferred to the Iraqi army in which the former Peshmerga fighters could enter according to a quota system. I thus participated in different operations with the American army, notably in Fallujah in 2004. Since 2008, I have been based in Tikrit where I was the second in command for the base where my regiment was quartered.
The relationship within the unit were bad. There were very little bonds of trust and no one gave their real name: each soldier was designated by a nickname: “Abu Marwan”, “Abu Mohammed” (father of Marwan, father of Mohammed). The Iraqi army Joint Staff trusted particularly the Kurds and the Shia who were overwhelmingly in command positions. It was to them that the sensitive intelligence was transmitted, and them who were in charge of the anti-terrorist missions. This tendency was largely generalised after the American retreat of 2011. The Sunni Arab soldiers were closely watched, for security reasons, and none of them came from Tikrit. We would place them on the front line, they had less access to promotions and training. The sophisticated weaponry of the elite brigades was forbidden to them. In the base, the Kurds slept with the Kurds in a separate building guarded by soldiers of the same origin. The same went for the Shia officers who avoided mixing up with Sunni soldiers.
The preparation of operations was done without the Sunni Arab officers, by fear of leaks. Also, no one wanted to go on missions with them. The teams by vehicle were rarely mixed.
During the Tikrit attack of June 2014 the army was divided. Personally, I was on leave in Erbil. My superior, a Kurd, simply called to inform me not to join the base. Things were turning sour and it was not worth returning to the base. Even in normal periods there were already many desertions and soldiers who never returned to their positions. When the IS attacked, there was no major resistance. The Shia units separated from the rest of the regiment, as well as the Kurdish ones. The police force of the town was itself very corrupted and the army had only very little contacts with it to coordinate the resistance. Everyone simply evaporated.”
Abu Hassan (pseudonym), of Shia Turkmen origin from Taza (Shia Turkmen town situated 30km South of Kirkuk), interviewed in Kirkuk in October 2014
“I was born in Taza and grew up between Kirkuk and Baghdad where I completed my engineering studies in 1998. When the Americans arrived in 2003, everything changed. I finally obtained a job as an interpreter for the American army, and then as an IT engineer for a telecom company that had just opened.
In 2005, I married a Sunni Turkmen woman. The relationships between the Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations did not cause any problems. We lived together, mainly in Kirkuk. Regularly we would attend the weddings of Arab or Kurdish friends. In this part of Iraq, everyone knows how to speak a little of each dialect. At the political level, everything was different. Each party sought to represent their own community. This was particularly strong for the Kurdish parties which attempted to colonise each Arab or Turkmen space in Kirkuk by establishing Kurds from Erbil or Souleymaniyyeh there. The evictions of non-Kurdish populations were thus common practice before 2014. In Kirkuk, if you did not have contacts with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) which dominated the town, it was hard to find a job.
Everything changed with the storming of Mosul in June 2014. The political and denominational divisions of the war were imposed on society. If you are Arab, you are with the IS, if you are Shia Turkmen you are with Iran and Baghdad. The Kurdish forces have deployed massively in Kirkuk. The State of Emergency and the curfew have become the norm. I have many Arab friends who were born in Kirkuk, but now the Kurds have assimilated them with IS and have systematically arrested them. Several Arab families have been forced to leave the town for the Sunni Arab territories. Their houses have then been taken by the Kurds under the pretext of their collaboration with IS. The Turkmens have not yet been targeted but the aggressions by the Kurdish security forces have been increasing. In order to defend their villages against IS, some Shia Turkmen friends have enrolled in the militias financed by Iran. There have been many clashes between these militias and the Peshmerga of the PUK. In everyday life, people seem to carry on with life as usual, but everything has increasingly been tense. Everyone waits to see what will happen. I am thinking of settling elsewhere with my family if I can.”
Interview with an inhabitant of Hawija (Sunni Arab town situated 40km South-West of Kirkuk, carried out in Hawija in May 2013
“I was born in Hawija and completed a Bachelor’s degree in Arabic from the University of Baghdad. Currently employed by the Ministry for Culture and Sports, I am also the president of a network of 20 Sunni Arab NGOs working in Hawija and in the Arab neighbourhoods of Kirkuk (Riyad, Abassi, Zad, Rashad, Maltaka).
The literacy rate is very low in Hawija: of 485 schools, half do not function normally. There is no university, only a technology institute, and 60% of the populations is ill-educated, especially women. Hawija has around 550 000 inhabitants including 90% of Arabs, 95% of Sunni, 5% of Shia – displaced from the South by Saddam Hussein – and a few Christians. The economic situation is disastrous, and around 60% of people are unemployed. The security situation and the lack of investments in the Arab regions do not allow for change. Hawija is considered as a lawless area held by “terrorists”. The Riyaz district is the poorest. It is there that the groups linked to Al Qaeda are the most active. The security problems are recurrent and the army only rarely leaves its bases. The lack of security argument is widely used thus no one wants to develop this district.
The administration is not very developed here and most of the public jobs are in the police and the army. Agriculture represented 40% of the economic activity. A part from small businesses, the rest is made up of daily workers. The poor populations depend on daily jobs which make them highly vulnerable, these people cannot work every day. Sometimes the checkpoints stop them from circulating freely, sometimes the security climate is such that no one dares to leave the house.
Alternatively, the inhabitants of Hawija try to find work in the town of Kirkuk but the passage through Kurdish checkpoints is very difficult. The Kurds let almost no Arabs in. Arrests and humiliations are daily events. My brother spent three years in jail without trial in Suleymaniyyeh. Finally, he was freed because he had not done anything wrong, it was a “mistake”. This happens often: each time the arrests last at least one month. People must pay a bail ranging from 1000 to 5000 dollars to free their family members.
In Hawija, jobs are reserved to the people closely related to political leaders and to their networks of influence. They are the ones controlling the attribution of public jobs. Outside of this circle of relations, the people are isolated, without work. There is a great gap between the Arab political leaders and their community. At the Governorate level, none of these leaders have been elected since 2005.
The peaceful protests against the policies of Baghdad started on 23 February 2011. In Hawija, the police repression caused one death, an 8 year old child, and several people were wounded. The protesters first demanded the resignation of the local administrative and political elites. They hit the streets to protest against the corruption of their own political and tribal representatives. There was a real gap between these representatives – who legitimised their political positions to enrich themselves in the name of their tribal status – and the majority of the population of Hawija which lived in misery. The slogans were also targeting the authorities of Baghdad which did nothing to solve the economic crisis: “the people want work and electricity or the fall of Maliki”, “we want work, not weapons for Maliki”.
Everything changed on 23 April 2013. The government forces opened fire on a sit-in at the entrance of Hawija. They killed 84 people and wounded over 400 others. Since then the protests have stopped in town, but the situation remains extremely unstable. The Iraqi army is considered as an occupation force and no concession has been granted.”
These events took place one year before the conquest of these territories by IS and the Iraqi insurgency groups.