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How the Kurds lost Iraq: ‘They had tanks and planes and we had no chance’

- 1509475860 iraq turkey kurds - How the Kurds lost Iraq: ‘They had tanks and planes and we had no chance’


The defeat of the Kurds in Kirkuk is devastatingly complete. “We used to be in control here and now we are not,” says Aso Mamand, the Kurdish leader in the city, summing up the situation in a helpless and embittered tone as he describes the fall of Kirkuk and the nearby oilfields to the Iraqi government forces. He would like some new power sharing arrangements and warns of dire consequences if this does not happen, but he does not sound very hopeful.

Kirkuk used to be described as “the powder-keg” of Iraq because of furiously contested rival claims to it by Kurdish nationalists and the Baghdad government. It was potentially even more explosive because its Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen communities make it a deeply divided place. But, despite these rancorous disputes and differences, when the final crisis came on 16 October, the switch from Kurdish to federal government control was surprisingly swift and peaceful.

Mr Mamand says that there was no battle because the Kurds simply did not have the military strength to hold the city and he is dismissive of conspiracy theories about its betrayal. Asked if the advance of the Iraqi forces could have been resisted if the two main Kurdish parties – his own Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party led by President Masoud Barzani – had been united, he says: “Of course not. The Iraqi forces had tanks and planes and we had no chance. Maybe we would have lasted a day if we had fought, but the only result would have been bloodshed.”

Many Kurds fled at the time and not all have returned, but there is no sign of damage from the fighting and shops and markets are open. A thunderstorm briefly emptied the streets when we were there, but otherwise traffic was heavy and there are few soldiers or checkpoints. “Do you see anything out of the ordinary?” asks the acting governor, Rakan Saeed Ali al-Jubouri, the Arab former deputy governor, whose office looks little changed from when it was occupied by the Kurdish governor Najmaldin Karim who was forced to flee to Irbil. Mr Jubouri says that “the local police are the same and there are just two battalions of the Counter-Terrorism Forces in Kirkuk.” Iraqi battalions are small so this probably means only a few hundred soldiers.

Iraqi forces gather at their camp on the front line, near the borders with Syria and Turkey (AFP/Getty Images)

Mr Mamand insists that things aren’t quite what they look like. He says that “the government needs to do something to calm down the Kurdish street.” He suggests the appointment of a Kurdish governor or some arrangement to share power. Asked if there had been any significant security incidents, he cited only some shots fired by a former KDP security police officer at an army checkpoint. But, around about the time he was speaking, there was in fact a savage murder in a town called Duquq just south of Kirkuk city, which might give substance to Mr Mamand’s fear that the potential for violence is just below the surface.

The victim was Arkan Sharifi, 50, a Kurdish cameraman working for Kurdistan TV, who was knifed to death by four or five men who broke into his house and locked his wife and children in a separate room. When they got out five hours later, they found him lying in a pool of blood, his body mutilated and with a knife stuck in his mouth, evidence that he been killed because of something he had said or reported. His family says that the killers spoke the Turkman language, suggesting that what happened may be the outcome of the ongoing feud between the Kurds and the Shia Turkmen that is particularly fierce south of Kirkuk.

I drove through the area where the murder took place earlier in the day and there was no sign of violence there or anywhere else on the closely-guarded road from Baghdad. But the murder is a reminder that at all times Iraq is a very violent country. I spoke to a Turkman member of the Hashd al-Shaabi pro-government paramilitaries called Jawdat Assaf who explained that he came from a village called Tisin Khadim which had been destroyed by Saddam Hussein in 1980. “I survived because I was under fifteen, but they killed 353 people – everybody over that age including my father and two brothers,” he recalled. “They accused us of supporting the [Shia revolutionary] Dawa party, though we had hardly heard of it.”

The murder of Arkan Sharifi is striking in its brutality, but no fewer than 465 Iraqi journalists have been killed in the last 14 years. Otherwise the takeover of Kirkuk was unexpectedly pacific. Though the KDP accuses the PUK, always the dominant Kurdish party in the city, of a treacherous Iranian-orchestrated deal with Baghdad, both parties simultaneously withdrew their Peshmerga without fighting. If the Iraqi forces had to fight their way into Kirkuk city they would have inevitably won, but it could have detonated a wider ethnic and sectarian conflict in the disputed territories.

This long-predicted confrontation never took place, but the loss of Kirkuk is more than a crippling blow to Kurdish hopes of independence. With a divided leadership, no allies abroad and without a military option, the Kurds are losing the semi-independent status they had built up since Saddam Hussein was defeated in the Gulf War in 1991 and Iraqi government forces withdrew from the three Kurdish provinces.

This process is now going sharply into reverse. Iraqi government troops on Tuesday set up a checkpoint at the most important border crossing at Ibrahim Khalil between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Vehicles crossing the border must now be checked three times – by Turks, Iraqi forces and the Kurds. “Habur border gate has been handed over to the central government as of this morning,” said Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. With Turkey and Iran cooperating with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurdish authorities are in no position to resist the central government’s takeover of their main powers. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made clear in an interview with The Independent that he expects the Iraqi state to control the main Peshmerga forces, oil production and exports as well as international flights and the issuing of visas.

Yet the quiet takeover of Kirkuk could be a little deceptive. Weak though the Kurds may now be, political circumstances may not always be so wholly against them or in favour of the Iraqi state. The Kurds looked utterly defeated in 1975 when Saddam Hussein signed the Algiers Agreement with the Shah who abandoned his previous alliance with the Kurds. But the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 forced the withdrawal of much of the Iraqi army from Iraqi Kurdistan, which was then taken over by Kurdish nationalist forces. Defeated again through savage repression, Saddam’s overthrow by the US-led coalition in 1991 enabled the Kurds to start building a statelet, which became a powerful player when the US invaded in 2003.

If the central government in Baghdad exploits its present superiority over the Kurds too greedily, then it could provoke a powerful communal counter-reaction by the five million Kurdish population. This approach is likely to be opposed by Mr Abadi, but approved by his predecessor as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the run-up to the parliamentary elections next May. In Iraqi politics, almost everybody ends up by over-playing their hand. 

Independent

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Middle East

Manbij becomes key as US looks to rein in Turkey’s Syrian offensive

- 1516747391 tirkey syria tank - Manbij becomes key as US looks to rein in Turkey’s Syrian offensive


The US is trying to prevent the fighting in Afrin between Turkish forces and Syrian Kurds spreading east into the main Kurdish enclave in Syria where US troops are based. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to drive the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters not just from Afrin, but from Manbij, a strategic town west of the Euphrates.

“Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “If the US does not stop this, we will stop it.”

Some 6,000 Turkish troops backed by 10,000 Free Syrian Army fighters controlled by Turkey are seeking to fight their way into the isolated Kurdish canton of Afrin in northern Syria. Their progress has so far been slow, with thick cloud hindering air strikes in the hilly terrain. The YPG and Turkish-led forces have been fighting for the Bursaya Hill, with the summit, which overlooks the eastern side of Afrin town, changing hands several times.

The US has so far given muted support to its Kurdish allies in Syria, who provided the ground troops for the successful campaign against Isis. The US has supported the YPG during the war against Isis with massive air power, military equipment and some 2,000 specialised US troops.

The US is hoping to keep the present fighting confined to Afrin, which is separate from the bulk of Kurdish territory. There have never been any US military forces in this enclave, though there were Russian observers that have now been withdrawn. But if Turkey attacks Manbij then the US will have to decide if it is going to be seen as betraying its Kurdish ally or risk a military confrontation with its Nato partner Turkey.  

The Kurdish authorities in north-east Syria are calling for a mass mobilisation in defence of Afrin. But they already have large numbers of experienced combat troops previously fighting Isis that they can deploy if they wish. “The Turkish state has been trying to enter north Syria for days, but it will not be able to,” said Siyamund Walat, a YPG general. “We have forces in Afrin, thousands… they are protecting the border and the people. If necessary all the soldiers will go to Afrin.”

It may be in the interests of the Syrian Kurds to prolong the fighting in Afrin so international diplomatic pressure increases on Turkey to end Operation Olive Branch, as it calls its campaign. On the other hand, Afrin is cut off from the rest of the Kurdish-held area and the one supply road to the south is held by the Syrian Army. Syrian soldiers have been refusing to allow refugees from Afrin through their checkpoints to reach Kurdish areas in Aleppo city 25 miles away.

Explosions as Turkey confirms airstrikes on Afrin, Syria

The Turkish campaign only became possible when Russia agreed not to oppose it and, above all, allowed Turkish jets to operate in Syrian airspace. This is under Russian control west of the Euphrates. The long-contemplated Turkish assault was finally provoked by the US announcement last week that its forces would be staying in Syrian Kurdish territory for the foreseeable future. This de facto guarantee of the Kurdish statelet, directed against the Syrian government and Iran by the US, radically changed the strategic balance in Syria. The US had assured the Turks since the end of 2014 that its military cooperation with the YPG was purely tactical, directed against Isis and would end when Isis was defeated.

Mr Erdogan is taking advantage of a wave of patriotic support in Turkey for the Afrin operation to arrest dozens of politicians, journalists and activists who are accused of criticising the offensive. Many of those arrested, often for critical media posts, belong to the pro-Kurdish HDP party. “Journalists are having their doors rammed down without anybody knocking,” said HDP spokesman Ayhan Bilgen. “People are [becoming] afraid of keyboards, pens, words and writing”

Independent

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Middle East

Syrian Kurds Refuse to Participate in Sochi Talks

- acdbaa5482f0c834200ff60cc8e9a0ad L - Syrian Kurds Refuse to Participate in Sochi Talks


ERBIL — Syrian Kurds will under no circumstances attend the Syrian National dialogue Congress in Sochi, said Aldar Khalil, the co-chairperson of the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM).

Khalil said in an interview with Reuters that on one hand Russia consented Turkey’s attack on Afrin and on the other hand also invited the Syrian Kurds to participate in Sochi. 

“It is  contradictory,” he said, arguing that in such a situation, taking part in a Russian-brokered talk is of no significance.

He pointed out that the Kurdish participation in the congress is a weak possibility.

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Middle East

Israeli pilots say they would refuse to fly deported asylum seekers back to Africa: ‘I will not be a partner to this barbarity’

- 1514968731 israel african migrants - Israeli pilots say they would refuse to fly deported asylum seekers back to Africa: ‘I will not be a partner to this barbarity’


Three Israeli pilots have spoken out against the forced deportations of asylum seekers back to Africa, saying they would refuse to take control of planes involved the practice.

“There is no way that I, as an air crew member, will take part in flying refugees/asylum seekers on their way to a destination whose chances of survival after reaching it… are close to zero,” wrote pilot Shaul Betzer in a Facebook post and later on Twitter.

“Not much courage is required for such a mission, but I will not be able to do what is required of me in such a mission. As a pilot and as a human being.”

Pilot Iddo Elad posted a statement on his Facebook page a few hours later, declaring: “I will not be a partner to this barbarity.”

Both Facebook posts have been shared hundreds of times and attracted many comments, most of which support the men’s stance.

The public refusals come three weeks after the Israeli government ordered thousands of African refugees and migrants to leave the country within three months or face prison.

Thousands of Africans – many from Eritrea and Sudan – crossed from Egypt into Israel before it erected a fence along the border in 2013.

Many have fled conflict and persecution, but Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu has called them “infiltrators” and said they are mostly economic migrants whose numbers threaten the nation’s Jewish character.

According to Israeli charity Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an average of just 0.15 per cent of people who file asylum claims in Israel are ultimately recognised as refugees.

Under the new proposals, “infiltrators” will be offered $3,500 (£2,500) and a plane ticket to their home country or “a third country” – likely to be Rwanda or Uganda.

Israeli media has reported that some asylum seekers have faced torture or human trafficking after being sent to Rwanda and Uganda by the Israeli government.

Yoel Piterbarg, a former combat helicopter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, was the first of the three men to speak out.

“The state of Israel is populated mainly by Jews who, in the near and distant past, were refugees in countries around the world,” he wrote on Facebook.

“Most went through the Holocaust, many were forcefully expelled from their countries, and many others emigrated out of a desire to improve their lives in better countries that agreed to accept them.”

He continued: “Out of all people we, the Jews, must be attentive, empathetic, moral, and leaders of public opinion in the world in how we treat the migration of refugees, who have suffered and continue to suffer in their countries of origin.”

Mr Piterbarg has spoken out on human rights issues before in his role as a pilot.

In 2003, he was one of 27 Israeli air force pilots who refused to take part in further operations inside the Palestinian territories, describing the military’s actions in the occupied areas as “illegal and immoral”.

The statements published by the three men regarding the deportation of migrants are largely symbolic as El Al – the airline all three men are understood to work for – does not currently operate any routes to the countries in question.

“El Al does not fly any immigrants to Africa,” a spokesperson for El Al told The Independent.

“El Al has absolutely nothing at all to do with these flights. El Al pilots won’t be flying these immigrants.”

The airline does however have a code share agreement with Ethiopian Airlines, allowing passengers to book flights via El Al’s website from Tel Aviv to destinations across sub-Saharan Africa with a stop-off in Addis Ababa.

According to the spokesperson, no El Al crew are involved on any of those flights.

A petition calling on the Israel Airline Pilots Association and ground services staff at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to refuse to participate in the deportation of migrants and refugees has gathered more than 8,000 signatures.

The petition was partly inspired by news from Germany, where pilots stopped 222 deportations of asylum seekers between January and September last year.



Independent

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