In June 2014 the Islamic State (IS) swept into the Tuz Kharmato district of eastern Salahaddin as the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) fell apart. Amerli, a small Shiite Turkmen town was surrounded in the process and held out for weeks against the insurgents. In September Kurdish peshmerga, the ISF, and militias launched an operation that freed the village. This then led to the clearing of the entire district. Many Sunni residents fled in the wake of the fighting or were forced out by the militias who considered them supporters of the insurgency. Now that many villages are either abandoned or being emptied a new conflict has emerged between the Kurds and militias over control of the district.
Tuz Kharmato is a mixed area that is claimed by the Kurds as part of the disputed territories. In urban areas Kurds and Turkmen are the majorities, while in the rural regions Sunnis and Turkmen predominate. There have been long standing tensions between the Kurds and Turkmen who accuse the Kurds of hoarding power in their attempt to annex parts of the district. Disagreements between the two sides increased during the insurgent summer offensive.
When the ISF fled the Tuz district in June it opened up a whole new slew of problems. First, the Kurds moved into the disputed areas when the police and army disintegrated, but refused to protect non-Kurdish areas like Sulaiman Bek and Amerli. They also disbanded a Turkmen police force. In July a deal was cut, probably facilitated by Iran, that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the major Kurdish party in Tuz would cooperate with Hadi Ameri’s Badr Organization to free Amerli from its siege by the Islamic State. That started in September with the ISF and militias moving in from one direction and the Kurds in from another, which eventually saved the town. Afterward, those forces would continue to work together to clear the entire district, which was achieved by October 9. During and after these security sweeps the Kurds accused militias of killing civilians they claimed were supporters of the Islamic State, and looting and burning homes all in an effort to force Sunnis out of the district. From September 16-17 for example, three Sunni homes were bombed. That same month a grave was found with six Sunni men who had been shot. Up to 7,000 families were said to have fled in the face of these attacks. The cooperation between the Kurds and militias would soon turn to competition after the district was freed.
Starting in September there have been increasing reports of confrontations and gunfire between the peshmerga and Badr Organization. September 19 Bas News reported that militias were stopping Kurds in the district. Later that month some militiamen refused to stop at a Kurdish checkpoint, which led to a scuffle. Badr came back with 20 pickup trucks full of fighters before tempers were calmed. October 3 a car bomb went off outside a PUK office. The Kurds thought a Turkmen had his car booby trapped by insurgents. The militias wanted to arrest him, but the peshmerga stopped them. That led to shots being fired and four people were wounded. Talks were held later to cool tensions. In another incident a Kurd complained to the PUK that he was assaulted at a Badr checkpoint leading to the peshmerga arresting some militiamen. Afterward, three PUK officials had their homes bombed and a Kurdish neighborhood was hit by mortar fire. October 18, the peshmerga fired on a Badr vehicles that didn’t stop at a checkpoint. That led to a larger gunfight with one Kurd and two militiamen wounded. Again, the two sides met to resolve the situation. Towards the end of October another similar event occurred when a Badr vehicle again didn’t stop at a checkpoint and shots were fired killing two militiamen and wounding four. Badr retaliated by arresting eight peshmerga. Two were later released, but Badr said it was going to take the remaining six to Baghdad for trial. Finally, on October 30 Badr fighters fired on a peshmerga checkpoint wounding two. Badr then tried to arrest one of the injured Kurds, only to take away ten Kurds total. Seven were let go, but the militiamen said they were taking the other three back to Baghdad with them. The cause of these increasingly violent confrontations is the fact that Badr is attempting to ally with the Shiite Turkmen in Tuz and lay claim to their towns and cities in the district. This directly challenges the Kurds’ desire to annex many of these same areas, which they say are historically theirs. The fact that there is no real government authority there given the security situation means that Tuz has become a lawless district. That leaves the men with guns to fight it out over who will have ultimate say in the region.
Tuz Kharmato points to the precarious situation of the Iraqi state. When the insurgent offensive started some areas like Tuz Kharmato were left to their own devices and that led to local forces to assert their control. That is now playing out with the increasing rivalry between the Badr Organization and the PUK and its peshmerga. Both sides want to create facts on the ground that will leave them in control of parts of the Tuz district, and that is leading to increasing armed confrontations. Even if the insurgency were turned back in the rest of the country this dispute would not be resolved. Baghdad is completely absent from the situation, and when and if it returns there’s no telling whether it will be able to solve the situation either. June changed more than just security in Iraq; it upset the working and political framework of entire regions of the country.
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