Since 2014 when territory began to be retaken from the Islamic State in northern Iraq stories began to emerge of Arab towns being destroyed and forced displacement at the hands of the Kurdish Peshmerga and Yazidi militias. Amnesty International recently released a report detailing its findings for several villages in Ninewa, Kirkuk and Diyala provinces based upon field research, interviews, and analysis of satellite photography entitled “Banished And Dispossessed, Forced Displacement and Deliberate Destruction In Northern Iraq.” It found evidence of intentional destruction of homes and buildings by the Peshmerga, the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and Yazidi militias.
Sinjar district in western Ninewa was the site of bloody massacres of Yazidis by the Islamic State, which led to revenge attacks when the area was retaken. In August 2014 the Islamic State took Sinjar, and by the end of the year most of the district had been recaptured by a combination of Peshmerga, PKK, YPG, and Yazidi militias. Amnesty looked at twelve villages in the area, ten of which were completely wiped out and the other two left with extensive damage. There were no signs of air strikes or heavy fighting to recapture them to explain the destruction done. Four villages looked like they were bulldozed, which was supported by interviews with residents who said that Peshmerga and Yazidi militias flattened the villages. Eight others showed signs of burning buildings, which local residents talked about as well.
Two specific areas Amnesty studied were Barzanke and Zummar in Ninewa that were freed in August and October 2014 respectively. The Islamic State destroyed 13 houses in Barzanke before being forced out. The Peshmerga and PKK then occupied it for two weeks during which they looted and destroyed buildings. In October 2014 three Peshmerga told Amnesty that homes had been blown up in Barzanke because it supported IS. At another time two Kurdish fighters said that the town had been destroyed so that the residents couldn’t come back. Later, Yazidis attacked the nearby villages of Sibaya, Sayir and Khazuke killing 21 civilians, arresting 40 others, 17 of which were thought to be killed, and burned most of the buildings. Months later the towns were bulldozed. In Jiri, Sibaya, and Sayir more than 75% of the structures were destroyed and in Um Khabari it was more than 50%. Residents claimed this went on while the Peshmerga in the area looked on. In Zummar the residents were not allowed to return. The Kurds said that the area was booby trapped, but locals told Amnesty that their houses were being destroyed so that they couldn’t go back. A fieldtrip to the town in April 2015 found most of the Arab sections of Zummar were destroyed and looted. A Kurdish resident told researchers that most of the damage had been done by the Peshmerga and Kurdish locals not IS.
The events in Diyala’s Jalawla were slightly different. IS attacked the area in June and captured most of it. The residents were displaced as a result, but after the district was freed they were not allowed to return. There was also extensive damage done to the infrastructure during the fighting, and then looting afterward. The Peshmerga and Hashd both cleared Jalawla, and then blamed each other for the destruction of buildings and stealing afterward. In fact, the looting continued up to at least December 2015 with reports of trucks driving in through Peshmerga checkpoints and leaving with various pieces of property. Like in Ninewa, the Peshmerga were also accused of desroying villages such as Jumeili. The town was freed in November 2014. The Kurds set up in a few buildings, and then the rest of it was completely flattened using what appeared to be bulldozers. Satellite photos showed that 94% of the main part of the village was wiped out. Amnesty teams went to nearby Tabaj Hamid and Bahiza and found them knocked down, and in the latter’s case burned as well. One resident of Tabaj Hamid said that the town was intact when the Peshmerga arrived, the residents were then forced out, and then it was bulldozed.
Kirkuk was the third province Amnesty covered. There 40 villages had been attacked and the residents permanently displaced. Researchers visited Maktab Khaled in November 2015 and found it razed with no buildings left standing. A Peshmerga fighter said that it had been bulldozed to make it a safe zone to separate the Peshmerga and Islamic State lines.
Amnesty was only the latest to note these events taking place in northern Iraq. In November 2014 Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera visited Barzanke and found all the houses there destroyed. Some of that was from U.S. airstrikes, but Kurdish fighters did most of the damage claiming the town’s people were IS sympathizers. The next month Niqash reported on Jalawla after it had been freed and heard that the Kurds were bulldozing homes there. That same month PRI went to Kharabaroot in Kirkuk, which was destroyed. A Peshmerga commander claimed that the Islamic State did the damage, but residents blamed the Kurds. That was dismissed by the commander who called the locals IS supporters. In February 2015, Human Rights Watch released an extensive report on Arab towns destroyed by the Peshmerga and Kurdish civilians in Makhmour and Zummar. In September Iraq Oil Report and The National both travelled to Daquq in southern Kirkuk governorate where they found looting and destruction of Arab villages. One Peshmerga commander told Iraq Oil Report about four villages that were bulldozed. The National went to Wahda where residents accused the Peshmerga of wiping it out. Other villages in the area showed signs of being burned and knocked down too. Finally, the latest human rights report by the United Nations said that on August 16, 2015 the Peshmerga were destroying homes and business of Arabs in Jalawla. It also had evidence of destruction of property in Tajneed, Wahda, and Shuhada in Diyala.
What all of these reports together revealed were that different motivations were at work across the three provinces of Ninewa, Diyala and Kirkuk. In Ninewa, many of the attacks seemed to be motivated by revenge for the slaughter of Yazidis by the Islamic State. Many locals were accused of being IS sympathizers, and the Yazidis and their YPG and PKK allies wanted retribution so they attacked Arabs and destroyed their homes. In Kirkuk the situation was completely different. There the destruction of buildings appeared to be part of a military policy to clear out towns in no man’s land so that the Ilsamic State did not use them. Finally, in Diyala, the main motivation appeared to be political. The Kurds have claimed Jalwala as part of the disputed territories and argued with Baghdad over it for years. By knocking down Arab property they could prevent the people from coming back, and thus ensure that it was a Kurdish area. Overall, these events are just another sign of how Iraq is being torn apart by the war with the Islamic State. The extremists played about those divisions to seize territory in the summer of 2014. Now the Shiites and Kurds are exacting their revenge upon not only the insurgents, but the communities that they blame for supporting them. These scars are likely to last at least a decade showing the long lasting effect the war will leave on Iraq.
Ali, Dashty, “A New Northern Frontline Where Iraq’s Kurds And Shiites Are Facing Off,” Niqash, 12/18/14
Amnesty International “Iraq: Banished and Dispossessed: Displacement and Deliberate Destruction In Northern Iraq,” 1/20/16
George, Susannah, “The Kurdish Peshmerga helping the US take back territory from ISIS may be kicking out Arabs,” PRI’s The World, 12/23/14
Human Rights Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights UNAMI United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq - Human Rights Office, "Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Armed Conflict in Iraq: 1 May - 31 October 2015," January 2016
Human Rights Watch, “Iraqi Kurdistan: Arabs Displaced, Cordoned Off, Detained,” 2/25/15
Iraq Oil Report, “After Peshmerga victory, homes looted and destroyed,” 9/1/15
Rovera, Donatella, “Stoking the fire of Iraq’s sectarian conflict,” Annahar, 11/1/14
Williams, Elizabeth, “Kurds’ smouldering feud could reignite in northern Iraq,” The National, 9/10/15