Sinjar in west Ninewa has become a flashpoint between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Hashd (PMU) and Yazidis after the Hashd liberated the remaining villages in the district from the Islamic State starting at the end of May 2017. The KDP immediately condemned the Hashd’s presence leading to a war of words between the two. Journalist Wladimir van Wilgenburg recently travelled to the district. Here is an interview about what he saw. He can be followed on Twitter @vvanwilgenburg.
1. Starting in late-May 2017 the Hashd freed the rest of the Sinjar district from the Islamic State. How were they received by the local Yazidis and why did the KDP have a problem with it?
It’s clear that Yazidis do not have a negative attitude towards the PMU. They see them as an anti-Sunni force, and blame the Sunni Arabs in the villages around them of helping ISIS to carry out a genocide against Yazidis. Therefore, they could support the PMU out of revenge against the Sunni Arabs. There are also some Yazidis that served under the Iraqi police, Iraqi border police and Iraqi army in the past, and that would be willing to join the PMU (also for financial reasons). Also some of those Yazidis that have resentment against the KDP might have joined the PMU forces. There were also fighters from the PKK-backed Shingal Resistance Units (YBS) that joined the PMU. The YBS so far did not have a clear statement on the PMU presence. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Yazidis from both the YBS and Peshmerga joined the PMU, and both the KDP and YBS tried to prevent Yazidis from joining the PMU. The newly created ‘Ezidxan battalion’ leader Naif Jasso claims they are not a member of the PMU and independent, and only receiving support from the PMU. He says they have now around 1,000 Yazidis that joined his group and plan to recruit thousands more. It’s mostly Yazidis from South Sinjar that joined the PMU, because PMU now control all their villages and they want to return at some point. Some members of the family of Nadia Murad [U.N. Goodwill Ambassador and IS victim] for instance joined the PMU.
2. What kind of problems was the KDP having with the district before the Hashd arrived?
According to the KDP, there was an agreement between Baghdad and Erbil to do a joint operation with the Iraqi army in South Sinjar after Mosul or before Mosul was finished. Also U.S. officials confirmed to me that that was the deal to have a joint Iraqi-Kurdish force to take south Sinjar, so the move was not perceived as a land grab in south Sinjar. Now the KDP fears that the PMU could try to undermine the Peshmerga presence in Sinar, and that could result in fighters over the disputed territories in the future. Especially when the Kurdish independence referendum is getting closer. Furthermore, the KDP feared that the PMU would link up with the YBS, which would give the YBS-YPG a link to Syria through Mosul to the Syrian border, which would make the YPG-led self-administrations in northern Syria less dependent on the KDP. The YPG-PYD in the past before 2014 used the border crossing at Rabia to avoid the KDP-held border crossing in Fish Khabur, but now the Peshmerga control this area. Despite this fears, it seems that the relation between the YPG and the PMU is not so good, and the PMU denies any connection with the PKK, YBS, YPG or PYD. Although in the past, the YBS was funded for some time by Baghdad. This support of Baghdad for the YBS has stopped, and the PMU media officer got upset when I asked about this and denied any links. So far, it seems the PMU could be a challenge both for the Peshmerga and the YBS, and the Sinjar region will now be de-factor divided between three rival factions.
3. Many Hashd units have said they oppose the Kurds’ agenda in Iraq. What are some things they mentioned?
Yes, the PMU fighters are very opposed to the US agenda and also any form of Kurdish independence. They claim that the US has been supporting ISIS and wants to divide Iraq, etc. Moreover, they say Iraq should stay united. They even suggest they could fght the Kurds to prevent this. Although both Peshmerga and PMU local fighters expect problems in the future, we will have to see what happens. In the past, fights between the PMU and Peshmerga’s were always short-lived and ended through negotiations. Especially after the Kurds will hold an independence referendum in September 2017. Until now there are not big problems, and PMU leaders such as Abu Muhandis and Qais Khazali even talked to the KDP-linked K24, and said they and the Kurds have a joint history of fighting the Baath-regime and now also ISIS, and that they do not expect problems. However, if the Iraqi elections are held, or the Kurdish referendum will be held, the rhetoric could change quickly. Especially after ISIS is defeated in Mosul, and ISIS doesn’t anymore ‘unite’ the competing factions, it’s expected there will be more issues.
4. So far the Kurds and Hashd have been issuing almost daily statements against each other about the latter’s presence in Sinjar. Do you think this will remain a war of words or do you think there’s a potential for it to escalate?
It depends on the situation after Mosul and the referendum. I am sure we will see tensions and possibly some fights over the disputed territories. Especially, if the Kurds will hold the referendum on 25 September. But until now the Kurdish officials and Hashd commanders are still careful in their statements. For instance, the Kurdish president Masoud Barzani said in a recent interview for Foreign Policy that he appreciates the sacrifices of the PMU in the fight against ISIS, this while PMU official spokespersons also deny any problems. Most likely the problems could start after ISIS is territorially defeated, which could take several months.