Recently Agence France Presse’s Jean Marc Mojon went to Tuz Kharmato in northern Salahaddin province. He talked with several residents who described how the town was divided between Turkmen and Kurds. These tensions recently exploded after a shootout at a checkpoint between Peshmerga and Hashd al-Shaabi in November. Things quickly escalated with citizens taking up arms and kidnapping and burning property from the other group. Human Rights Watch just released a report “Iraq: Ethnic Fighting Endangers Civilians” documenting that crisis along with others that have happened in the district since it was freed of the Islamic State in 2014.
In November, a shootout at a checkpoint led to several days of ethnic fighting between Turkmen and Kurds in Tuz. On November 12 a small convoy of Hashd fighters was stopped at a Peshmerga checkpoint. A confrontation between the two sides escalated to gunfire where one Hashd was wounded. He was brought to the town’s hospital. Officials at the facility said that the fighters got angry at the staff and started shooting leading the Asayesh that were guarding the hospital to respond. Peshmerga then arrived and an even bigger fight broke out. Iraq Oil Report had a very similar story supporting Human Rights Watch’s report. Afterward local Turkmen and Kurds joined the Hashd and Peshmerga to kidnap people from the opposing side along with Arabs, looted businesses and burned homes and other property. They were joined by reinforcements arriving from Baghdad and Kurdistan. Human Rights Watch recorded stories of 50 Kurdish buildings and 80 Turkmen ones being destroyed during the conflict. Tuz residents claimed that the total could have been as high as 400 houses and shops. Human Rights Watch did not report total casualties, but the press said that anywhere from 15 to 21 Hashd, Peshmerga, and civilians lost their lives and dozens more were wounded. In the end, Iran stepped in to mediate between the two sides and a ceasefire was announced. These types of confrontations have happened before between the Hashd and Kurds as both are vying for control of the district. As more occur the tensions between the sides grow stronger leading for more opportunities for another blow up in the future.
Human Rights Watch documented two other incidents of abuse by the Hashd that occurred in Tuz. On October 22 a Shiite Turkmen procession for Ashura was hit by a car bomb. Afterward the Hashd arrested 150 Sunni Arabs. Most were let go after a few days. Some who were released said they were tortured or witnessed abuse. Another 8-34 people were killed, and around 50 are still being held. Human Rights Watch also documented widespread kidnappings by the Hashd in Tuz and nearby Amerli and Suleiman Beq. This has been covered by the United Nations. Many times people were taken for ransom. Similar stories were reported in the Kurdish press. There have also been repeated pieces on Hashd targeting Sunni Arabs in the area killing civilians and destroying homes. The retaliation for the car bombing in October would fit into that pattern. The kidnappings would too, but they also show signs of lawlessness within the Hashd ranks as many were conducted for profit.
These events represented the new face of division within the Tuz district. Before 2014 the main conflict in Tuz was between Sunni Turkmen and Arabs who were drawn to the insurgency versus the Shiite Turkmen and Kurds. The Iraqi Turkmen Front was also influential, which appealed to all Turkmen. That began to change after the Peshmerga and Hashd freed the district from the Islamic State in 2014. The Kurds, who had claimed Tuz as part of the disputed territories, but who had largely neglected it before, asserted control over parts of the city. The Hashd who heavily recruited amongst the Shiite Turkmen opposed them. Both were thinking about Iraq after the war with the Kurds hoping to use Tuz as a bargaining chip with Baghdad, and the Hashd wanting to thwart any expansion of Kurdish influence. Ironically, both sides had close ties to Iran who has tried to mediate between the two, but has not been able to stop these flare ups. At the same time, the Sunni Arab population was still associated with the insurgency, and was targeted by the Hashd as a result through attacks upon their villages and kidnappings. As long as these tensions exist there will be continued confrontations at points of contacts between the sides such as checkpoints into the near future and likely past the war against the Islamic State.
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