PHOTO ESSAY Kirkuk strains Iraqi, Kurdish security forces
Story and photographs by Derek Henry Flood
KIRKUK - As Iraq undergoes a painful fit of internecine violence not seen in terms of raw statistics since 2008, only glimpsing at the situation through the eyes of security forces offers real insight into what is happening on the ground.
Along the still-disputed territories of northern Iraq, which run along a northwest-southeast axis from the Turkish to the Iran borders, sits a fissiparous milieu of such forces. The Kurdish Peshmerga, fighters from Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, sit in positions often tensely facing the Iraqi Army. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Police remain under renewed threat from anti-state factions
seeking to erode the authority of the Nouri al-Maliki government. Central to the perceived chaos is oil and gas reserves which some Iraqis consider more a resource curse than a blessing.
In 2012, Maliki established the controversial Tigris Operations Command in the disputed Kirkuk province at a federal level to establish security - as Baghdad sees fit - for Kirkuk’s Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christian minorities.
Kurdish politicians in Kirkuk and Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), viewed the unilateral move by Maliki as a provocation somewhat reminiscent of the former ruling Ba’ath Party's Arabization program.
As violence ramps up around the Kirkuk governorate and its eponymous administrative center, power brokers in Baghdad, Erbil, as well as local leaders in Kirkuk, are exploiting the situation in the name of consolidating their own power centers.
Kurdish leaders are in the midst of digging a 52-58-kilometer long "security trench" around the city of Kirkuk to halt the infiltration of suicide attackers and better control checkpoints in and out of urban areas. But some local Arab leaders fear the real motive behind such a massive project is the eventual forced gravitation of Kirkuk into the KRG's administrative orbit, led by President Massoud Barzani.
While various government officials repeatedly blame Iraq's local al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or pro-Iranian Shi'ite militias like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq for the sharp increase in sectarian or ethnic violence, locals place blame on the Maliki government for failing to keep their cities secure. Some in Kirkuk believe members of the Iraqi Police and army themselves are perpetrating a degree of the violence.
In the lands of Iraq's hotly disputed northern governorates, such as Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahaddin, and Ninewa, Maliki and Barzani have mutually failed to reach a political conclusion that protects Kurdish, Arab, and other minority civilians caught in the middle.
In broader Western public opinion, the withdrawal of the American-led occupation forces in Iraq was either been viewed as the fruition of a progressive Obama campaign promise or met with blase approval. However, for Iraqis it meant the loss the armed mediators who for years had acted as a buffer between Kurdish and largely ethnic Arab security forces.
In Iraq's post-Saddam constitution, Article 140 was meant to reverse the lasting tide of the Arabization program and repopulate specific northern districts with displaced Kurdish families who suffered so badly during the al-Anfal campaign of the late 1980s. Although US troops left in 2011, it now seems further away from being implemented.
The following images provide an on-the-ground view of the murky conflict.
1. Captain Mohammed Ali Ahmed (left), a platoon leader of Kurdish Peshmerga troops in rural Kirkuk governorate, seated in his camp surrounded by his fighters. Captain Ahmed firmly held that the area he controlled outside of the federated KRG region of three northern governorates would eventually be absorbed into it.
2. Peshmerga soldiers under the command of Captain Ahmed holding the high ground in their camp. They claim to be fully prepared to defend their position against both the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the forces of the central government.
3. A poster of Said Tomari, a Kurdish guerilla from Kirkuk who was "martyred" in the anti-Ba'ath insurgency of the mid-1970s. Kurdish fighters, often put forth as a pawn by larger warring powers, were then being supported by Iran's Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. This period of conflict was temporarily quelled by the Algiers Agreement of 1975 when the Shah's regime declared it would end its support for Iraq's Kurds in order to resolve boundary disputes with neighboring Iraq.
4. A butcher at the Sulaimani Restaurant in northern Kirkuk City peers between carcasses during Ramadan.
5. A clip of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as seen on the Kurdish language Payam channel. Security officials who spoke to Asia Times Online blamed Maliki directly for Kirkuk governorate's endemic violence, citing his failure to secure Iraq's borderlands.
6. The visual hallmark of Baghdad's "Allahu Akbar" [God is Greatest] tricolor flag indicates the allegiance of that particular checkpoint's foot soldiers. In contrast, Kurdish Peshmerga checkpoints display only the KRG's own flag, with no markings of the Maliki government.
7. An Iraqi Army officer from the 12th Division politely refused ATol a formal interview after an impromptu request, citing a time-consuming chain-of-command approval process. This was much unlike the comparatively carefree, confident attitude of the Peshmerga men, who were only to happy to be spontaneously quoted and photographed.
8. A video still of an Iraqi Army 12th Division soldier waving vehicles through his checkpoint in the countryside north of Kirkuk. It felt as if a suicide bomb might detonate at any moment.
9. Abdullah Ali, an Iraqi Police Lieutenant Colonel in his office in Dibis, approximately 45 kilometers northwest of Kirkuk City. Lt Col Ali was dejected about the frailty of the security environment he was charged with overseeing. As he reflected on the immense damage done to his offices by a suicide bomber earlier in the year, he quipped: "Why don't the Americans come back here [to Kirkuk governorate] and save us?"
10. Just days before this image was taken in his home, police officer Shakawam Namit was injured in a late night attack by an improvised explosive device that left him dizzy but alive. Namit's neighbors erected a makeshift roadblock outside his home in an effort to frustrate further attempts on his life.
11. A pair of Iraqi policemen stand amidst the damaged hallway of their local police headquarters in the town of Dbis. The Dibis police HQ remains crumbling in the aftermath of a March 11, 2013, suicide car bomb attack that killed four people and injured well over 160.
12. When American forces abandoned Iraq in December 2011, the blast wall clustered security emplacements - now manned by indigenous forces - were left as if as an ode to terminal instability.
13. Kirkuk's ancient citadel dating back to the Babylonian period was off limits for photography, according to a young Turkmen policeman at one of its gates. No logical explanation was given. This image was snapped furtively as daylight faded over the city on the verge of celebrations marking the end of Ramadan.
14. The bridge souk above the Khassa Su river - dry in summer - as vendors and shoppers depart to break the Ramadan fast with an iftaar meal. Iraq suffered an intensely violent Ramadan, with the United Nations citing 1,057 killed and an estimated 2,326 wounded in July alone.
15. The Baba Gurgur oil field at sunset north of Kirkuk City. Baba Gurgur was discovered by the Turkish Petroleum Company in October 1927. At the time, Baba Gurgur was heralded as containing the world's largest proven oil reserves until it was outmatched by post-war exploration in Saudi Arabia. Some Kirkukis see the ongoing turf dispute over their province as being rooted in economic resource competition masked as primarily an inter-ethnic power struggle.
Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and South and Central Asia and has covered many of the world's conflicts since 9/11 as a frontline reporter. He blogs at the-war-diaries.com. Follow Derek on Twitter @DerekHenryFlood
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