KIRKUK, Iraq — Farman Mohammad Rashid is from Kirkuk, and like others from the city he has family in Tuz Khormato. “I have two aunties there,” he told Al-Monitor. He kept in touch with them throughout the violent clashes in the city last week. “They say it’s OK for an hour and then they hear bombs again.”
The fighting that broke out April 24 between the Popular Mobilization Units and the peshmerga in Tuz Khormato prompted an unknown number of families to flee the city for the relatively safer Kirkuk and surrounding areas. Although a cease-fire is currently in place, many past such agreements have been violated. Due to the on-and-off fighting beginning in November 2015, some Tuz Khormato residents who fled now say they are never returning, straining Kirkuk, which already hosts over 400,000 internally displaced persons. And with supporters of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) supporting the peshmerga and local Turkmen showing more sympathy for the Popular Mobilization Units, the situation may remain tense for some time.
Several Tuz Khormato residents left during the week of April 25, but many others had already fled during similar clashes in November of last year. “I don’t think it will be finished soon,” said Saman Khurshid, a KDP official who lived in the city until November 2015. “There are Shiite militia snipers everywhere. If the militias see Kurds, they shoot,” he told Al-Monitor.
On April 27, a cease-fire came into effect that has thus far reduced violence in the town. But Khurshid, who has been living in Kirkuk for over four months, said he needs to see more improvement before he returns. “When the situation is quiet I’ll be back. If it keeps going like it is now I can never go back. Until now there have been 12 cease-fires, but after a day they break.” The cease-fire was violated just last week, and the conflict in November clearly did not end the fighting for good.
In the meantime, Khurshid rents a home with about half a dozen other family members in Kirkuk. “Life is good and normal here. There are no problems between sects. Inside Kirkuk, all who fled are good.”
Bahr Amin Mohammad, who owns a clothing store in Tuz Khormato, took his family to Kirkuk on April 24. He is now bouncing between relatives indefinitely. “I fled suddenly and left everything in the house except my wife and kids,” he told Al-Monitor. Mohammad, who has a few family members still in the city, says attacks by militias on Kurdish homes and accompanied looting prompted him to leave.
Like Khurshid, Mohammad is wary of returning. “Personally, I decided it will never return to safety. I’ll sell my shop and live in Kirkuk from now on for my kids’ sake,” he said. Even returning briefly to check his shop has proven too dangerous. “I planned to return once but heard there were snipers out and didn’t go,” he added.
The local authorities in Kirkuk cannot provide a count of the people who fled Tuz Khormato last week. “On April 26, some Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen left the town,” said Mohammed Khorshed, director of the organization department at the KDP’s Kirkuk headquarters. Due to the exodus being so recent — and for some, temporary — he does not yet have exact figures on how many fled the late April violence.
Khorshed noted that the recent influx is putting a strain on Kirkuk’s ability to host internally displaced persons. “We have so many already. The camps are big, but not big enough,” he said. Figures from his office indicate that there were 400,000 internally displaced persons in Kirkuk in July 2015 spread across several camps including Layla and Yahyawa. As some families don’t want to return, last week’s migration is sure to have an additional effect on the city’s housing market and camps.
The clashes in Tuz Khormato are between the peshmerga — the military of Iraqi Kurdistan — and the Popular Mobilization Units, groups of largely Shiite (and in Tuz Khormato, ethnic Turkmen) fighters formed to fight the Islamic State (IS) in 2014. In 2014, Kirkuk and surrounding locales such as Tuz Khormato were annexed to the Kurdistan Regional Government, although the central government in Baghdad still claims the area.
According to Khorshed’s office, the city is religiously and ethnically mixed at 51% Kurdish, 36% Turkmen and 13% Arab. Some Turkmen dispute these figures.
Members and supporters of the KDP government around Tuz Khormato blame the Popular Mobilization Units for the violence. “The reasons for the fighting are that a few Shiite militias want to take the town for themselves,” said Khorshed.
However, to some Turkmen activists from Tuz Khormato, the peshmerga are the aggressors, trying to erase the historic Turkmen presence there. “Tuz Khormato is a strategic city where Turkmen have lived throughout modern history. … It’s 60% Turkmen,” said Mehdi Al-Beyati, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the Turkmen Rescue Foundation and a native of Tuz Khormato. His foundation campaigns for Turkmen rights throughout Iraq, and his claim that the city has a Turkmen majority contradicts the figures from Khorshed.
A report his organization compiled during the late April attacks claims that Turkmen in the Popular Mobilization Units were merely responding to attacks by the peshmerga. “On the evening of April 24, the Kurdish militia started to burn Turkmen houses in the north of the city,” read the report, titled “Tuz Khormato still bleeding.”
Beyati blames actions by Kurdish forces dating back to the start of the US invasion in 2003 for creating the current tensions in the city. “The first issue in Tuz Khormato was in August 2003, when Kurdish officials entered the city and began a terrorist operation there. There were no explosions or terrorist operations there before that,” he said. Reuters reported clashes between Turkmen and Kurds in the city at that time.
Since its incorporation into the KRG, Kirkuk has witnessed a decrease in violence. All these problems withstanding, people are out in the streets more and safety has improved, especially considering its proximity to Tuz Khormato and IS. But the exodus of citizens and tensions surrounding Tuz Khormato threaten to destabilize the greater Kirkuk area. For a disputed region in a country gripped by mass protests in Baghdad and still partially occupied by IS, this is a troubling development indeed.