Local Sunni tribal fighters from southwestern Kirkuk province put on a show of unity with the Iraqi army and Shiite-led Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) operating in the area against the Islamic State (IS) on May 12 by gathering in mass, driving around in military vehicles, shooting into the air and inviting local journalists to film the scene.
As attacks continue on local forces in Sunni-majority southwestern Kirkuk, a transfer of 176 detainees arrested on terrorism charges from Sulaimaniyah to Kirkuk May 21 has drawn praise from some and wariness from others. Many of the detainees on the list, of which Al-Monitor has obtained a copy, are from Hawija and the surrounding villages.
On May 22, Quds Day, Iran-backed Shiite PMU drove over an American flag with the slogan "Death to America" written on it in the Shiite Turkmen-majority town of Taza Khormato, in Kirkuk province. Quds Day is held every year by supporters of the Iranian government to call for the “liberation” of Jerusalem.
Many of the PMU active in this area existed prior to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s 2014 fatwa to take up arms against IS and have received various types of support from Iran over the years.
In one week alone in May prior to the Hawija tribal forces’ anti-IS "parade" through the dusty roads of the mainly agricultural area in southwestern Kirkuk, there had been three attacks on Iraqi forces, allegedly by IS supporters.
The attacks had reportedly killed six in the Sunni-majority Hawija and surrounding areas. It seems that local forces feel they need as much support as possible now, especially after the US-led coalition pulled out of several bases in the area.
There have been several other recent killings in Kirkuk province, including a policeman whose beheaded body was found in his car May 24.
On May 23, Interior Minister Othman al-Ghanimi visited Kirkuk province and approved the deployment of two additional federal police brigades to the Dibis and Hawija districts, where IS sleeper cells have been especially active.
The Iraqi Army on May 26 also reportedly sent a mechanized battalion with 40 armored vehicles to southern Kirkuk province.
Near Hawija, a well-known local figure known as Mullah Majeed, a former Islamic preacher who took up arms to fight IS and who represents local fighters, told Al-Monitor in a WhatsApp conversation May 24 that security was good in his village, al-Abbassi, but that “security incidents continue to occur in the Makhmour mountains, al-Hamdan, Dibis and Wadi al-Shay district toward Daquq.”
Al-Monitor had previously interviewed Majeed in al-Abbassi in 2018, when it took weeks to get permission to enter the area due to security concerns.
At that time a great deal of resentment was voiced by the Sunni locals about the presence of PMU fighters from the south, who had been instrumental in retaking the area from IS, but were said to be committing abuses and showing “disrespect” toward the population.
On a 2018 visit to Rashad, one of the Sunni villages in the area with a reputation for supporting IS, this Al-Monitor reporter saw a billboard with a large photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei thanking the “mujahedeen” of the Shiite-led PMU for their work and homes that had mostly been abandoned by locals.
Though it appears there is now greater collaboration between the nonlocal PMU and local fighters, Majeed declined to comment further on the nonlocal PMU present in the area — which he said includes brigades from Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization — other than to say the local population would prefer local fighters.
Hawija and the villages around it between the Hamreen mountains to the west and the regional capital Kirkuk further east have long been prone to insurgency.
However, the liberation of the town itself in October 2017 was surprisingly easy. This reporter accompanied the nonlocal PMU Liwa Ali al-Akbar as the forces advanced into some of the areas of the town, meeting with little resistance.
In one of the villages nearby, Salihiyyah, Al-Monitor arrived just after it had been entered and just as a teenage girl, the only casualty in the fight for the village, was pronounced dead.
As her body was being wrapped in a blanket, versions of events told to this reporter at the scene itself varied. Some said she had been caught in the crossfire between IS and the PMU, while others claimed nonlocal PMU fighters had killed her.
This and many other incidents had at that time aggravated grievances against the nonlocal forces in the area.
Three and a half years later, local forces realize they need to work in a unified manner against IS alongside other Iraqi forces in the area, including nonlocal PMU if deployed there by the government.
On the detainee transfer, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities in Erbil claim not to have been informed of the May 21 transfer. The Kirkuk branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party also said it had not been informed of the transfer either and accused the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), its Kurdish rival party based in Sulaimaniyah, of having secret prisons.
According to the local publication KirkukNow, Sheikh Ismail Hadidi said the detainees transferred were arrested for affiliation with IS between 2014 and 2017, when the Kurdish authorities had control over areas disputed between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad, and had been held in the PUK-run Maaskar Salam jail in Sulaimaniyah.
President Barham Saleh and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi were both aware of the agreement, he said. Hadidi, reportedly involved in the transfer as the president’s representative, stressed that Kadhimi’s government had pledged to determine where detainees and missing people are across the country.
Many armed groups linked to political parties are rumored to have secret prisoners that the federal government has no information on. Thousands are missing and presumably detained.
On May 24, Majeed told Al-Monitor via WhatsApp, however, that “many of the prisoners are IS terrorists” and releasing any who are could thus be a problem.
While the IS threat in these regions may be growing, there are also concerns among human rights activists about detentions without charges, and the use of prisons run by local or tribal authorities and PMU forces.
While the IS threat in these regions may be growing, there are also concerns among human rights activists about the use of detention without charges and prisons allegedly run by local authorities and PMU forces.
Those transferred are now expected to be tried and punished or released back into their home communities, which for many means the parts of southwestern Kirkuk in which the local tribal forces are among those responsible for security.