BAGHDAD — As a cold snap puts thousands of displaced people living in makeshift housing at risk, the Iraqi army has stepped up its attempts to restore full control over an area of the country known for a 2014 massacre by the Islamic State (IS) but rendered unstable by a multitude of armed factions operating in it.
Over a year after an agreement ordering armed groups to leave the Sinjar area, the Iraqi army on Jan. 18 arrested several fighters from a Yazidi armed group operating in the area and confiscated their weapons.
The fighters arrested were from the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), from whom they have received training, weaponry and ideological instruction.
The PKK has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
On Jan. 21, "the Yazidi youth" reportedly agreed to various demands made by the West Ninevah Operations Command, according to a statement sent to Al-Monitor.
Tension had been rising in recent months between the YBS and Iraqi security forces, which was further aggravated on Jan. 12 by the Iraqi army’s refusal to allow the YBS to install a statue of their former commander, Zardasht Shingali.
Shingali was reportedly killed in a Turkish airstrike on the village of Dugure, Ninevah, on Jan. 15, 2020, less than two weeks after both Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were assassinated by a US drone strike outside the Baghdad airport.
The YBS on Jan. 13 burned down an Iraqi army checkpoint in response to the army’s refusal to allow the statue to remain in the city, a local news outlet quoted the head of the Ninevah Operations Command as saying.
Sinjar is the historic homeland of the Yazidi ethnoreligious minority group and is located in northwestern Iraq near the Syrian border.
It was the scene of a massacre of thousands of Yazidis after IS took the area in 2014, two months after taking the capital of the Ninevah province, Mosul. The main city in the district was retaken by a massive operation involving Kurdish and Yazidi forces backed by the US-led coalition in November 2015, but thousands of its original inhabitants have not yet returned.
The Oct. 9, 2020, Sinjar agreement was signed between the central Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), aiming to put an end to disaccord over security arrangements and a lack of public services, in part by bringing in a unified administration. Many embassies and international organizations praised it.
Observers and locals had long complained that the confusing array of armed groups operating in the area was a major reason why many internally displaced persons had not returned.
After the signing of the accord, a Yazidi delegation had traveled to Baghdad to meet with PMU chief Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi.
The delegation requested the PMU’s help to ensure that local armed groups close to the PKK be allowed to continue operating.
The YBS remain allied with the PKK but have become part of the Iraqi government-salaried and Shiite-led PMU.
In early December 2021, the Iraqi army deployed to Sinjar following the YBS ordering all Iraqi government institutions except for the police department to shut down. The army and the YBS had clashed and YBS supporters had set fire to a military vehicle.
Ninevah Gov. Najim al-Jabouri had said then that all of the public offices in Sinjar would be reopened.
The YBS were originally created in 2007 but gained wider international attention during the fight against IS after the Yazidi community was targeted in 2014. The YBS also reportedly have an international wing with foreign fighters, apparently including some Americans, similar to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) across the border in Syria.
The YPG — which operate across the nearby border in northeastern Syria and fighters from which are known to cross in and out of Sinjar as well at unofficial border crossings — form the leadership and core of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The SDF are seen to have grown closer in recent months to the central Syrian government in Damascus, which is allied with Iran.
Both the YPG and the YBS claim that they do not follow PKK orders despite their closeness to them and their idealization of the historic, jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.
The PMU that the YBS have now become officially a part of, meanwhile, include brigades linked to factions considered Iran-linked and whose loyalty to the Iraqi state is often questioned.
A confusing rash of smaller groups that to all appearances are actually an integral part of the larger whole seem to be used by both the PKK and Iran-linked "muqawama" (resistance) factions for various purposes, including plausible deniability and in order to receive financial and political support.
Groups linked to the muqawama are thought to have been behind several recent but largely unclaimed attacks including at least five rockets being shot on Jan. 15 at the Zelikan Turkish military base near Bashiqa, also in Ninevah province.
As the PKK and Iran-linked armed factions have grown closer, the latter have stepped up both their messaging against and attacks on Turkish forces in Iraq.
Meanwhile, tension between the KRG and the PKK has been rising for years, as this journalist has reported multiple times.
An incident on Jan. 18 involving a pipeline transporting oil from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to Turkey’s Ceyhan port raised suspicion of yet another PKK attack on the energy infrastructure key to the KRG economy.
According to a KRG statement, “An explosion on Tuesday evening temporarily halted oil exports along the pipeline. However, these have now been resumed. The incident appears to have been the result of an electrical failure, with investigations by the KRG still ongoing.”
The PKK is known for attacking pipelines stretching from Kurdish regions in Iran and Iraq to Turkey, including a 2016 attack by a 25-year-old female suicide bomber on a pipeline between Iran and Turkey that the PKK claimed had killed 30 Turkish soldiers.
Implementation of the Sinjar agreement is meanwhile seen as being an essential step toward ensuring greater security in northern Iraq, enabling more Yazidis to return and preparing the ground for more reconstruction and investment in the area.