On Iraq’s 'Road of Death'

Mouchreq Abbas reports from Tuz Khurmatu, the scene of recent clashes between Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga forces along the road from Erbil to Baghdad, aka the “Road of Death.”

al-monitor Workers add Turkmen language translations to traffic signs that were originally written in Arabic, Kurdish and English after Turkmen demands in Kirkuk, some 250 km (150 miles) north of Baghdad December 2, 2010. Photo by REUTERS/Ako Rasheed.

Topics covered

peshmerga, nouri al-maliki, iraqi kurds, erbil declaration, erbil

Nov 28, 2012

On a narrow, bumpy street, thousands of vehicles mass and collide on a daily basis in their attempts to traverse the link connecting Baghdad with Erbil. Their drivers make stops in the town of Tuz Khurmatu in search of a quick meal before resuming their trips along the corridor that has become known as the “Death Road.”

Inhabitants of Tuz Khurmatu speak the Kirkuk dialect of Arabic, which is a mixture of Turkmen, Kurdish and Arabic, although everyone in Iraq understands and shares the common language of deprivation, poverty and fear of political ventures.

Serious clashes have erupted lately between Iraqi governmental and Kurdish troops on the only road connecting Baghdad with Erbil in Tuz Khurmatu. As a result, one Turkmen police officer died and eleven were wounded. Tuz Khuramtu is not a city in the classical sense of the word, for its most important landmarks are various restaurants that cater to voyagers halfway along the road between the Arab and Kurdish parts of Iraq.

Tuz Khurmatu is Turkish for “salt and dates,” and is composed of a mixture of Sunni and Shia Turkmen, Kurdish and Arab inhabitants. Throughout Iraq’s modern history it has been a waystation for voyagers and cargo-truck caravans alike.

Although the town is now separated from the Arab al-Azim province by the famous Hamreen Hills, and is situated within the Salahuddin governorate, whose seat has been in Tikrit since 1976, it was previously administratively attached to Kirkuk. No Iraqi can deny that its cultural milieu and diversity are closely related to that of Kirkuk, keeping in mind that its boundaries cross into both Diyala and Kirkuk governorates.

Military buildup

Since 2003, all travelers between Baghdad and Erbil know that the Hamreen Hills form a natural boundary for the Diyala governorate and are where Kurdish influence begins and the central government's security control ends.

Gradually, as one passes through the villages of Amerli, Bastamli, Suleiman Beik and Dakouk, the language spoken on checkpoints changes and the facial features, clothing and dialects of the inhabitants change as well. But that fact did not spare the region from insecurity, and it fell victim to its sectarian and ethnic differences leading to assassinations, bombings and wanton killings.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently announced the formation of the Dajla Operations military command, which encompasses both the Diyala and Kirkuk governorates, Tuz Khurmatu stood as a natural barrier that prevented the arrival of new troops from Diyala to Kirkuk, which led to the decision to add all of Salahuddin governorate to the unified command, primarily for logistical reasons.

The main problem was not the formation of Iraqi commands to administer security in a number of governorates, for such a move had already been espoused in the central Euphrates region which encompasses the Najaf, Karbala and Babil governorates, and in the southern Iraqi governorates of Basra, Dhi Qar and Maysan.

The problem was the sensitive situation in the areas under dispute between Baghdad and Erbil, especially Kirkuk, leading to escalation from both sides.

Travellers between Erbil and Baghdad are sure to notice the clear military buildup of Kurdish Peshmerga troops in the areas north and east of Kirkuk, and that of governmental forces in its south. The weapons on display, ranging from tanks and artillery to anti-aircraft missiles, are also indicators of the growing danger of a conflict erupting in the region.

It would seem, based on political statements from both sides, that the respective armies are ready for war. They are further emboldened by the Iraqi constitution, which gives the central government the right to deploy federal police and not military forces to the region, but at the same time, affords the disputed areas special status until the disputes get settled.

The roads of death

In this crisis, Tuz Khurmatu is better compared to a medieval village that has been struck by an earthquake; its roads are primitive and in a state of disrepair and its houses are old and crumbling, covered in dust from passing trucks on a single-lane street that past governments have failed for decades to transform into a two-lane road.

Incidentally, the passage linking Erbil with Baghdad 380 kilometers away is called the “death road” not only because it saw an inordinate number of kidnappings and killings during the civil war, but also because daily traffic accidents reap the lives of those using it. Another road linking Tuz Khurmatu with Tikrit has garnered the same moniker for the same reasons, although its official name is “Tarik al-Iz,” Glory Road.

The villages surrounding Tuz Khurmatu are linked by many common factors such as language, history and culture. But their most important shared trait these days is fear, for any clash between the two opposing armies on the border would undoubtedly lead to the whole region being transformed into a battle zone, the consequences of which no one can afford.

People’s discussions give new meaning to the word “catastrophe,” which is on everybody’s lips in Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu. To them, confrontation means more than military clashes because they know that the social consequences of such an eventuality, and the ethnic variety of the inhabitants, might transform every street into a front line of battle.

But a boisterous discussion between travellers waiting at a Tuz Khurnatu restaurant for the road to reopen five hours after being closed as a result of the Dajla Operations revealed that the populace’s view was quite different from that of politicians.

Hussein, who was on his way back to Baghdad after having spent his honeymoon with his wife in Suleimaniya, said, “Security in Kurdistan is much better than we’re used to in Baghdad, and the people there don’t give war a second thought, so what is going on?”

A Kurdish man in his forties coming from Erbil said, “They are concocting things in secret; we are but fodder for their plans.”

A Yazidi restaurant worker chimed in: “I have been moving from one place to another for years in search of a job. In Mosul, and in my home village, Yazidism has become an accusation. War might erupt here and I’ll become unemployed again.”

A voice in the back of the room angrily added: “What do the Kurds want? Why do they prevent the army from accomplishing its task?”

A Kurdish man replied, “When has your army truly performed its tasks, unless its only task is to kill us? Al-Maliki wants to divert attention away from his government’s corruption by opening a front with Kurdistan.”

The Arab voice defended its view by saying, “You forget Kurdistan’s rampant corruption. Oil is sold at a quarter of its true price, and the [political] parties own everything.”

The argument between the two men escalated to a shouting and cursing match. But it quickly ended when a group of Tuz Khuramtu inhabitants intervened, with one of them saying, “Be quiet, you don’t know anything. You talk about war because you see it on television screens. Here, we live with war every day of our lives. We know that we are the ones who will pay its price. You talk about oil, but don’t ask about the people. You are exactly like the politicians who lead you.”

The man’s voice grew even louder so that all could hear him say, “Have you asked yourselves why our children run in the streets to sell you gas cans for your luxury cars? Why our elderly work in toxic cement and brick factories, paying for their jobs with their lives? You wretches, will your tough talk and actions change the reality that we live in?”

Silence then, and the belligerents dispersed as news spread that the road had reopened. Children busily gathered around the passing cars to wipe their windshields in the hope of receiving some reward; tire-repair shop owners prayed for blowouts and a fifty-something policeman lazily kept an eye on the road as he awaited the end of his shift.

The old tired houses grew smaller and the dust dissipated as we moved away onto the arid terrain that morphed into far-off rocky mountains. And nothing broke the horizon except military vehicles, lots and lots of them.

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