KIRKUK, Iraq — Kamel Ali Abbas, a Kurd, joined the Iraqi army in 2004, when it was being rebuilt following the US-led invasion. An artillery sergeant and a Kirkuk native, Abbas took part in the battle for Mosul in 2016-17, fighting with his fellow soldiers, allied militias of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) alongside other Kurds in the peshmerga against the Islamic State (IS). Now the army and the PMU are fighting the peshmerga.
“The PMU were coming in with the sound of bombardments,” Abbas, using a pseudonym for his protection, told Al-Monitor via WhatsApp call while explaining why he moved his family from Kirkuk to Erbil for their safety at the start of clashes between Iraqi and Kurdish forces, which began Oct. 16. “Had it not been for my children, I would have stayed as a soldier. But for them I had to leave."
With the Baghdad government and the Kurdistan Regional Government having turned their guns against one another, Abbas and other Kurds in the Iraqi army fear the potential of reprisals from both sides and for their jobs.
Abbas has worried about his job security in the Iraqi army since the Sept. 25 Kurdistan independence referendum. “People who voted 'yes' may be kicked out,” he said. “If I’m kicked out, I must prove I didn’t vote and am loyal so I can stay.”
Believing that Iraqi Kurdistan lacks the infrastructure for a state at present, Abbas did not vote in the referendum. He said that he expected consequences for the Kurdistan Region for holding the vote, and he has been proven to be right. In addition to Baghdad's move to retake control of Kirkuk, the national government has issued arrest warrants for members of the Kurdistan electoral committee.
As a Kurd in the Iraqi army, Abbas fears harsh treatment from both the PMU and the Kurdish community. “When I go through a Kurdish checkpoint and say I’m with the Iraqi army, they look down on me and ask why a Kurd is serving in the Iraqi army.”
If a full-blown war breaks out between Kurds and other Iraqis, Abbas said, he will flee, not only out of a refusal to kill Kurds, but for his life. Following the Iraqi forces' swift victory in Kirkuk, Abbas felt some of his angst alleviated. “I’m in contact with Kurdish soldiers in the army,” he said. “There are no problems for them and they’re on duty.” Abbas has since returned to Kirkuk and has mostly worked near Mosul this year.
Kurdish troops have left the Iraqi army in waves at various times, according to reporting by Kurdistan 24, including in 2007 when some joined the peshmerga, in 2011 after the US withdrawal from the country and in 2014 following the Iraqi army’s routing by IS. The Kurds were allowed to form up to 20% of Ministry of Defense and military positions after 2003, but their numbers stayed at 5-10%, according to Kurdistan 24.
Abbas, like others, joined the army because it was a job. At the time that he joined, the peshmerga were requiring fighters to also join a Kurdish political party, which he did not want to do, preferring to remain independent. For now, he plans to stay in the service despite tensions and clashes between the Kurdistan Region and Iraq.
This tension is, of course, being felt by other Kurds in the army. An Iraqi army administrator in Mosul originally from Erbil told Al-Monitor that he fears the sectarian tension is growing because of the recent conflict. Aras Ahmad, preferring a pseudonym for his safety, told Al-Monitor, “The Kurds in Iraq have no future.”
Ahmad joined the Iraqi army in 2005, seeking to be part of the Kurdish future in Iraq post-Saddam Hussein. Things have now soured, and like Abbas, Ahmad fears for his job. He said Kurdish politicians have left or have been asked to leave the government because of the referendum, pointing to former Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin Karim, whom the Iraqi parliament voted to remove from office. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Vice President Kosrat Rasul was issued an arrest warrant for allegedly calling Iraqi troops in Kirkuk “occupying forces.” The Iraqi parliament drew up a list of parliamentarians who voted "yes" in the referendum to suspend them; however, the suspension was rejected by the supreme court.
On Oct. 29, KRG President Massoud Barzani confirmed he would be stepping down Nov. 1, amid fallout from the vote.
It is unclear what will happen to the Kurds in the Iraqi army should the KRG declare independence down the road. They could be an asset to a future Kurdish military, particularly if they develop an air force.
“There are Kurdish commanders in the Iraqi air force, some trained in the United States,” peshmerga commander Sartib Hassary told Al-Monitor from the K1 base during the Hawija offensive. Hassary said he has hopes Kurdistan will gain an air force.
Kamal Kirkuki, another peshmerga commander in the battle for Hawija, told Al-Monitor, “We will open our arms to people who come back to us,” referring to any Kurds leaving the Iraqi army.
Kirkuk province, where Hassary and Kirkuki served, is now under the control of the Iraqi national forces and the PMU, following the clashes with the peshmerga. The fighting there and in other disputed areas prompted the KRG to suspend the results of the independence referendum Oct. 25 and call for a cease-fire and dialogue with Baghdad. On Oct. 27, Iraq and the Kurdistan Region came to a cease-fire agreement.
The retaking of Kirkuk by Iraq constituted a crucial victory for national forces. As joyous as it was for many Iraqis, it was equally calamitous for many of the city’s Kurds, who call Kirkuk their “Jerusalem.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called on the armed forces to “protect citizens of different sects in Kirkuk” at the start of the fighting, but Abbas sees it differently. “The Kurdish community will be second-class in Kirkuk,” he said, reflecting a fear among some Kurds about their future under the central government.
Despite fighting between Kurdish brethren and the state he serves, for Abbas, and other Kurds in the Iraqi army, at the end of the day being in the military is a job. “What should I do?” he asked. “Let’s not forget this is my only source of income. I can’t leave it.”