Following the fall of Kirkuk, Kurds believe that they are possibly facing prospects of ethnic cleansing and genocide at the hands of the Iraqi government and allied Shiite militias, both backed by Iran, Julie Lenarz, an expert on Kurdistan and Islamic extremism, said in a conference call on Wednesday.
Since the fall of Kirkuk last week, in which the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq lost roughly 40% of the territory it controlled, including three major oil fields, Kurdish homes have been targeted by looting.
“Shiite militia forces are committing war crimes against Kurdish civilians, they are forcing them from their homes, they are losing their homes. I’ve heard stories of torture and rape. Some of my sources on the ground say all shops have been closed. They marked Kurdish homes and Kurdish shops,” Lenarz, a senior fellow at The Israel Project and executive director of the London-based Human Security Centre, said. “So I can understand where the fear is coming from especially given the history that they’ve been through.”
Earlier in the call, Lenarz explained that the capture of Kirkuk by Iraqi forces aided by Iranian-backed militias, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), was prompted by three recent events. The first was the Kurdish independence referendum—supported by 93% of the population of the Kurdish Regional Government—on September 26. That was followed by the death of Jalal Talabani, leader of one of the two major Kurdish political parties and the only Kurd to serve as president of Iraq, on October 3. The third event that precipitated the capture of Kirkuk, was the speech by President Donald Trump on October 13, stating that he would not certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, and announcing that the United States would counter Iran’s aggression throughout the Middle East, including sanctioning the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.
On Sunday October 15 IRGC-Qods Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani traveled to Sulaimaniya and met with leaders of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or P.U.K., one of the two main Kurdish political parties, which is led by a Talabani’s family. Though ostensibly, Soleimani, who Lenarz described as leaving a “trail of death and destruction,” was mediating between the Kurds and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad.
There are two versions of what Soleimani conveyed to the P.U.K. leadership. It was either an ultimatum that they surrender and withdraw their forces from Kirkuk or face destruction at the hands of the Iraqi forces or a promise of Iranian support “internal Kurdish power struggle.”
Of greater significance than the motivation the P.U.K. withdrawal from Kirkuk, is that it was Soleimani who “exploited divisions inside of Iraqi Kurdistan, used the Kurds as war bait and then put Washington’s words to the test.” It was a test that the U.S. failed, Lenarz said.
Instead of standing by the Kurds who fought alongside U.S. troops in the battles against ISIS, and supported the U.S. for years, including against Saddam Hussein, the administration said in the aftermath of the capture of Kirkuk that it was not taking sides. But by allowing the Iranian aggression to stand without pushback, Lenarz said, the U.S. “took the side of the central government in Baghdad and by extension, also Iran.”
In 2014, the Kurdish peshmerga took control of Kirkuk from ISIS when the Iraqi troops fled. But now they lost Kirkuk to Iraqi troops, backed by Shiite militias aligned with Iran, ironically also armed with American weapons.
“By abandoning our Kurdish allies, Washington even legitimized this scheme by Soleimani,” Lenarz said, “so the Iranians are laughing off their faces in Tehran while the Kurds are humiliated and defeated.”
When asked why the U.S. would not support an independent Kurdish state, Lenarz answered that the current and previous administration believed that “a unified Iraq is the best way forward,” an idea she critiqued as “wishful thinking.”
In addition to supporting a unified Iraq, hesitancy to support Kurdish independence Lenarz said is “reinforced by the fight against Islamic State, because the absolute top priority for Washington and governments everywhere else is the defeat of the Islamic State.”
“In the fight against Islamic State we have lost track of the very severe implications that some of the allegiances that we have with other players on the ground,” Lenarz warned. “Islamic State isn’t the only force on the ground with a sectarian agenda. The Iranian-backed militias on the ground are in many ways just as sectarian as the Islamic State. They’ve been implicated in serious human rights violations by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.”
A complete recording of the call is embedded below.
[Photo: FRANCE 24 English / YouTube]