TIME Iraq

The Rise of ISIS Sows Mistrust Between Kurds and Sunni Arabs

A Kurdish peshmerga soldier looks out over the town of Makhmour from defensive positions, Aug. 11, 2014.
A Kurdish peshmerga soldier looks out over the town of Makhmour from defensive positions, Aug. 11, 2014. Sebastian Meyer—Corbis

While some Sunni Arabs have fought alongside the militants in Iraqi Kurdistan, others are being displaced by Kurds eager to take control of disputed regions

In his home in a village south of Erbil, Soran Sabir shows a video he took of what he says are two dead Islamist fighters.

“That is Saleh,” he says, pointing to the body of a young Arab man lying on the ground surrounded by Kurdish fighters. In this mixed Kurdish-Arab area, relations between the two groups had been relatively good in recent years. Sabir says Saleh was a good costumer, frequently visiting his motorcycle repair shop, and he considered him a friend. In June, when the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took Mosul, Saleh disappeared, said Sabir. The next time he saw him was when Kurdish fighters were battling ISIS to take back Makhmour. They brought the bodies of two militants back. One was Saleh.

“I was very happy to see him dead,” said Soran. What sense does it make, he continued, for someone like Saleh to support “some stranger from Afghanistan who came here to fight” — a reference to the large number of foreign jihadis fighting with ISIS in Iraq — and attack his own neighbors?

The fight against ISIS in villages like Makhmour where Kurdish and Sunni Arabs live side by side has raised tensions between the two groups. Kurds here suspect the Arab residents of co-operating with the militants, who have vowed to create an Islamic caliphate in the broad stretch of land they now occupy over Iraq and Syria.

Those suspicions are not unwarranted, said Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter. “As the Kurds have become more powerful, the tribes have had to decide if they are going to work with the Kurds or oppose them…now that they’ve got the opportunity to stand up to the Kurds, many of them are doing it.”

But the Kurds are standing up right back. After the Kurdish peshmerga retook the area after ISIS left, Arab residents were stopped from returning to their homes. Kurdish officials say the Arabs aren’t to be trusted, and that the mixed villages actually belong to Erbil. “They occupied our lands for 50 years, and then on such a bad day, they stab us in the back,” said Tariq Sarmami, a senior media advisor of the Kurdistan Parliament in Erbil. “That’s what creates this reaction.”

Arabs and Kurds have always shared the villages of Makhmour, but under Saddam Hussein more Arabs were resettled to these areas as part of his Arabization policies, in an attempt to alter the balance of demographics in mixed areas so that Baghdad could stake claim to the contested regions. When Saddam was ousted in 2003, a wave of Kurds returned to the villages and the current demographics are now contested.

Makhmour is one of the disputed areas outlined in section 140 of Iraq’s constitution, which mandates a referendum on whether the area should join the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, or remain under the control of Baghdad. That vote hasn’t yet been held. In the meanwhile, the residents have been living under two separate administrations; the national government in Baghdad, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Kurdish Erbil, which has been steadily making an administrative creep on the territory it sees as belonging to them.

“The Kurdification, or re-Kurdification has actually been an open policy of the KRG since 2003 onwards,” said Stansfield. The Kurds paid compensation to some Arab families to leave contested areas, but many chose to stay, particularly those from tribes that resided here long before Saddam’s Arabization policies. “There are definitely some Arabs that were brought there by the government of Iraq, but there are others that have their roots there,” said Stansfield.

Now, ISIS’s march through the region has allowed Kurdification to intensify. In a junction between Makhmour and Erbil, Garib Nihayet Ojel sits on the side of the road with his family, his daughter-in-law breastfeeding an infant in the sweltering heat. Ojel, an Arab from Tel-Abta, a village between Makhmour and Mosul, is trying to reach Makhmour, with the promise of work with a Kurdish farmer there.

“We can’t go back home,” said Ojel, who said he is looking for a safe place to take his family. “We escaped ISIS.”

The Kurds don’t see Ojel and his family as refugees of a war, but as a potential threat. “Tell them, Arab people are not allowed to enter these provinces,” said an officer of the Asayish, the Kurdish intelligence, stopping in the junction flanked with peshmerga soldiers. “It’s prohibited for them.”

“We are not fighters, we are not combatants, we are just families. We just want to find a safe place,” said Ojel’s wife. The officer accuses them of spying for ISIS. While officials say there are procedures in place to determine genuine threats, there seems to be little due process here.

The fear among Arabs now is that others like Ojel will never be allowed back to their villages, creating de-facto Kurdish control over the productive farm lands south of Erbil. “We should expect that the situation in the disputed territories will remain disputed even if the Kurds say that it’s Kurdish,” said Stansfield. “This is going to be a very significant flash point for some years to come.”

And for the Kurds, it’s not just these mixed villages that pose a threat to their demographics. Of the flood of Iraqi refugees who have come to Kurdish cities such as Erbil since fighting between ISIS and Iraqi national and Kurdish forces worsened, Christians have been warmly welcomed. Sunni Arabs, however, are often restricted to camps on the outskirts, eyed with suspicion by local Kurds.

“We regret taking them,” said Sarmami, sitting in his office in the Kurdish Parliament. “We regret that we accepted all these Arabs here. We accept them without having any plans.”

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