National Security

Kurds Clash With Iran-Backed Militia in Northeast Iraq

U.S. observers see battle as continuation in turf battle between Tehran and Coalition forces

Kurdish tanks / Courtesy of Turkmen Rescue Foundation
Kurdish tanks / Courtesy of Turkmen Rescue Foundation

A fierce battle between Kurdish forces and Turkmen Shia fighters in the northern Iraqi city of Tuz-Khurmatu threatens to subvert the pro-forma alliance of an Iran-backed Shia militia and Kurds against ISIS troops just a few kilometers away.

The mountainous region near Iraq’s northeastern border with Iran has been a bone of contention between Kurds, Turkmen Shia fighters, and ISIS since jihadi troops briefly occupied it and were pushed out two years ago.

The regional army of Kurdistan, the Peshmerga, began firing into Tuz-Khurmatu’s sports hall on Saturday, April 23. When the Turkmen Hashd al Shaabi Unit returned fire, the Peshmerga brought in a column of five tanks and began firing on Turkmen armored vehicles, as well as schools and residences occupied by Turkmen residents, according to Dr. Ali Al Bayati.

The battle, which continued until Sunday afternoon, claimed the lives of six Peshmerga soldiers, including two commanders, and up to 40 Turkmen Shia fighters as well as several Turkmen women and children caught in the crossfire, according to Kurdistan’s Bas News. Wounded Turkmen fighters in ambulances were intercepted by Peshmerga and removed from the vehicles, according to Al Bayati, who advocates for the Turkmen Shia Hashd al Shaabi.

"From Saturday evening until morning of Sunday, the Kurdish militia fired more than 150 mortar shells, and by Sunday morning they brought five Tanks and 10 hummers to attack the people in the city," says Al Bayati.

Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani called upon all combatants to withdraw from the city today, but it is still under fire. Peshmerga snipers killed a policeman and an elderly civilian Tuesday evening, wrote Al Bayati, who added, "The Kurdish militia fighting in Tuz are mainly a Kurdish political faction out of Massoud Barzani’s control."

"We're deeply saddened by the latest tensions and clashes in Tuz Khurmatu leading to the death of civilians and Peshmerga, and tensed the situation in the area" Barzani’s press statement reads.

Barzani called on Kurdish authorities and Peshmerga officials to launch talks with the officials of Hashd al-Shaabi in order to restrain those who are attempting to provoke aggressions in Tuz Khurmatu, according to the statement.

Tuz-Kurmutu was the eastern-most limit of the ISIS advance in August 2014 when the regular Iraqi army retreated south. Kurdish Peshmerga and Iranian-supplied militias acting under the authority of Baghdad pushed ISIS out in 2014 but the control of the city remains contested between the Turkmen Shia Hashd and Kurdish Peshmerga who occupy the city center.

United States observers see the conflict as part of a continuing turf battle between Tehran and the Coalition forces deployed against ISIS.

"Tehran is acting in its own interest. Its involvement with the Shia militia in Tuz helps maintain an avenue of approach to Kirkuk," says Ernie Audino, a former U.S. Army Brigadier General embedded with the Peshmerga in 2006. "Iran has a motivation to maintain this footprint to promote Shia influence in the region."

The stakes are high for all contenders since Iraq’s richest oil field surrounds the city of Kirkuk and extends in a corridor of pools all the way across Iraq to Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. The oil resources in that field are only matched by the reservoirs in the Arabian Peninsula.

"The issue in Iraq now isn’t just ISIL but a post-ISIL strategy that ensures that the kind of flare up we saw in Tuz-Khurmatu doesn’t result in a full-scale conflict between Kurds, Sunni’s and Shia," says Max Primorac, a former senior U.S. adviser to the Iraqi government during the U.S. occupation. "Without this strategy the liberation of Mosul could turn into a bloody three-way fight."