EXCLUSIVE FROM IRAQ: Harmeet Sooden on Iraqi Kurdistan and New Zealand’s Military Deployment

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Harmeet Sooden in Iraq.

Analysis by Harmeet Sooden – Exclusive to EveningReport.nz.

Harmeet Sooden in Iraq.
Harmeet Sooden in Iraq.

I AM CURRENTLY WORKING for Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an international human rights NGO that is supporting local and international bodies responding to the humanitarian crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan. The crisis is the result of the large influx of internally displaced persons and Syrian refugees fleeing the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. CPT has had a presence in Iraq since 2002 at the behest of local NGOs – first in Baghdad and then, in Iraqi Kurdistan from 2006.

CPT supports a number of projects out of its office in Sulaimani (Sulaymaniyah), a major city in southern Iraqi Kurdistan. I am working on a social cohesion project documenting and assessing the growing ethno-sectarian tensions in and around IDP camps, in order to provide recommendations to aid agencies and local authorities on how to alleviate these tensions. I have been working in Arbat IDP Camp near Sulaimani, which houses mainly Arab, Yezidi and Shabak communities. One human rights worker has described the tensions as “a tinder box”.

Aid agencies have expressed concern over the rising number of IDPs at Arbat IDP Camp. With a planned capacity of just 1000 families, the camp currently houses almost 2900 IDP families (17,300 persons). In some instances, several families have been sharing a single tent. Most IDPs in the camp arrived with very few belongings and remain in need of humanitarian assistance. The state of WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene), shelter, education, and access to healthcare are of paramount concern. A large number of humanitarian projects are being scaled back and are at risk of shut down entirely, due to a shortage of funding. Accidental fires in the camp have claimed several lives recently, mainly children. Complicating matters further, there have been outbreaks of leishmaniasis and other skin ailments in the camp. Transmission of disease appears to be facilitated by overcrowding and high tent density.

The number of IDPs and refugees in Iraq is increasing. Civilians are being displaced both when ISIS takes over territory and when ISIS-held territory is retaken by Iraqi forces backed by the US-led coalition. The situation is dire.

The current security situation for CPT and other humanitarian organisations working in the Sulaimani region is relatively good: human rights workers are able to carry out their work free from any hindrance or fear. However, the situation is volatile and could change at any time. The frontline is about 100km away, near Kirkuk. Most airlines flying into northern Iraq from the south have suspended all flights for security reasons. There remain concerns about ISIS sleeper cells within Iraqi Kurdistan, but so far there is no evidence of ISIS activity in the places where CPT is working (though there are rumours of an ISIS presence). There is some minimal support for ISIS even among Iraqi Kurds – a few are even fighting with ISIS.

In the absence of opinion polls, it is difficult to develop a clear picture of what people in the region are thinking. However, over the course of the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak informally with local Iraqi Kurds (the host community), IDPs and Syrian refugees; and with humanitarian workers and human rights defenders, both local and international.

Anecdotally speaking, the main challenge that seems to be confronting the population of Iraqi Kurdistan, including displaced persons, is the severe shortfall of funding for the economic and security crises.

Underlying the humanitarian crisis is an economic crisis. As a result of the Syrian conflict and the ISIS crisis, the Iraqi Kurdistan population has increased by almost 30%, placing a strain on the local economy, host community, and access to public services. For the past year, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has not received all of its customary 17% of Iraq’s total nationwide budget from Central Government of Iraq to cover KRG expenditures. Furthermore, the KRG is incurring additional costs in maintaining a full mobilisation of peshmerga to fight ISIS and supporting nearly 1.4 million displaced Iraqis and Syrians.

A recent World Bank report indicates prices and unemployment have increased in Iraqi Kurdistan. The report mentions that refugees and IDPs entering the labour market is leading to decreasing wages. The fighting has resulted in a disruption of trade routes and the operations of foreign corporations and state-funded projects, and a decline in foreign investment – all leading to a negative impact on the economy.

Most people seem to agree that the US-led coalition ought to provide more funding for the humanitarian crisis so aid agencies can do their jobs properly. There is almost universal recognition that the current conflict is a result of US policy. Those under direct threat from ISIS in Iraq seem to be grateful for US-led airstrikes that have checked ISIS’s advance into their territories.

In terms of the security situation, local Kurds generally say they want the US-led coalition to provide more funding for the peshmerga who are severely underpaid and ill-equipped. A very small number of peshmerga are receiving training from members of the US-led coalition. Kurds say they want direct weapon transfers from the international community for the peshmerga rather than the trickle they are currently receiving. Some Kurds believe there is a restriction on weapons transfers because the US and the central government of Iraq do not wish to see a too independent and influential Iraqi Kurdistan. Incidentally, Iraqi Kurdistan has roughly doubled its territorial holdings since the rise of ISIS in Iraq.

There was a real fear last summer amongst Kurds that ISIS would capture all of Iraqi Kurdistan. Since the entry of the US-led coalition into the war, the fear has subsided, but not entirely. The host community appears to be very concerned about ISIS infiltrators and sleeper cells. As a result anti-Arab sentiment and communal tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan are increasing. Arabs, especially men, have difficulties entering Iraqi Kurdistan. The KRG has stepped up security, more so after the bombing attacks near the US consulate in Erbil on 17 April 2015. For example, checkpoints have become more stringent. Most Kurds say they do not see any indication of ISIS weakening at this stage.

Broadcast media is constantly showing the frontline along Iraqi Kurdistan, where ISIS and its affiliates are clashing with the peshmerga backed by US-led airstrikes and at times accompanied by the Iraqi security forces and Shi’a militias. Young children can often be seen wearing peshmerga uniforms, reflecting the society’s growing reverence to peshmerga, which is being cultivated by the KRG and its media outlets. Funerals of peshmerga have become more frequent. While I have been here, an acquaintance of CPT lost a cousin to ‘friendly fire’. There is understandably much animosity in Iraqi Kurdistan towards those fighting with ISIS. However, a Spanish citizen, who is volunteering for the peshmerga as a sniper, described ISIS fighters he has encountered in battle near Kirkuk as experienced soldiers and highly trained.

Iraqi Kurds also face internal political repression at the hands of their own government, the KRG.

IDPs and refugees say they do not know what the future holds for them in Iraqi Kurdistan. They cannot return to their homes, and many say they want asylum in Western countries, which they see as a safe haven for their families.

Yezidi IDP families, who have suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS, told CPT they would like to return to their homes in Sinjar, but can only do so if there is a UN-mandated force to protect them. While acknowledging the role of US airstrikes in aiding their escape when ISIS attacked, they say do not trust anyone at all, except the PKK who truly helped them. The PKK is listed as a designated terrorist entity by a number of Western countries, including the US and New Zealand. A Yezidi community leader said he believed US policy is the root cause of the current conflict and if he had the power he would put the US on trial. On 30 April 2015, he told us that he had heard rumours that ISIS would soon be executing hundreds of male Yezidi captives. The BBC reported 300 Yezidis had been executed the following day (on 1 May 2015). Some were relatives of the people in the IDP camp.

The main fighting in the country is taking place in territory under ISIS control or where ISIS is currently active, which roughly corresponds to the areas inhabited predominantly by Arab Sunnis. CPT has heard that some civilians in ISIS-controlled areas think of ISIS and affiliated groups as resistance fighters defending against an invading Iraqi army backed by Iran and the US-led coalition. Some Sunni IDPs believe that the partition of Iraq into three territories is the only viable settlement that could provide their people with a measure of security.

According to major aid agencies, both the strategy of the US-led coalition and the severe shortfall in funding are exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the region. If this trend continues, it might be catastrophic for people across Iraq. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has stated that US-led “air strikes in Iraq and Syria have compounded the humanitarian consequences of the conflicts in both countries.” Both the ICRC and the UN World Food Programme warn the coalition strategy to retake ISIS-held population centres could greatly worsen the humanitarian crisis.

Human rights organisations continue to implicate the Iraqi Government and government-backed militias in war crimes and in exacerbating sectarian tensions. Amnesty International has accused the Iraqi Government of committing war crimes, “notably the widespread killings by paramilitary Shi’a militias” in the Kirkuk area, “in cooperation with or at least with the tacit consent of Kurdish Peshmerga forces”. Human Rights Watch has implicated Kurdish forces in “apparently unlawful conduct”, of having “confined thousands of Arabs in ‘security zones’ in areas of northern Iraq that they have captured since August 2014” and having “destroyed dozens of Arab homes”.

According to the organisation Iraq Body Count (IBC), “[t]he rise of [ISIS] as a major force in the conflict, as well as the military responses by the Iraqi Government and the re-entry of US and Coalition air forces into the conflict, have all contributed to the elevated death tolls” in Iraq in the year 2014.

The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) has stated “there is ‘general agreement,’ not just in the UN but in Iraq as well, that the security element of dealing with [ISIS] is [just] one part of the solution…to the problems facing the country”, but “an inclusive political process [is] vital to finding comprehensive solutions”.

New Zealand should place the welfare of the Iraqi people, especially those under direct attack by New Zealand’s coalition partners, ahead of its own national interests, and not take part in a military campaign that is increasing the level of violence and worsening the humanitarian crisis in the region. As a “responsible international citizen” and member of the UN Security Council, New Zealand should work independently of the US-led coalition and push for a UN-mandated mission to address the ISIS threat, while at the same time increasing its humanitarian aid contributions and intensifying diplomatic efforts.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Click here for a chronology of links to media coverage of Harmeet Sooden’s work on the conflict in Iraq, Kurdistan, and Syria.

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues.
Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia’s FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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