Tel Afar And North We Have Not Heard

Tel Afar and the North

We have not heard much lately about the US campaign in the northern, largely Turkmen city of Tel Afar. The city has been a perennial security problem. There is evidence of local Turkmen guerrilla groups cooperating with Arab guerrillas, and the city seems to be part of an underground railway for the infiltration of foreign jihadis from Syria. An informed observer with experience in Iraq explains the dynamics of ethnic and religious disputes in the Iraqi north, especially among the Turkmen:

“Quick clarification on your June 16th post regarding Tel Afar. The US and the Iraqi forces are having such a hard time because the Turkmen in Tel Afar are actually Sunni, not Shia’. They are nearly all Ottoman-era Sunni migrants, rather than Shia’ descendants of the Akqoyunlu and Karaqoyunlu tribes who make up a majority of Turkmen in Kirkuk.

While the Ba’ath used tribal proxies everywhere, they generally recruited “direct hires” in the security services from a much narrower base in specific communities. Nearly all Turkmen who had significant positions in Ba’ath security were from Tel Afar. Tel Afar had land conflicts with the Kurdish Mirani tribe – who were allies of Mustafa Barzani – and backed the government in the Kurdish wars of the 60’s and 70’s. Saddam subsequently recruited heavily in Tel Afar for Maktab al-Amin positions because many of them speak Kurdish. Tel Afar will remain an insurgent stronghold because it is historically as much a Ba’athist city as any city of the same size in al-Anbar.

The Turkmen-Kurdish conflict in Kirkuk is a little different. Unlike in Tel Afar, Turkmen in Kirkuk are unlikely to join the present insurgency because they really dislike both the Ba’athists and the Sunni jihadist types. The Turkmen in Kirkuk are a minor impediment to Kurdish control over the oil but the Kurds are more likely to repress them out of a fear of Turkish government influence. A Turkish special forces team attempted to assassinate the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk in July 2003, in coordination with Turkmen in the city. I’m convinced Kurdish abduction, torture and abuse of Turkmen is intended to intimidate alleged collaborators with Turkey rather than the insurgency. Make no mistake – the Kurds fully intend to be independent, even if it takes another decade. The Kurdish policy in Kirkuk is to control Turkish intrigue long enough for demographics to shift in their favor, without provoking Turkey to the point that they close the border. That occurred when the US accidentally arrested that Turkish hit squad.

. . . I have no doubt that the Kurds are abducting Turkmen, but I also have some suspicions about the objectivity of the [State Department memo] and the scale of the problem. Kurdish abduction and torture of Sunni Arabs is a much more serious problem, but neither the US nor Turkey are likely to protest too strongly. This conflict seems to be on an inevitable and tragic path towards a shadow war in which pesh mergha and the Badr Brigade – maybe wearing Iraqi uniforms, maybe not – start going after the insurgents using their own methods and tactics. Both the U.S. and Turkey have an incentive to draw the line if Turkmen are the victims . . .

I don’t support a “shadow war” in which the Kurds and the Shia’ political parties start fighting fire with fire. I think there needs to be pressure on them to prevent abuses, and I think there needs to be rigorous monitoring. But I hope I don’t give the impression of moral equivalence between the pesh mergha and Shia’ parties on the one side, and the former Ba’athist/jihadists on the other. The former are more responsive to public and international opinion and there’s a certain degree of internal self-control that usually places some limits on their behavior. Not to mention Sistani, who . . . deserves the Nobel Prize. The Ba’athists and jihadists are another matter . . .

Interesting history… Too bad the US doesn’t understand it.”

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