On Friday, July 11, as reported at the Kurdish English-language news portal Rudaw [Events], combat fighters representing the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, known as Peshmerga, occupied oil fields in Hassan and Makhmour, near the ethnically-mixed city of Kirkuk that the KRG occupied in mid-June. Rudaw asserted the KRG’s claim to the oil fields based on investment in and construction of the facilities by the regional authority. But the Kurdish source also argued it was necessary to protect the assets from the Baghdad government of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, which has challenged the right of the Kurds to extract and sell their oil for their own benefit.
Maliki outraged the KRG by alleging on July 9 that Erbil, the KRG capital, was a “headquarters” for the terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now calling itself simply “the Islamic State,” as well as Ba’ath party supporters of the late Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Baghdad prohibited air cargo flights into Erbil and the Kurdish city of Suleymaniya the following day after Kurdish ministers boycotted a cabinet meeting. KRG leaders called on Maliki to resign and, in retaliation, barred air traffic from the KRG to the Iraqi capital.
Iraqi Kurdistan is pressed both by the aggression of the ISIS and the tantrums of Maliki. The KRG said its takeover of Kirkuk rescued the city from ISIS. Interviewed by the pan-Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat[The Middle East] on July 10, Kurdish advocate Moayad Tayeb insisted, “ISIS is not in Erbil but . . . [is approaching] Baghdad, and if [Maliki] wants to fight and expel it, it is but a stone’s throw away from him.” Further, the KRG has become a refuge for Sunni and Shia Muslim refugees from the terrorist incursion, including Arabs and Turkmens from Mosul, now held by ISIS.
The fragility of the Iraq national government has impelled KRG president Massoud Barzani to announce a referendum in the “disputed territories” with large Kurdish communities, including Kirkuk, in addition to an eventual plebiscite on independence for Iraqi Kurdistan.
As a Shia politician, Maliki may seek, perhaps under Iranian pressure, to identify all Sunnis—including ISIS, which aims to establish an ultra-Wahhabi “caliphate,” non-radical Sunni opponents of the Maliki regime, and the majority of Kurds—as antagonists. But the KRG and Kurds in general are non-sectarian, comprising a Sunni majority, a Shia minority, and, in Turkey, the Shia-oriented, heterodox Alevi sect.
If most Iraqi Kurds are Sunnis, there ranks also include spiritual Sufis, who, like Shia Muslims, are considered apostates and heretics, marked for death by ISIS. The website of the “Islamic State” has posted images of the destruction of Sufi shrines and Shia meeting houses in the area of Iraq it has invaded.
The battle against Wahhabi terrorism is nothing new for the Iraqi Kurds. As the KRG official website points out, “Not a single coalition soldier died in Kurdistan during the Iraq war, nor has a single foreigner been kidnapped in the areas administered by the KRG. With the cooperation of citizens, the Kurdistan Region’s security forces have kept the area safe and stable.” Helped by U.S. Special Forces, the Iraqi Kurds defeated an al Qaeda affiliate, Ansar ul-Islam (Volunteers of Islam), made up of Arabs and Kurds. Ansar ul-Islam appeared in northeast Iraqi Kurdistan in 2001 and occupied villages in which it carried out a fundamentalist purge. The group devastated Sufi shrines and forced Kaka’is, a Kurdish group similar to the Turkish-Kurdish Alevis, to renounce their beliefs and “convert” or be killed. They imposed the Wahhabi beard on males and the face veil on females, banned music, television, and images of women in advertising, forbade women from schooling or employment, and carried out torture and beheadings, amputations, and similar acts.
Ansar ul-Islam was founded by a Wahhabi fanatic, Najmuddin Faraj Ahmad, who calls himself Mullah Krekar and has lived in Norway since 1991. Ansar ul-Islam was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government in 2004. Mullah Krekar was listed as an al Qaeda member or associate by the United Nations in 2006.
The KRG has demanded extradition of Mullah Krekar from his Norwegian exile, but the Oslo authorities have refused to hand him over, since he would face a probable death sentence for terrorism in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Norwegian law precludes surrender of accused criminals who might be subject to capital punishment. Nevertheless, Norway tried and sentenced Mullah Krekar to five years’ imprisonment in 2012 for threats to Norwegians and Kurds.
The KRG has significant problems with political and business cronyism—nothing unique in the Middle East or elsewhere—but is one of few Muslim-majority governments to conduct a serious campaign to eradicate the atrocity of female genital mutilation (FGM). In 2007, a law against FGM was introduced in the KRG parliament, and it was adopted in 2011 along with sanctions against child marriage, so-called “honor murders” and other abuses of women. A radical Kurdish Sunni cleric, Ismael Sussai, preached against elimination of FGM, but the legislation was passed. Meanwhile, a German-based charity, WADI—the Association for Crisis Assistance and Development Cooperation—had brought medical aid teams to Iraqi Kurdistan after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. WADI was approached by Kurdish women villagers who, against considerable peer pressure, complained about the horrors of FGM.
Since then, WADI has supported a campaign against FGM in the KRG and in other Iraqi areas with large Kurdish communities. In 2010, the KRG Health Ministry released a plan to eradicate FGM and appealed to Islamic clergy to disallow the practice.
Once the 2011 law was passed, the German-based group observed that enforcement of it was difficult. KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani then condemned violence against women as a widespread social problem, and called for enforcement of the recent ordinances. He criticized religious leaders whose views he described as contrary both to Islam and to the principles of the KRG, and admitted that some judicial institutions had failed to implement the reforms.
In June 2014, Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, WADI director in Iraq, declared in an interview that the anti-FGM campaign had noticeable success in the KRG, which he credited to the change beginning in 1991. “Saddam Hussein lost power here back in 1991. There is a relative degree of freedom,” von der Osten-Sacken said. Of course, the change in Iraqi Kurdistan came about because of the U.S. policy, adopted by President George H.W. Bush, of protecting the Kurds against air patrols by Saddam’s forces.
“FGM-free” villages have appeared throughout the KRG, along with school transportation for girls. Von der Osten-Sacken said, “slowly but surely, attitudes are changing towards both FGM and other forms of oppression against women, such as honor killings.”
Whether independence, through a referendum, would be the right outcome for the Iraqi Kurds will doubtless be debated. But geopolitical and economic reasons to help the KRG against ISIS and to prevent arbitrary interference in its affairs by the Maliki government are plentiful.