Kurdish Peshmerga engineers stand near their armoured vehicles near Mosul, as Kurdish and Iraqi forces prepare to fight IS. Photograph: (Getty)
After Shias, Sunnis, Peshmergas, Christians and Yazidis fight IS to reconquer Mosul, they need to come together. It will not be easy
“If you have this, no problem,” says the driver, pointing at the wooden rosary hanging from the rearview mirror. He kisses it, looks up, and makes the sign of the cross.
“What do you mean?”
“If you are Christian in Kurdistan, checkpoint makes no problem”
“And if you are Muslim?”
“Depends. If Kurdish Muslim, no problem. If Arab Muslim, big problem.”
This exchange reveals much about Iraq. This is a country where myriad tribes, religions, and ethnic groups coexist but the outlook of their members is shaped by the group they belong to.
A quick look at the armed groups currently fighting to reconquer Mosul, Islamic State's last stronghold in Iraq, gives one a fair idea of the matter.
The Peshmerga, Kurdish soldiers from the northern semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, are attacking the city’s outskirts from the north. They are all Kurds but there are divisions within their ranks, based on the party with which they are affiliated. For example, there is the Kurdistan Democratic Party of President Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by the first non-Iraqi to be president of the country – Jalal Talabani – from 2005 to 2014. And the Kurdish Communist Party (PKK), an unofficial group based out of the mountains bordering Iran, has its own militia too.
The Iraqi regular army is attacking the city from the south. It is a national army, but there are deep divisions within its ranks. It has both Shia and Sunni components, a division that soldiers tend to display openly – it is common for example to come across Iraqi military vehicles flying Shia flags.
The Yazidis, an ethnic minority mainly based out of the western Iraqi Sinjar province, have their own militia, as do the Ka’kais, a religious minority mainly based out of areas surrounding the city of Kirkuk. The Assyrian Christians too have their own militia, formed with the aim of protecting their villages once Islamic State is defeated.
A melting pot, now divided
Iraq has always been a cultural mosaic. The country, like most of West Asia, has been a melting pot of all the major ancient civilisations. Living together for centuries, they gave rise to a rich cultural environment. One sees that clearly while walking the streets of Iraq's cities today – different faces, languages, clothes, sunni and shia mosques, churches, and temples.
One of the many problems Islamic State brought to the region was the threat it posed to Iraq's social fabric, the respectful coexistence of its different cultures. (Many identify the terrorist organisation as a product of the Sunni population, and commonly blame the entire community for its rise.)
The mistrust, if not racism, of many Kurds is directed at both Sunni and Shia Arabs. “I don’t mean to be racist, but Arabs are not people you can trust,” is a common sentence in Kurdistan.
The attitude is largely a consequence of Saddam’s dictatorship, its systematic mass murders of Kurds and the attempt at a full Arabisation of Iraqi society.
Christians seem to be tolerated, at least in Iraqi Kurdistan. But sections of the Christian population treat the Kurds in the same way the Kurds treat the Arabs. “Before, when Saddam was here, he wanted us to become all Arabs. They changed the name of our ancestors' cities. Now we are suffering the Kurd-isation of our society: the regional government wants us to be Kurds. We are not, we are Assyrian and they are trying to destroy our culture once again,” says Ultra Khado, spokesperson of the Nineveh Plan Protection Unit, a Christian militia formed in 2014 after Islamic State took control of several Christian towns in the vicinity of Mosul, where the majority of their soldiers come from.
“We don’t trust the central government, because when the Islamic State came to our villages, there was no one to protect us.”
The Arabs themselves are very divided, and not only into Shia and Sunni components. Iraq is also a highly tribal society and the outlook of the tribes adds to the already existing divisions.
The divergence between the Shias and Sunnis might have its origins in differeing interpretations of Islam, but politics has added to the hostility. After all, Saddam's Sunni-led regime oppressed all of Iraq's other groups for 30 years.
The 2003 US-led war divided Iraqi society further. It overthrew Saddam’s regime without providing a reliable replacement, nor a plan to manage the country. That led to years of sectarian violence, dividing Iraqi society even more, and giving terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and Islamic State the opportunity to present themselves as political alternatives to the chaos the Americans left in their wake.
So Kurds are suspicious of Arabs. (The several Kurdish parties exercise influence in different cities, and control different checkpoints.) Shiite Arabs are suspicious of Sunni Arabs. The Christians are suspicious of both Arabs and Kurds. And the Yazidi don’t trust anybody. And every group has a well-armed militia ready to defend what they consider to be their land.
NGOs talk of an “obstacle to return” – families are refusing to return home because their towns or villages have been liberated by a faction that they consider hostile. Sunni families, for example, will not return if Shiite militias now control their homelands and vice versa. The situation is dangerously reminiscent of what happened in the Balkans after the fall of Yugoslavia.
For the time being, the one common enemy is keeping all the armed factions of Iraqi society together. But once it is defeated, everybody will raise a claim and it will not be easy to manage.