News / Middle East

Iraq Kurds Reach Out to Baghdad to Fight Surging al-Qaida

An Iraqi man carries the body of his son, who was killed by a car bomb attack, during a funeral in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Aug. 15, 2013.
An Iraqi man carries the body of his son, who was killed by a car bomb attack, during a funeral in Najaf, south of Baghdad, Aug. 15, 2013.
Reuters
When hundreds of al-Qaida fighters in armored trucks attacked the northern Iraqi town of Shirqat with machine guns last week, the local army unit called for backup and set off in pursuit.
 
But after a two-hour chase through searing desert heat, most militants vanished into a cluster of Kurdish villages where the Iraqi army cannot enter without a nod from regional authorities.
 
It was just one example of how distrust between the security forces of Iraq's central government and of its autonomous Kurdish zone helps the local wing of al-Qaida, the once-defeated Sunni Islamist insurgents who are again rapidly gaining ground, a year and a half after U.S. troops pulled out.
 
“We had to wait more than two hours to get the required permission to go after them,” an Iraqi military officer who took part in the operation 300 km [190 miles] north of Baghdad said. “While were we waiting, they simply disappeared.”
 
The Shi'ite-led Iraqi government and Kurdish authorities are now looking at examples like the Shirqat attack and considering the once unthinkable - launching joint security operations and sharing intelligence - to combat the common enemy of al-Qaida.
 
Such cooperation has been extremely rare since U.S. troops left at the end of 2011, while the central government and the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region in the north have been locked in an increasingly hostile dispute over land and oil.
 
That the two sides are publicly contemplating working together underlines how worried they are about the insurgency and the threat of Iraq slipping back into all-out sectarian war.

‘Open war’
 
The conflict in neighboring Syria and discontent among Iraq's minority Sunnis has dramatically escalated the threat posed by al-Qaida in the past year, leading to violence unseen in Iraq since the height of the U.S.-led war five years ago.
 
​Al-Qaida fighters, who once held sway over most of Iraq's Sunni areas until they were beaten by U.S. and Iraqi troops and their local tribal allies during the “surge” campaign of 2006-2007, are again on the ascendant.
 
Last year they merged with a powerful Islamist rebel group in neighboring Syria, forming the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The combined group controls whole swathes of territory on both sides of the frontier and is fighting Kurds and Shi'ites alike in its goal of setting up a strict Sunni Islamist state across the heart of the Middle East.
 
People gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Kirkuk, 250 kilometers north of Baghdad, Iraq, Aug. 11, 2013.People gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Kirkuk, 250 kilometers north of Baghdad, Iraq, Aug. 11, 2013.
x
People gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Kirkuk, 250 kilometers north of Baghdad, Iraq, Aug. 11, 2013.
People gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Kirkuk, 250 kilometers north of Baghdad, Iraq, Aug. 11, 2013.
In Iraq, al-Qaida fighters have been able to carry out ever more frequent and audacious attacks on government targets, culminating with a mass jailbreak last month when they attacked two prisons and sprung hundreds of militants in the biggest insurgent military operation in Iraq in at least five years.
 
al-Qaida militants have also claimed responsibility for waves of coordinated bombings over the past four months in Shi'ite areas of Iraq, deliberately targeting civilians and killing many hundreds.
 
They justify the attacks, including a wave of car bombs in recent days that killed scores of people including children during a religious holiday, with sectarian appeals against a Shi'ite-led government of “heretics”.
 
Each of the past four months has each been deadlier than any in the previous five years, dating back to a time when U.S. and government troops were still engaged in pitched battles with organized militiamen.
 
Iraq's Interior Ministry described the conflict last month as “open war”, although officials have since tried to play the violence down and insist they remain in control of the country.
 
Throughout, the security forces of Iraq's Shi'ite-led government have been outmatched, unable to bring security to Baghdad or protect Shi'ite areas in the south, much less sweep  fighters from northern Sunni areas under their grip.

Al-Qaida hotbeds
 
al-Qaida's presence has become strongest in parts of northern Iraq, including areas that have often been disputed between government and Kurdish forces.
 
Fighters now control most of the villages and towns in an area known as the Hamrin Mountains basin, which links the northern provinces of Diyala, Salahuddin, Kirkuk and Mosul, say security officials, residents and local lawmakers.
 
As they did before they were beaten back in the George W. Bush-era “surge”, they earn funds by extorting tribute from local businesses, giving them greater authority than the state.
 
Officials in Baghdad say territorial disputes with Kurdish forces are partly to blame for the inability of the government to exercise control.
 
“The disputed areas have become havens for al-Qaida militants and leaders. al-Qaida's biggest hotbeds are located there,” said a senior Shi'ite lawmaker and member of the Security and Defense parliamentary committee.
 
“The security forces have no real control over these areas, mainly because of the conflict between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government,” said the lawmaker, requesting anonymity.

Syria draws Kurds into conflict
 
The highly-trained and capable Kurdish regional security force, known as Peshmerga, would be a useful ally for Baghdad after years in which they were rivals.
 
While U.S. troops were active in Iraq, the Peshmerga mainly stayed out of the civil war between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs, defending the three provinces that make up their autonomous Kurdish region in the north.
 
Iraq's Kurdish area has prospered while avoiding the violence that plagued the rest of the country, with the Peshmerga keeping a firm and unchallenged grip.
 
Kurdish territorial ambitions also extend beyond the autonomous region to Mosul, Diyala and oil-rich Kirkuk, where Peshmerga control turf and have frequently faced off with the central government's troops.
 
But the rise of al-Qaida in Syria and its resurgence in Iraq changes the equation and could now drag the Iraqi Kurds deeper into conflicts in both countries.
 
Syria has its own Kurdish minority, whose fighters have been battling against al-Qaida for control of territory there as the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad splintered.
 
A Kurdish group in Syria seized the town of Ras al-Ain near the Turkish border last month after days of battle with Syrian al-Qaida fighters. The Syrian Kurdish group has raised its flag, suggesting a goal of building an autonomous Kurdish region similar to the one Kurds maintain in Iraq.
 
Last week, Iraq's Kurdish region announced that it was prepared to defend Kurds living in Syria if al-Qaida fighters  threaten them, the first hint of possible intervention across the border.
 
Iraqi Kurdish officials say they are also motivated to cooperate with Baghdad against al-Qaida because they believe their own survival depends on keeping Iraq from collapsing.
 
“The leaders of the Kurdistan region have come to the conclusion that the fall of Baghdad would mean the fall of the (Kurdish) region,” a senior Kurdish official said, requesting anonymity while discussing the region's strategy.
 
Iraqi and Kurdish officials both say it was Kurdistan's regional government that took the initiative and approached Baghdad with an offer to cooperate on security.
 
“We have offered to cooperate, coordinate, run joint security operations and share information,” said Jabar Yawer, a spokesman for the Peshmerga, headquartered in the regional capital Arbil. “Our forces are ready to fight side by side with the Iraqi security forces to combat terrorism and control the security of Iraq - anywhere, anytime.”
 
That offer has been welcomed by Baghdad.
 
“We are now studying the details at a high level to see how to take advantage of this offer,” said Ali al-Moussawi, an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
 
In a country where political alliances shift like sand, any cooperation is still likely to be tentative. The Kurdish authorities are suspicious of Maliki who they feel has reneged on political promises in the past.
 
Baghdad will be wary of Iraqi Kurds growing closer to their Syrian kin. And Maliki's government is likely to be suspicious of Kurdish forces extending the boundaries of the territory under their control, especially in areas where underground oil reserves are disputed.

Washington powerless
 
One country which appears to have little leverage is the United States. The sudden surge in violence has drawn attention to Washington's swift exit, a decade after its invasion to overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein unleashed sectarian bloodshed in which some 100,000 Iraqis were killed.
 
U.S. President Barack Obama took office in 2009 after Iraq's violence had abated. He fulfilled a campaign pledge to withdraw troops almost as quickly as they could pack up and leave, pulling the last out at the end of 2011.
 
The Obama administration had hoped to keep a smaller force in Iraq for counter-terrorism to fight the remnants of al-Qaida, but failed to negotiate terms with Maliki's government, which refused to grant U.S. soldiers immunity from Iraqi law.
 
Today, Washington operates its largest embassy in a massive fortress-like compound built during the war, which dominates central Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris.
 
But its ability to influence events is largely limited to pressing the Iraqi government to act more effectively, said Aaron Zelin, who researches jihadist groups for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
 
“We have to understand that the U.S. ability to shape events is not as great as people like to think sometimes, especially since I'm pretty sure most Iraqis don't want the U.S. to go back in there,” he said.
 
After the latest wave of bombings over the Muslim Eid holiday celebration in Iraq killed scores of people on Saturday, Washington reiterated a $10 million reward for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the combined Iraq and Syria al-Qaida branch.
 
“We have seen an uptick in recent months in al-Qaida in Iraq and in terrorist attacks in Iraq, so we will continue working with the security forces and on counter-terrorism,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Mari Harf said. “We will look for new ways to cooperate on counter-terrorism.”

You May Like

Somalia: No Popular Elections in 2016

In interview Wednesday with VOA, President Mohamud says 'one person, one vote' elections will not be possible due to continuing insecurity More

Scientists Predict Climate Change Will Increase Child Malnutrition

Public health expert in Germany says that by 2050, 25 million more children's lives will be put at risk because of lack of nutrients tied to climate change More

Erdogan in China Amid Tensions on Uighurs, Missile System

Turkey's president has criticized China's heavy-handed policies toward Uighurs in violence-plagued Xinjiang region, where China says it is fighting foreign-backed separatists More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs