Political leaders from the self-ruled Kurdish region of Iraq declared on Thursday that they will boycott the Cabinet meetings of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, following statements he made accusing the Kurds of “harboring the Sunni militants,” Islamic State, who have overrun much of the country.
The prime minister provided no evidence along with his claim and Deputy Prime Minister Roz Nouri Shawez, the highest ranking Kurdish official in the Iraqi government, promptly responded by saying “such statements are meant to hide the big security fiasco by blaming others.”
Ties between Iraq and the Kurdish region have a long history of strain and conflict that has continued over the last years under al-Maliki’s administration. Not least of those issues has been the fight over oil and land rights.
Though they have been able to work together — Kurds having twice helped al-Maliki secure his post — Wednesday’s allegation further irritated resentment on both sides.
Kurds, whose government is based in Erbil, hold Cabinet seats for foreign affairs, trade, health and immigration and displacement. A decision by authorities in Baghdad to interrupt all cargo flights headed for the already resource tight Kurdish region followed the announcement of the boycott later Thursday afternoon.
The onslaught by Islamic State, formerly Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), has in the last month opened an opportunity for Iraqi Kurds, who have been fighting Islamic State in the far north of the country, to retake long disputed territory — including the major oil city of Kirkuk — coming closer to realizing a decades-old dream for a sovereign state.
Prime Minister al-Maliki, speaking on Wednesday in his weekly televised address, demanded that “Everything that has been changed on the ground must be returned.”
“We can’t stay silent over Erbil being a headquarters for Daesh, Baath, al-Qaeda and the terrorists,” he added, referencing the Arabic acronym for Islamic State and the party of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
But Kurdish officials have dismissed al-Maliki’s claim as “baseless,” saying they are only protecting those zones they have captured from the militants — many of which have large Kurdish populations.
“The Kurdistan region has never harbored any terrorists, now or ever, because we have been the victim of them before,” said Safeen Dizayee, a spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government. “What Mr. al-Maliki is talking about is far from reality.”
The reality, humanitarian aid workers on the ground in Erbil are saying, is that while the Iraqi military has in the last week launched air raids in the oil-rich village of Baiji and reportedly bombed the main water resource tank in Mosul, Kurds have let thousands of fleeing civilians into the Kurdish-controlled areas, which also houses a tightly operated internally displaced persons (IDP) camp.
“The Iraqi minister of migration and immigrants just opened an office in Erbil and they do nothing, just looking at the people,” said Ala Ali, a women's rights and peace activist with the International Civil Society Network (ICAN) and board member for the Al-Amal Association. “They don’t move.”
Though the president of the Kurdish territory last week asked lawmakers to “move quickly on reparations for a referendum on independence,” its security forces have continued to act as a safe haven for Iraqis leaving their homes. Erbil, according to Ali, is secure and the UNHCR’s base is “very strong because they’re used to how to deal with the crisis situation because of the Syrian refugees.” But the influx of IDPs has weighed heavily on resources.
“We are suffering, in Erbil,” Ali said. “We are suffering because of lack of electricity, lack of fuel, lack of water — because of those additional IDPs, because they are extra.”
As of June 30, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there were more than one million IDPs across Iraq — a number that is further compounded by the additional 225,000 Syrian refugees the country has come to host in the last two years, many of which have sought aid in the Kurdish region. The UNHCR announced the opening of a new IDP camp on Wednesday, in response to the constant reconfiguration and increasing numbers of displaced persons. The population of the camp is projected to reach 10,000.
Many of the Erbil camp’s inhabitants initially came from Mosul, with approximately 220,000 of the city’s two million fleeing, according to ICAN. Violence increased in the city last month after it was captured by ISIS and the Iraqi Air Force began aerial attacks.
The city currently has no internet or electricity, and even communication by phone is difficult because there are few opportunities to recharge batteries. Sources on the ground say it’s difficult to know for sure whether or not there have been any rights violations, though all women have been asked to stay at home. Only women working in education or in the medical sector can go to work.
Schools have also closed, sending children home in the final stages of their exams.
In the last week, ISIS has reportedly started to investigate and torture people who at some point worked for the government in high positions, or worked in the military, and has begun implementing its own mandates and policies — a development that has contributed significantly to the number of civilians fleeing.
Many of the families arriving to IDP camps in the Kurdish region go back and forth between the camp and Mosul, checking in to see if conditions are any better or would allow for a return. The ebb and flow that has come as a result has caused Kurdish security forces to restrict re-entry.
“Anyone who decides to leave the camp to go to Mosul, they never allow them to come back because it’s dangerous,” Ali said. “It’s dangerous for security, also,” she added, explaining that security forces and humanitarian aid groups worry that those moving in and out could provide the names of those living in the IDP camp to ISIS.
Still, she said, rumors that the Kurdish government is not allowing people from Mosul to come in and stay are not true — “They’re just not allowed to go in between.”
Most IDPs, however, are now coming to Erbil from Tikrit — northwest of Baghdad — where Iraq’s military has been struggling to retake control. But the situation for IDPs in Kirkuk has become even worse than in Erbil, Ali said.
About 20,000 families have fled to Kirkuk — many from the eastern province of Diyala — where aid workers say there is little support because the UN cannot be active there and does not have an established system for receiving IDPs.
“I was talking to our colleague in our office in Kirkuk and she was crying,” Ali said. “She said ‘kids are dying because there’s nothing for them. They don’t even have tents, and no one can do anything for them.’”
Families are also fleeing Tal Afar, one of the poorest towns in Iraq with a very high percentage of rights violations, seized by ISIS in mid-June. The Christian minority of Qaraqosh has also begun leaving the town after it was hit by mortars shot by ISIS and intended for the Peshmerga — Kurdish fighters.
As more IDPs move from cities to villages, provinces and camps, the influx has become exceedingly difficult for Kurdistan to manage. As a result, the government has reportedly begun limiting residency for Arabs, making the status more difficult to attain.
“This is a wise decision because the cities cannot accommodate them,” Ali said. “It’s a disaster here. Things are getting very expensive every day — food, daily needs, fuel. We have a fuel crisis. We wait at the queue for 4 hours.”