Silent Genocide: Kirkuk and Disputed Kurdish Territories Face Ethnic Cleansing

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

The year 2022 saw the rise of the plight and situation of the Kurds to international attention. From South Kurdistan (Northern Iraq, Basur) being repeatedly bombed and subject to drone strikes both from Turkey and Iran, to Northern Syria (Rojava) subjected to chemical weapons use, airstrikes and drone attacks and the Kurds in Iran (Rojhilat) spearheading yet another revolution in their search for freedom, equality and justice. At the same time, the Kurds in the diaspora saw a number of attacks against them including that of the recent Paris massacre in the Kurdish Community Center of Ahmed Kaya. Yet, as daily stories of Kurdish massacres, displacement, bombings and assassinations played across the international arena, one area in Kurdistan which faces immense acts of violence and terror has failed to gain attention. This area is the disputed region of oil-rich Kirkuk in Northern Iraq.

A recent 2022 report titled “Crimes Against Kurds: The New Ethnic Cleansing of the Disputed Territories,” highlights a number of disturbing crimes committed against the Kurds in the disputed territories of Kirkuk. The report focuses on a five year period since the 2017 Kurdish referendum for Independence and its after effects for the Kurds in the Kirkuk and surrounding regions. The findings indicate ongoing ethnic cleansing policies, violence, terror and gender based abuses which amount to genocide. The report utilizes open source investigative methods as well as semi-structured interviews with activists, journalists and displaced or current residents of the region. The key findings emphasize cases of murder, property destruction, sexual violence, assassination of journalists and activists.

The report is produced by Crimes Against Kurds, which is an internationally-based group of researchers focusing on abuses taking place in the Kurdish parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. The aim of the group is to conduct more effective advocacy, while advancing accountability for perpetrators and restoration for victims. The report is further supported by the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group, a non-governmental organization founded in 2014 by human rights advocates and researchers from a number of countries. TJWG supports advanced methods for addressing grave human rights violations and advocating justice for victims in pre- and post-transition societies around the world.

Human rights violations escalated in the region against the Kurds on 16th of October, 2017 when government forces as well as Iranian backed militia forces flooded the region and launched a large scale military campaign. They immediately took control of the city, including its two major oil-fields. The Iraqi central government, in a bid to further limit and prevent Kurdish successions aspirations following the 2017 referendum began a close alliance and military coordination with both Iran and Turkey. The military campaign was led by the notorious Iranian general Qassim Sulaimani, whose use of terror tactics and violence was infamous. The outcome was Kurdish civilians and security forces were massacred. Concurrently, the Kurds in other vulnerable regions such as those of Tuz Khurmatu, Khanaqin, Jalawla, Makhmur and Zummar were also targeted. A number of civilians were murdered. According to the report’s findings, a number of weapons used against the Kurds were US supplied and manufactured in the war against ISIS but were used by the Iraqi forces to massacre and ethnically cleanse the Kurds. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces had taken over the region back in  Summer of 2014 when Iraqi security and military forces evacuated the region following the rise of ISIS.

Historically, disputed territories such as Kirkuk and Mosul in South Kurdistan have always been sites of not only ethno-religious contestations but also deeply troubling racial discrimination and violence in which the Kurds have been the traditional losers. Not only Arabs but also Turkmons have long contested the right to the territories of Kirkuk and Mosul. According to Professor Ofra Bengio, a Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University and Head of Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center, ethnic tensions and demographic changes are long part of the history of Kirkuk. She notes that: “an atmosphere of enmity had long prevailed between the Kurds and the Turkmons. It stemmed, among other things, from the fact that the Sublime Porte, namely the Ottoman sultan, settled Torkmons in the Mosul and Kirkuk area in the nineteenth century to put down Kurdish rebellious activities there.”[1] Mahir A Aziz, the author The Kurds of Iraq: Nationalism and Identity in Iraqi Kurdistan, likewise argued that the ethnic cleansing of Kirkuk gained momentum during the Infamous Anfal Campaign against the Kurds through the deliberate policies of the Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam’s cousin, known as “Chemical Ali” for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. According to Aziz, “it was during Ali Hassan al-Majid’s time that the ethnic cleansing of Kirkuk became more systematic. These ruthless strategies of Arabization and deportations continued during the 1980s-90s.”[2] As this recent report indicates, much of these policies of ethnic cleansing, inciting terror and fear in the Kurdish community’s heart continues to date. Nevertheless, now a combination of Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish groups reside within the region, and a viable, effective and democratic solution needs to be found before further escalation of violence, usually conducted towards the Kurds, repeats.

It is clear that contested regions have long faced demographic changes by interested and powerful ethno-religious groups to the detriment of Kurdish human rights, freedom and autonomy. The report indicates that the Iraqi government continues to utilize policies of ethnic cleansings in such territories through the explicit destruction and damage of farmlands and livestock, homes, villages, forced displacement, use of violence and threats as well as cultural repression and economic and employment discrimination. All of these factors continue to make life unbearable and unsustainable for many Kurds in the region.

More concisely, this report finds that there were 122 documented cases of murder between 2017-2022. There have been 51 documented cases of farm and land destruction and razing during this period along with 25 cases of abductions. At least 3 cases of rape have been reported, but The Kurdish Center for Studies believes that these numbers would be much higher. However, due to cultural taboos around honor and virginity, we envision that many victims would be deterred from coming forward and reporting their abuse. At the same time at least two journalists have been murdered, while many others have been harassed or threatened. In light of a security vacuum in the region, the Kurds remain deeply vulnerable to abuses and violence from militias as well as ISIS.

Although Iraq has ratified or is signatory to a number of international laws and conventions the report finds that many of these conventions in the case of the treatment of the Kurds in Kirkuk are regularly and routinely violated. Iraq, for instance, is signatory to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), international convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Yet the report indicates that all of these conventions are ignored or violated in Kirkuk, and the state has failed to meet its international obligations.

Further, since the 2016 events the Kurdish security forces such as the Peshmarga have been driven out leaving the Kurds of the region without basic security and safety. A large number of militia groups operate in the disputed territories, including Asayib Ahl Alhaq, Saraya Vanayat al-Khorasani, Brigades of Sayyid al-Shuhada, Hezbollah Al-Nujaba Movement, Hezbollah Brigades Saraya Al Salam, Badr Organization – Military Wing, and Hashd Al Turkmani. The actions of these militias, and indeed the very force of their presence, has been enough to create deep fear and increased the number of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) in the region. Former peshmarga forces remain in fear for themselves and their families, with many relocating due to the sheer number and size of the above mentioned militias. This is without even mentioning the ongoing presence and threat of ISIS and its sleeper cells in the region.

As cultural, economic and racial discrimination towards the Kurds mount, justice and accountability on the part of the perpetrators remains non-existent and illusive. At the same time, human rights organizations and stakeholders have indicated little interest in forcing perpetrators and the Iraqi government from facing repercussions. The possibility of justice for those discriminated against, abused and violated remains highly unlikely. These factors continue to increase ethno-religious cleavages and violence towards the Kurds. Considering that the report finds that the majority of the weapons used against the Kurds and their security forces are American supplied, the likelihood of justice remains increasingly illusive.

Additionally, one of the key authors of the report Jaya Srivastava argues that the previous extermination policies of the Iraqi regime towards the Kurds were open and transparent, such as the clear case of the Anfal campaign. In more recent times however, ethnic cleansing policies are occurring using a number of hidden and soft policies to make life unbearable for the Kurds in the region. Another researcher argues that “The value of Kurdish lives has hit rock bottom in the last 2-3 months and nobody knows about it. It is time for the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of this systematic ethnic cleansing.” Others have claimed that it is disturbingly “easy to kill a Kurdish person in Kirkuk these days.” Calls for intervention and monitoring by international human rights organizations have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Alongside these acts of terror and violence, other ethnic cleansing policies were used including that of changing the Kurdish names of streets and towns from Kurdish to Arabic and hundreds of Kurdish officials have been removed from their positions. At the same time, Kurdish farmers were forcibly removed from their lands, with their homes and lands resettled by Arabs. Simultaneously, large numbers of Kurdish farm lands in thousands of acres are subject to “repeated confiscation attempts”, with hundreds of acres already redistributed to Arab settlers.

Indeed, one of the more disturbing findings of the report highlight that over 25,000 Arab families, reminiscent of the Ba’athist policies of the 1970’s, have been relocated and settled in Kirkuk and provided with voting rights. Such gerrymandering has disturbing consequences for upcoming elections as well as “drastically altering voting demographics.” The outcome has been an increase of Arab representation and candidacy in the Iraqi Parliament, from the 2018 to the 2021 elections, while Kurdish representation has reduced noticeably. Further to this, the report presents evidence of government directives that indicate clear cases of discrimination against the Kurds, including land confiscation, forced displacement, illegal and random home searches and more.

Aside from these policies deliberately imposed on the Kurds in Kirkuk and other disputed territories, neighboring countries such as Turkey and Iran continue to affect changes and their own policies in the country which has dire effects on the Kurds. In Turkey, as Erdogan faces another election and the country celebrates its centenary as a state contested areas will gain more focus as an election bargaining chip but also as a source of rising neo-nationalist, Islamization and expansionist policies of the regime. Regions such as Mosul and Kirkuk will undoubtedly become the epicenters of these expansionist policies in the years to come. Turkey, in its invasion of the Kurdish regions of Rojava, North Syria has demonstrated a trigger happy propensity for not only annexing land and displacing Kurdish citizens but also using chemical weapons against them both in Northern Iraq and Syria.

What is clear is that Kirkuk will remain a deeply contested regions and civilian Kurds will continue to suffer the brunt of the geopolitical interest of dominant factions and powers in the region. In light of the continuous failure of the international human rights organizations in speaking out and protecting the Kurds across Greater Kurdistan it is unlikely that anyone but the Kurds themselves will come to the aid of these long suffering Kurdish civilians. Unfortunately, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), continues to be swayed by Turkish national and regional interests, while also remaining crippled by internal tensions, corruption and incompetence.

Sources:

  1. Bengio, O. 2012. The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State Within a State. Lynn Rienner Publishers: London. P.55.
  2. Aziz, M.A. 2015. The Kurds of Iraq: Nationalism and Identity in Iraqi Kurdistan. I.B. Tauris Publishing: New York. P.78.

Author

  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently the editor of The Kurdish Center for Studies as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) as well as being a visiting scholar at CGDS (Center for Gender and Development, AUIS). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava as well being a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise includes gender and post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic Confederalism and Kurdish studies.

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