Disputed Territories of Iraq, Interview With US Naval Academy Prof Wayne Hsieh On Tuz Kharmato

Interview conducted by Joel Wing.

U.S. Naval Academy Prof Wayne Hsieh

During Saddam Hussein’s rule he carried out a deliberate policy of population transfer, border changing, divide and conquer policies, and ethnic cleansing to try to control northern Iraq and its Kurdish population. One of the areas affected by this strategy was Tuz Khurmatu in northeast Salahaddin just along the border with the Kirkuk governorate. The Kurds claim it as part of the disputed territories, and its population of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen dealt with all of the ethnosectarian tensions and violence that occurred after 2003. In the summer of 2014 much of the area was captured by the Islamic State, but freed at the end of that season. Today the district continues to face problems, which is connected to this history. To help explain some of the aspects of Tuz Khurmatu is Associate Professor of History Wayne W.S. Hsieh of the U.S. Naval Academy. From 2008-2009 he worked for the State Department with the Salahaddin Provincial Reconstruction team in Tuz Khurmatu dealing with disputed territories. He can be followed on Twitter @whsieh.

Q: Was Tuz Khurmatu affected by Saddam’s Arabization program and what is its’ demographics today?

Hsieh: Tuz was indeed affected by Saddam’s Arabization program. There used to be Kurdish villages in the northeastern part of the district, which are all depopulated now due to Saddam’s various campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, while there was not the same degree of demographic churn in Tuz from movements of Arabs as, let’s say, Hawijah in Kirkuk province (as I understand it), the old regime had some success in persuading Sunni Turkmen in Tuz that they were Turkmen-speaking Arabs. This is important now, because it helps explain the support of some Sunni Turkmen for groups like ISIS and its earlier iterations, and tensions between the Shia Turkmen in the town of Amerli, and the Sunni Turkmen in surrounding villages. Before all the population dislocations surrounding Amerli’s siege and its aftermath, the district was probably about 1/4 Kurdish, with the remainder divided evenly between Arabs and Turkmen. The Turkmen in turn would be divided between Shia and Sunni populations–my sense would be that there were more Shia than Sunni Turkmen in the district.

Q: Tuz Khurmatu is different from the regular narrative about Iraq because of those demographics you just mentioned with Turkemn, Arabs, and Kurds. Arab politicians like Moqtada Al-Sadr supported Tuz’s Shiite Turkmen. The Kurds also had aspirations for the district. How did those forces interact after 2003?

Hsieh: When I was in Tuz in 2008 and 2009, it was clear that the various Shia Islamist parties were making serious plays for Shia Turkmen support, but at that point, sectarian appeals had weaker support (as was arguably the case throughout Iraq). As a consequence, the party that did the most well in the January 2009 provincial elections was the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), which was a party that appealed more to ethnic identification than a religious identity, even though it also made claims to defending Shia Turkmen interests. However, some of Tuz’s most important [parliament] members have been affiliated with Shia Islamist parties, and in the current environment, the latter are clearly in ascendance. It’s also my impression that the ITF no longer receives the same sort of support it once did from the Turkish government, whose good relations with the KRG’s leadership presumably makes the ITF’s mainly anti-KRG platform less useful for Ankara’s purposes. Finally, the ITF has never had the overt military muscle of organizations such as the Badr Corps, and in this environment, not having a strong militia attached to your political movement is probably fatal for serious political influence in Tuz.

As for the Kurds, in order to dilute the demographic strength of Kirkuk province, the [Saddam] regime had detached Tuz from Kirkuk governorate and attached it to Salah ad Din, which in a variety of ways was a poor fit. But because of that transfer, Tuz was seen by some as an Article 140 region, and a potential future piece of Kurdistan by returning it to a KRG-governed Kirkuk governorate. However, whatever the aspirations of some local Kurds, my impression has always been that senior KRG leaders never seriously thought Tuz could be added to the KRG–and I think the Peshmerga climb down there after the recent violence, along with even earlier grumbling from local PUK leaders that Tuz didn’t get much attention in terms of services from the KRG bears that out. In my view, they always saw Tuz as a bargaining chip to be given away for gains elsewhere (Kirkuk, of course, being the most important).

Q: How did the insurgency play upon the Arab and Turkmen community in Tuz to push its goals there?

Hsieh: As mentioned before, Saddam’s Arabization program succeeded to some degree in persuading Sunni Turkmen to see Shia Turkmen as an adversarial group. The massive car bombing in Amerli in 2007 that killed around 125 residents (in a town that numbered only 10,000) also successfully inflamed sectarian tensions. Ever since then, the Shia in Amerli have looked at the surrounding Sunni villages with a great deal of suspicion, leading to a garrison mentality, even *before* the famous ISIS siege of the town last year. Furthermore, JRTN [Jiash Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshibandi] strength in Sunni villages in the Sulaiman Bak sub-district near the Hamrin remained a real problem even during my relatively quite year in Tuz between 2008 and 2009, when the insurgency had been so heavily damaged. Those villages were obviously prime breeding grounds for ISIS.

The insurgency tended to focus not just on hostility toward Shia, but also on restraining Kurdish ambitions. As mentioned above, some local Kurds obviously hoped for eventual attachment to a KRG-governed Kirkuk, with Turkmen and Arabs all fearing such a prospect in turn–and the Sunni insurgency using that as a recruitment tool for their own purposes.

Q:  In 2014 the Islamic State conquered the Tuz district.

Then most of the area was freed by a joint Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Hashd al-Shaabi, and Peshmerga offensive that same year. Afterward the area was split up into spheres of control by the Shiite forces and Kurds. The two sides had flare ups, but that recently exploded in November 2015 with a shootout at a checkpoint. The Shiite Turkmen claimed they were targeted, and then both the Kurds and Shiite groups sent reinforcements quickly escalating the situation. What does this crisis say about the continued divisions between Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, the central government, and Kurdistan region over the future of Tuz?

Hsieh: Tuz leaders sometimes described their small district as a larger microcosm of Iraq, due to its diverse population, with no ethnosectarian group having much of a predominance over the other (at least, not up until the fall of Mosul last year). Those leaders frequently made it clear to groups such as the UN that they had little desire to be a pawn in larger political games played by Baghdad and Irbil-based leaders–hence their somewhat quixotic (but sincerely held) hope that Tuz be declared its own governorate, which from what I gather actually gained some traction in Baghdad, despite its absurdity as a practical matter. It was still possible in 2009 when I was in Tuz to have Kurdish and Turkmen leaders meet in the same room and air out their differences, or for a Turkmen political leader to acknowledge and praise the political impartiality of the local Kurdish Iraqi Army commander (now since retired). Or to walk into a hardscrabble Arab village and find a local leader willing to talk, and who was indifferent to sectarian rhetoric about grievance and revenge.

But the violence surrounding Amerli’s siege has made those sorts of events improbable, and added a relative power vacuum into which PUK and Shia militia rivalries have flared. The current power brokers are interested in pieces of Tuz, but not necessarily the whole (the same can be said of much of Iraq’s current political leadership). The Kurds are most interested in the economically important city, where the Kurds themselves reside, and which sits astride the important Kirkuk-Baghdad road. They would like the Sunni villages near the city to be quiet to keep the city secure, but it’s hard to believe the PUK cares much about Amerli, much less Sulaiman Bak–and certainly not enough to send scarce funds for government services. As for the Shia militias, many obviously took a harder line as to how to deal with various villages connected to the insurgency–and there is obviously friction between them and the Kurds as to influence within Tuz city proper, which includes many Shia Turkmen. As for Sunni Arabs and Turkmen, some were *already* sympathetic to groups like ISIS, and the heavy-handed tactics of the Shia militias have probably exacerbated those problems–at least among those Sunnis who haven’t fled the district. And while ISIS’ siege of Amerli was mercifully crushed, the group remains capable of conducting attacks in the district.

To add another layer of complexity, recent events have highlighted sharp tensions between Peshmerga and Hashd leaders. My understanding is also that the tensions between local Kurds and Hashd have run so high that early interventions by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to broker a truce actually failed before things finally quieted down, despite the strong ties between Iran and the PUK. I’ll defer to folks like Mike Knights and the Iraqi Oil Report, who have more current sources in the area, as to the exact details of the fighting there, but from my standpoint, this is just another sign of how what used to be a reasonably hopeful situation in Tuz has collapsed in so many ways. Take, for example, the fighting involving the Tuz hospital, which was actually visited in 2009 by the health section of the Salah ad Din PRT. The medical professionals pronounced the hospital the best run in the entire province, with a strongly led local staff. There were various other examples of reasonably competent local officials, but open fighting between Kurdish and Hashd forces obviously makes things even more difficult.

If Tuz is a microcosm of Iraq, or at least of the ethnically diverse and disputed regions in the north, then it’s current chaotic state shows the challenges faced by other such areas once they are “cleared” of ISIS forces.


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