Middle East

Kurdish fears of land fight after Mosul battle

Shia militia fighter south of Mosul (Nov 2016) Image copyright AFP
Image caption There have been fears of sectarian reprisals once IS is forced out of Mosul

Plenty of people in Iraq will be glad to see the back of so-called Islamic State (IS), but many there fear that the defeat of the jihadist group will be merely the prelude to more conflict.

For a man just back from the frontline, Badradeen Hassan seemed remarkably calm. One of the oddities of the conflict with IS is that combatants can be in the midst of fighting one moment, and then back home in less than an hour.

Mr Hassan serves with the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces deployed in the countryside and villages north and east of Mosul.

He had returned to the Kurdistan Region's capital, Irbil, for a break, and wanted to share with me his belief that those currently allied against IS would soon turn on each other.

"There are threats against us from the Shia, especially from the Shia militias. For sure, they will declare a war against Kurdistan," he said, in a voice whose measured tempo belied the violent scenario he was predicting.

Image caption Badradeen Hassan says the Kurds will hold on to any territory they take in the fight against IS

Mr Hassan fears that land currently controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government will be claimed by those Shia militia groups. Some of it is rich in oil deposits and is also claimed by the central government.

"Even if it's one inch, there's no way we would let it go. A Peshmerga is willing to fight anyone."

'Recipe for disaster'

I heard similar predictions of conflict from new arrivals at the Debaga camp for internally displaced people, in Irbil province.

The civilians may have been relieved to escape the fighting in and around Mosul, but few thought this would put an end to their troubles.

"After Islamic State has gone... it will be tribe against tribe," one told me. "There will never be security."

Another explained that as a Sunni, he no longer felt safe going into Shia areas, and blamed foreign interference for this division.

"Countries like Iran, like Turkey - they don't want Iraq to do well."

Image caption At Debaga camp, there are warnings of tribal conflict

Refugees might be expected to feel anxious about the future, and so too soldiers who have recently been in combat.

Yet I heard similarly dire warnings in the calm surrounds of the Irbil-based think tank, the Middle East Research Institute, from its president, Dlawer AlaAldeen.

"There are armed groups, paramilitary groups, state and non-state actors," he says. "It's a recipe for disaster."

Mr AlaAldeen believes it is too simplistic to see conflict only through the Shia-Sunni-Kurdish prism, as these groups are now further fragmented, and operating in an environment where political leadership from Baghdad is weak or entirely absent.

Yet it is not as if the possibility of sectarian conflict has gone un-noticed; indeed desperate attempts are being made to avoid it breaking out.

The plan for the Mosul offensive, for example, was as political as it was strategic, aiming to make sure that Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters never actually enter what is a predominantly Sunni city.

Century-old problem

Meanwhile, the President of the Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, made a rare visit to Baghdad recently, where he and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stood side-by-side, pledging to co-operate rather than fight.

"We don't believe in achieving our goals by violent means," insists KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee. "Everything has to be by negotiation, to end this one century-old problem between Kurds and the rest of Iraq."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Relations between Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have been tense

Recent history only seems to have aggravated divisions between Iraq's ethnic and religious communities, rather than ameliorate it.

"Mosul soon will finish, but I don't think we can live together," says Bzhar Dilan, a musician, record producer and well-known figure in Kurdistan's cultural landscape.

He insists he wants to be optimistic, but is highly sceptical when it comes to politicians' promises that there can be peace.

"They always say that," he scoffs. "But then it starts again. We as Kurds are used to this type of life - to be refugees, go from country to country, fight for our freedom... We have to continue."