While heading home on a rainy autumn day, an officer at a checkpoint in Sulaimaniya asked whether I could give an Arab worker called Ahmed* a lift. Ahmed worked in the checkpoint cleaning and cooking. First, I was not sure how to reject his request – I just did not feel safe with the stranger by my side driving. The officer noticed my body reaction and concerns and assured me with a smile that this man is sound and can be trusted as he had been working there for a while.
To raise the officer’s spirit and make him feel respected for the protection he and his fellows provide on a daily basis in a war zone, I agreed to give him a lift. Ahmed was about 30 years old with quite weary hands and an exhausted face. In his perilous journey from Saladin province, a Sunni dominated area, he hoped to find protection for his family to rest and had sought a secure place in Kurdistan.
The current population of Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, is thought to be 35.6 million people and out of that number, 3.2 million are internally displaced mostly due to the startling advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIL/ISIS/IS) in June 2014 when they seized Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. As IS seized Mosul, thousands of Arab and other minority refugees sought shelter in the Kurdistan region. Kurdistan has offered refuge to Arabs, both Sunnis and Shia, Turkmens, Assyrians, Christians and several other religious and secular minorities. The peshmerga forces are also comprised of people from all walks of life and backgrounds. This is an important source of Kurdish pride and strength.
According to Aram Sheikh Mohammed, the Iraqi parliament deputy speaker, around 3.2 million people live in areas controlled by IS. Out of the 3.2 million internally displaced people (IDP), 2 million reside in the Kurdistan region, making up 35 percent of the population there. Furthermore, the Kurdistan region hosts around 200,000 refugees from Syria, mostly coming from Rojava (Eastern Kurdistan).
Despite my broken Arabic and Ahmed’s broken Kurdish, we managed to exchange some thoughts quite comfortably. Asked whether he had any intention to return home, if the situation was to get better, he said “at this point, I cannot”, as he cuddled himself. “Insurgency is everywhere and it has turned to a tribal war and religious clash. Tribal leaders pay their relatives and followers to kill for them in order to get their revenge. It is not a political fight as many people may think and no political decision or solution can change the current sectarian violence.”
Like Ahmed, my grandparents fled their homes out of fear and oppression due to conflict between the Iraqi and Iranian regimes. In 1978, my parents were still young and unmarried. Their village was displaced and we have not returned to our village since. In fact, only two families have returned to this day. There are neither schools nor hospitals. The streets are still unpaved and other basic services are unavailable. As a young boy in 1991, I spent months in camps in Iran and witnessed the chemical attack on Halabja and the 1990s civil war between the then Kurdish ruling parties; the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KPD) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Unlike the Arab Iraq, the Kurdish civil war was not a sectarian war, though there were some elements of tribal conflicts involved. The civil war weakened the Kurds and exposed their vulnerability in the face of external threats. But because of the determination of the Kurds, the deep belief in peaceful coexistence and resilience in the face of tyranny, the PUK and the KDP (with the support of the US) were propelled to sign the 1998 Washington Agreement.
“Kurds are mostly Sunni and almost all the refugees in our camp are Sunni; therefore, we feel very safe and secure here,” Ahmed said. “People in the area are very nice and the officials are supportive; our main problem is that winter is coming and our camps are not well-equipped.”
“It is a tribal and religious war. Sunni Arabs kill Shias and Shia Arabs kill Sunnis and that will continue forever because we are good at avenging but not making peace”. He abruptly added that, “America is selling weapons and do not care who is killing who. For them, getting money and oil is everything.”
As the clock ticks, the death toll keeps climbing in Iraq; innocent civilians become victims and are slaughtered, atrocities are committed across the region and coexistence is on the brink of collapse. In order for the Iraqi officials and the US to overcome this religious and ethnic division, they have to stop shipping guns to the country and win over the population by building schools and hospitals and consolidating the socio-economic infrastructure of the region.
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The current conflict in Iraq is more tribal than political. Likewise, the Shia and Sunni turmoil is more religion than legitimacy. Furthermore, the grassroots tribal mentality still controls the region. The question is how the US and Europe’s military equipment and ammunition shipment adds to an overall solution to the humanitarian crises.
After the Arab Spring in 2011 and the collapse of a few autocratic regimes with the support of Western powers, the reality on the ground indicates that the new governments are more interested in reconstruction/stability than promoting democracy. There is, however, serious doubt that they will do so. Frankly, they have all failed thus far, except in Tunisia. The legitimate exchange or handover of power and social justice are vulnerable in the face of political and economic corruption, which is why disorder, instability and war have always been part of the autocrat’s culture and mentality. Neither reconstruction nor stability will ever prevail as long as the state is not governed under a system of democracy and free elections.
While the collapse of some Middle Eastern countries is due to oppressive autocratic regimes, the West’s intervention to monopolize and secure the sources of energy and oil and selling weapons are the roots of uncertainty and disorder. Ultimately, religious fundamentalism replaces rule of law.
Moreover, the West may have won the War on Terror in some countries but they have lost credibility during this process. While having defeated some fanatic groups, Western countries and their allies have at the same time created hundreds of new fundamentalist groups. They have won the battle but lost the war by destroying thousands of acres of land, polluting the environment and wasting trillions of dollars that could have been used to improve the standard of living in the region, thus truly winning over the hearts and minds of the people.
By creating an atmosphere of fear and resentment through the misuse of media and suppression of freethinking, autocrats and religious figures instead continue to grow their lust for power. Meanwhile, the western powers struggle to comprehend how the general population suffers in the absence of independent journalism and under the dominance of conservative religious beliefs. This makes the common person believe that bloodshed and war are inherent parts of the psychology of the people in the Middle East.
Oppression and the feeling of displacement are also fertile grounds for recruitment and sectarian extremism, which is what ISIS is seeking to achieve. ISIS has traumatized, raped, killed, burned, and destroyed hundreds of buildings, museums, houses and ancient places of worship. Consequently, it is almost impossible for the IDPs to return to their homes and start a normal life unless humanitarian aid and security measures are guaranteed.
The past ten years of sectarian divisions have shown that it is impossible for Arab Sunnis and Shias to live peacefully together in a country like Iraq where clerics decide the government’s policy without the rule of law. So let the people of the region write their own stories and feel good about them. When people are held accountable for their actions, collective responsibility will follow.
Iraq’s sectarian violence has historic roots and will continue as long as Sunnis and Shias are forced to live side by side in the failed state of Iraq. Iraq’s religious crisis will only be solved if we could see separate Shia and Sunni zones, with the support of the western countries via practical admonitions to the Arab officials concerning their limits.
If that happens, the Arabs will feel safe about themselves; likewise, Ahmed will be able to return to his home feeling secure. Regardless of age, religious background, skin colour, and nationality, a sense of belonging is a vital need for everybody and that is exactly what the Iraqis miss. Iraqis do not feel they belong to Iraq; they believe they belong to either Shia or Sunni doctrines.
Despite our hospitable nature and generosity, Kurds suffered a lot under the successive Arab leaders in Iraq and elsewhere and that is one of the reasons why we refuse bigotry and agreed to resettle and embrace thousands of refugees since the outbreak of the Syrian war. We opened our doors to refugees because this would eventually weaken ISIS recruitment and religious manipulation. Ultimately, it would have been dehumanizing for the Southern Kurdistan people, who are overwhelmingly Sunni in both their beliefs and practices, to treat refugees and IDPs based on their religion or nationality.
“I will return home the moment I feel my family is provided with security, a decent job and basic needs of survival. I feel I belong to Kurds and Kurdistan at the moment,” Ahmed explained.
*Ahmed is a pseudonym.