Conflicts between kurds and arabs: scorched earth in iraq

In Iraq, thousands of hectares of farmland go up in flames. The IS is setting them on fire, they say. The Arabs are to blame, goes the rumor among the Kurds.

The land is on fire! The son of farmer Hawez tries to extinguish the fire Photo: Issio Ehrich

The fire is eating its way meter by meter through the land of Farhad Anwar Hawez. For hours, the farmer has been beating the flames in vain with gray rags. Sweat trickles down his forehead, ash and dirt settle on his clothes, the muscles in his arms fail. Firefighters arrive. But even they cannot put out the fire.

It is high summer in Iraq. Like Hawez, many farmers are suffering this summer. Field fires have devastated the region to an unprecedented extent.

When Hawez gives up in the afternoon, he can barely clench his hands into fists. "My brothers and I have 3,500 dunams here," he says. "What’s left of it is going to burn now, too." A dunam, the equivalent of 2,500 square meters, traditionally refers to the area of land a farmer could plow in a day.

Hawez’s pasture grass, still glowing yellow in the sun at dawn, now resembles black sewing thread. The tangle of these threads reaches to the hills that mark the horizon – and beyond.

This article and many others were made possible by financial support from the Foreign Research Fund.

Devastating consequences for farmers

Reliable statistics for the entire country do not exist. But around Hawez’s village of Palkana alone, an area of more than 20 by 20 kilometers has burned, according to a regional farmers’ committee. Wheat, barley, pasture grass – the consequences for farmers are devastating. How could this happen? A search for clues in the areas that have been particularly hard hit: the security no man’s land between the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan and the sphere of influence of the Iraqi central government.

The air conditioning is blaring, the evening news is flickering on a television. Hawez squats cross-legged in his living room, massaging his battered hands. For years, he says, the pastures have provided grass for his 400 sheep, free feed from September through February. Now, he says, he has to sell half his animals to afford feed. "I’m sad," he says, "I’m angry." Hawez does not believe the fires were caused naturally.

Firefighters have arrived Photo by Issio Ehrich.

As early as the wheat harvest began in May, a possible cause of the fires suggested itself: At that time, the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" (IS) called on its followers to "harvest" with fire. "This should be a hot summer," the propaganda newsletter al-Naba said. "A hot summer that will burn the wallets and hearts of the infidels." It would not be the first time the jihadists have pursued a scorched earth strategy. Are the jihadists sending a signal that they are not yet defeated?

IS no longer has territory of its own. But with an estimated 15,000 fighters, it is numerically stronger today than before its great surge. Security experts warn: the fighters could reorganize if the right space presents itself to them. That space is developing in the governorates of Nineveh, Salah ad-Din, Diyala and Kirkuk, where Hawez’s home village of Palkana is located. The Iraqi army has launched a series of operations here. But the area is a security no-man’s land. Who is in charge here is disputed.

Iraq consists of two de facto states: The central government in Baghdad controls most of the country with the help of militias. In northeastern Iraq, on the other hand, Kurds rule in an autonomous region. They come to terms with each other, sometimes more, sometimes less well. Time and again, however, the governorates that both sides claim for themselves cause disputes.

Under suspicion: "Islamic State" men

Hawez has also heard the stories from IS. There have been reports in local and social media for months. And the stories are similar: at night, the men with the long beards and short pants come. They threaten villagers and demand protection money to spare their fields. Some farmers hold magnifying glasses to the cameras they found in their charred fields – detonators in the scorching summer heat. Some present improvised explosive devices.

There is also an explosive device in Hawez’s field in Palkana. It is a mortar shell. But it did not explode. A dud from past wars, no fuse. No one has asked Hawez for protection money. There are many indications that IS is playing a major role in the fires in some regions of Iraq. Anyone traveling to Palkana suspects that the jihadists are only part of the answer.

We – a translator, an Iraqi army sergeant and the reporter – met more than a dozen residents in Palkana and surrounding villages. None blamed IS for the farmland fires. But most did not believe in the most innocuous of versions, according to which short circuits had been the cause. Clumsy farmers? Children setting fires? The scale was far too large for accidents, they said. Climate change? Temperatures above 40 degrees are nothing new here. The vast majority of the predominantly Kurdish farmers make in unison a cause: "Arabs".

Even the professionals are powerless against this fire Photo: Issio Ehrich

Hawez sends his son to fetch water and goat’s milk. He downs the glasses in big gulps. Why did he fight the flames in the fields almost alone, he says? "Half the village doesn’t dare go out anymore," he says. "Last time, they beat up the women who helped put out the fire." "They" refers to "the Arabs." Hawez’s homeland is scorched earth in two senses.

Ethnic conflict in the Kirkuk region

Iraq is one of those countries that were created on the drawing board of former colonial powers. That is why there is now not only the security no-man’s land where IS is gaining strength. There are also ethnic conflicts. The British squeezed Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, Yazidis and Kurds, countless families and tribes into one national territory. When London granted Iraq its independence, conflict was in its cradle. Especially in regions like the Kirkuk governorate. Many population groups come together there, and the soil yields more than wheat and barley. Kirkuk is home to some of the country’s most important oil wells. Kurds in northern Iraq have always feared that they would never be independent without this region. Arabs have always seen it the same way.

The Baath Party, from which the former dictator Saddam Hussein sprang, had Kurdish villages destroyed on a grand scale. It expelled hundreds of thousands of people. In this way, it created space for its own people.

After Hussein’s fall in 2003, thousands of Kurds returned to their villages. The new constitution was supposed to clarify what would happen to the disputed territories. At the center was Article 140, which was supposed to create the basis for the residents to vote on an affiliation with the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan. But the referendum never took place. Kurds and Iraq’s highest court insisted on the vote. The central government in Baghdad, on the other hand, does not think the conditions are right. And Arab representatives in Kirkuk say simply, "Article 140 of the constitution is dead." The old conflict persists.

Farmer Hawez shows papers testifying that he has always lived in the village Photo: Issio Ehrich

At first, it looked like Kurds would win it. During their successful fight against IS, they expanded their sphere of influence. In 2017, despite warnings from all over the world, the autonomy government dared to take a brute step: it held a referendum on its own initiative – not only on the disputed territories, but on the independence of the region as a whole. But the dream of their own state did not come true. The central government’s army and its allies drove the Kurdish forces out of Kirkuk. Since then, the governorate has been ruled by an Arab sent from Baghdad.

Kurdish villagers blame "the Arabs"

Farmer Hawez vividly remembers what followed after the takeover: On December 27, 2017, more than one hundred cars rolled into Palkana, and with them 500 men – Arabs and military. They distributed leaflets. On them, the Kurds were ordered to leave Palkana in 72 hours. The ultimatum bears the signatures of a representative of the authorities and a high-ranking member of the Iraqi armed forces. A copy is available to the taz. However, we cannot verify with absolute certainty the authenticity of the documents presented to us by the villagers. Is the ultimatum proof that a new wave of Arabization is underway? And do the arable fires represent an attempt to break the resistance to it?

Farhad Anwar Hawez, Kurdish farmer

"Last time, the Arabs beat up the women who helped put out the fires"

Hawez drives along the dusty streets of Palkana. The farmer wants to eliminate a possible misunderstanding. When talking about "Arabs", people here do not mean all Arabs, of course. They only meant those who wanted to displace Kurds by force. At an intersection, Hawez points to a one-story house. "That’s where he lives," Hawez says. He means Ali Hawaz. The sheik is an influential leader of the Arab Shammar tribe. Hawez says, "Everything is connected to him."

Villagers have presented us with a letter urging the governor of Kirkuk to allow the Shammar, traditionally a Bedouin tribe, to live in Palkana – with military support if necessary. The letter is reportedly signed by Ali Hawaz. What is certain is that half a dozen families of the tribe have settled in Palkana.

Hawez continues. Already in the first summer after these families arrived, the number of arable fires increased, he says. In the second year, they peaked, he says. Are Sheikh Hawaz and the Shammar the arsonists? Hawez believes in a pact between the Shammar and the authorities. The fire in his field started near an Iraqi army checkpoint, he says. "The soldiers set fire to it."

Hawez points to a pile of rubble burying a road. Destroying the farmers’ livelihoods is not the only means the Arabs have used to grab the Kurds’ land, he says. "They blocked the way to the cemetery." Those who go there anyway find that there was a fire here, too. The scene is reminiscent of a rotten mouth. Some white marble stones still protrude from the black ground – around them are only brown stumps.

Testimony against testimony

We want to knock on the doors of the Shammar families, to hear the opposing side. But the sergeant, who is responsible for our security during this research, advises against it. A few days later, we speak to Abu Saad on the phone, a member of the Shammar. "We have great relations with the Kurds," he says. "The cause of the fires was electrical short circuits." He says he knows of no women being beaten or roads blocked. Nor, he says, has his tribe received direct support from the authorities. Saad explains that Shammar settled in Palkana in the 1960s. The Kurds, who previously owned the land, were compensated for it, he says. "The houses belong to the families." It is their right to come back, he said. He accuses the Kurds of aiming for greater compensation.

Testimony against testimony, clear fronts between Arabs and Kurds? Not quite. Mawlud Hassan Kerim, a Kurd and one of the oldest men in the area, supports Saad’s thesis: "Some Kurds provoke problems with Arabs so they can’t settle here." And he, too, suggests that some are concerned with compensation. "I swear to God."

Hawez stands in his field, smoke still rising from it. He strokes what’s left of his pasture grass until his hand is full of the fibers that resemble black sewing thread. Hawez does not deny that his family has been compensated in previous evictions. Then he laughs a strange, snide laugh: "Who would sell their forefathers’ land?" he asks. "As if we had a choice then!" What would Saddam Hussein have done with refuseniks?

Hawez stands by his accusations against the Shammar. But he suspects it may be in vain. "Justice has always been on their side," he says. And the way the villagers describe it, the same is true of the executive branch: the Iraqi army commander in charge has forbidden the Kurds from cultivating their fields until they settle their dispute with the Shammar, he says. Hawez and the other farmers of Palkana fear the next crop failure. Now the earth doesn’t even have to burn for that.

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