Shall I fill you in on some of the security context here as well? Bear in mind that my general knowledge of global political and foreign affairs is extremely limited, so I’ll have to give you the dummies guide to the context here, as understood my me…. (Disclaimer – I can’t be held responsible if this turns out to be hopelessly simplistic or just plain wrong).
I’m now here in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). A lot of people just call it Kurdistan, but you have to be a bit careful with that, as “Kurdistan” is often used to refer to the entire Kurdish region, which encompasses parts of southern Turkey, Northern Syria and Northern Iraq and parts of Iran, so that could be confusing. For now I’ll just call it KRI. Technically I think it is still part of Iraq, but in reality it’s more of a semi-autonomous region (or something to that effect).
(And on a side note, I also have to be careful how I refer to ISIS. I was informed that it’s ok to say ISIS, ISIL or Da’esh, but I should avoid referring to them as the Islamic State, because that might add a legitimacy to them that could inadvertently put me on the wrong side!)
Compared to the rest of Iraq, KRI is relatively stable and secure, largely due to the Peshmerga, the name for the Kurdish Military forces. Prior to the arrival of ISIS it was probably the safest part of Iraq, and some would say it still is. Which is precisely why, when ISIS started attacking places in Iraq, most Iraqis moved north towards Kurdistan. So there are now huge numbers of IDPs (internally displaced people – like refugees but without the protection of international humanitarian laws) in various parts of KRI. Most of them are living in camps (the vast majority are in Dahuk, in the north-west, which also hosts large numbers of Syrian refugees as well). However, some are scattered in villages – often living in unfinished buildings that are missing walls/roof, or cow sheds and chicken coops etc. Not a lot of fun for a family of 10 in the middle of winter…
So, you could say that the Peshmerga are the good guys, or at the very least the safest military force around for now. Of course there are many many layers of complexity surrounding the different military groups here. When ISIS tried to take Kirkuk (a strategically critical city in northern Iraq as it is basically floating on oil), the Peshmerga moved south along with the Iraqi Forces to kick ISIS out. And they succeeded. Similarly in Diyala and a few other areas, the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces have joined up to slowly push the ISIS frontline down towards the south.
The Iranians are of course very concerned about ISIS gaining too much of a stronghold here – there are some strategic oil pipelines running from Iran to Iraq that the Iranians would like to ensure do not fall into the wrong hands, and so there are a number of Iranian-backed Shia Militias roaming around with a bone to pick with ISIS as well.
Now traditionally, the Iraqi Forces and Peshmerga don’t get on all that well, but for the moment they are united against a common enemy – hunting down ISIS. That’s all very well and good, but it means that the Peshmerga have moved south beyond the traditional border of KRI into Iraq proper (or what is commonly known as “the contested areas”). These places are fairly volatile, as there are ISIS sleeper cells still lingering in pockets here and there, and there are plenty of Iraqi forces, Peshmerga, Shia Militias (and Sunni militias for that matter) as well as other armed groups such as the Asayish (kind of Kurdish Military Intelligence I think) and Ministry of the Interior forces (possibly Iraqi Military Intelligence but I can’t remember now).
The various militias tend to be a bit of a wild card anyway – militias often are, and can be quite unpredictable and dangerous at times (depending on who you are and where you’re from). In some of these contested areas, ISIS have been successfully driven back further to the south, which you might think would make it a bit safer to go there, but sadly that’s not the case either.
Firstly because when ISIS leave an area, they tend to leave a fair few booby traps behind them as they go – UXOs, IEDs, landmines, and so on. Not something you want to go anywhere near. I’ve heard rumours that they often hide IEDs underneath each other – so that the bomb disposal unit will find the first one, disarm it, and as they are removing it, the one underneath it explodes. Nasty.
And secondly, because after ISIS have been cleared out, and all the explosives safely removed, you then have all the Peshmerga, Iraqi forces and militias looking at each other, twiddling their thumbs, and saying “What are you still doing here?” “Well I’m not leaving – YOU leave!” So the tensions are mounting as it becomes clear that the Kurdish side might want to stay on and expand their region a little bit (“Well we did conquer it and defeat ISIS for you!”), and the Iraqi side will be saying something along the line of “Thanks for the help, but this is our patch now – bugger off back home thank you very much!”.
Now that is also not a fight you want to find yourself in the middle of! Hence the use of the term “contested area” to avoid being seen to take sides….
However, our security officer has helped me to come up with some simple ways to recognise different groups and know what to do…
Peshmerga – green camoflage uniforms, red hats, Kurdish Flag – friendly-ish
Iraqi Forces – beige/grey camoflage uniforms, Iraqi Flag – Ok
Asayish – beige/grey camoflage uniforms, helpful badge that says “Aasayish” in English on the sleeve, Kurdish flag – OK
Shia Militia – Variety of uniforms, and many many flags – often with pictures of guns or people on the flags – Not ideal
ISIS – No idea if they even wear uniforms, black flag with white logo and writing (from a distance looks like a pirate skull-and-crossbones flag) – Very bad, run in the opposite direction immediately and head for the Peshmerga for help
In general though, everything is mostly very calm and ok – I have to drive through a number of security checkpoints en route to various places, (they are mostly on the outskirts of major towns and cities) and they vary from just waving you straight through (sometimes they are only stopping people with non-Kurdish number plates), asking to see your ID through the window, to pulling you over and searching every bag in your car while you go over to the office to be questioned. In general though the soldiers are always polite and calm at checkpoints, and although they have a lot of weaponry they are fairly non-threatening for the most part.
The most amusing checkpoint story I have so far is when I was driving to Sulaymaniyah with two other female colleagues (one from Germany, one from Italy) and our Kurdish driver. The Peshmerga officer asked for our passports, and chatted briefly with our driver in Kurdish, inquiring why he had three women of different nationalities in his car etc. Then he leaned in the window to give our passports back and said
“Allemagne? Michael Ballac. Italia? Andrea Pirlo. Ingleterra? Wayne Rooney.”
I’ve genuinely never been so insulted in all my life.
Right, that’s basically your extremely complex political context analysis, through the eyes of Maya. Hope some of it made sense, and that at least 50% of it was vaguely accurate….
p.s. Just been sent this article which seems to indicate I wasn’t completely off-base in my analysis of the Peshmerga and the Shia Militias staring each other down and saying “No, YOU leave!”