Kirkuk: On a sunny afternoon in April 2015, Ahmad and his friends were playing football in a pitch in the Al Askari quarter in Tuz Khormato city. On the ride back home after the game, Ahmad noticed in his rear-view mirror that two men on a motorbike were tailing him. In a matter of seconds, the motorbike lined up next to his car, the man on the back discharged several shots and off they drove. Five bullets pierced through Ahmad’s arm and chest, but miraculously he survived.
Ahmad’s family now live in a nondescript house in the relative safety of Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk, where I met them over a glass of fresh water in the scorching mid-day heat. Lying in his bed after an operation to remove two bullets from his body, a catheter running under his blanket to a plastic bladder on the floor, Ahmad shows me pictures of his shot-up car.
“I saw the two men on the bike but didn’t recognise them,” he explains, the fear still visible in his eyes. “I am a student, but now the doctor tells me I’ll have to lie here for five months before I can walk again.”
Ahmad is among a few who have lived to tell their story. Tens, possibly hundreds of others weren’t so lucky. Speaking on the terrace of a restaurant in Kirkuk city centre, Shaikh Abu Taha from Sulaiman Bek — who goes by a pseudonym over concerns for his safety — speaks with the authority of someone who represents 70,000 of his fellow tribesmen.
“Since the end of the siege of Amerli, we suffered 382 martyrs, 183 wounded and 87 missing,” he contends while nervously sipping his tea.
As if to prove his point, he chain-smokes through a litany of incidents where Sunnis in Tuz Khormato district were targeted with “explosive devices, adhesive bombs, drive-by shootings, abductions and executions.”
Often, the bodies of victims are dumped in open areas bearing torture marks.
Militias’ looting spree
Amerli is a Turkoman Shiite town 25km south of Tuz Khormato city in Iraq’s Salah Al Deen Province. When the soon-to-become Daesh blitzed through Iraq in June 2014, it took over dozens of Sunni villages around Amerli — including the nearby town of Sulaiman Bek — and put the city under siege for three months, subjecting it to daily shelling and cutting water, food and electricity to the thousands of besieged civilians.
By September 1, “ground operations by pro-government Shiite militias and Iraqi and Kurdish government ground forces, supported by Iraqi and United States air strikes” had managed to drive Daesh out of Amerli sub-district. Human Rights Watch reports eyewitness accounts of “militias looting villages around Amerli after the offensive against Daesh ended and just before militias destroyed homes in the town. [They] saw militiamen taking items of value — such as refrigerators, televisions, clothing, and even electrical wiring — out of homes, then setting the houses on fire.”
While some Arab and Turkoman Sunnis joined Daesh against their neighbours, many fled to the mixed city of Tuz Khormato in search for safety. Towards the end of July, several Shiite militias entered Tuz Khormato in preparation for the multi-pronged assault to break the siege of Amerli. Ever since, Sunni residents and IDPs complain of a campaign of terror carried out by those militias against their community, which picked up pace after Amerli was freed from Daesh.
Frustration with police inaction
“Every day we learn that someone has been kidnapped or killed. All the victims are Arab and Turkoman Sunnis. The perpetrators belong to the militias, such as Badr, Khorasani and [the Iraqi] Hezbollah,” Ahmad’s brother tells me. The only member of the family who remains in Tuz Khormato, he adds: “There is no police investigation. The police just record what happened and the case is closed.”
Many Sunnis echo this frustration and confirm that the Iranian-backed Badr and Khorasani Brigades are active in Tuz Khormato. Online material — including self-promoting propaganda — abounds as to their presence in the area. Last March, N. narrowly escaped an attempt on his life in a drive-by shooting in Tuz.
He shows little doubt as to the perpetrators: “It was the militias for sure, most likely Badr, which is the most active in the area. They think all of us Sunnis are Daesh”.
One family’s nightmare
Mohammad was among the thousands of residents that left their homes in the face of Daesh’s June advance and resettled in Tuz Khormato. The 22-year-old and his family rented a house in the city’s Ak Su quarter. In July, “we saw members of the Khorasani and Badr Brigades setting up their headquarters in the city’s Youth Sports Club and the Customs Building next to the Courthouse, respectively,” Abu Mohammad — Mohammad’s father — recounts.
We meet in his old car in a parking space in Kirkuk, as he fears being seen in public with a stranger. The previous evening, I had caused a stir in the family when I drove to their new house on the outskirts of the city.
“I was afraid you were a killer,” Abu Mohammad blushes. His son’s story explains why the family has been living in terror ever since he disappeared.
On the night between August 8 and 9, Mohammad was allegedly abducted by men belonging to the Khorasani Brigades, as witnessed by three neighbours from the roof of their house. Abu Mohammad learnt in confidence that his son had been taken with another hostage inside the Youth Sports Club.
On the morning of August 9, Abu Mohammad spoke to a Khorasani member at the entrance of the Club, who denied the militia’s involvement in the kidnapping and threatened to arrest him if he came back.
Abu Mohammad’s frantic search for his son yielded a rare acknowledgement from a Khorasani Brigades commander — via a well-connected intermediary — that Mohammad would be interrogated and released within the next 48 hours. On August 12, however, a video was uploaded on YouTube purporting to show “the arrest of a Daesh-member by the heroes of the Khorasani Brigades in Amerli, Sulaiman Bek sub-district.”
“When I watched that video my heart sank,” recalls Abu Mohammad.
In it, Mohammad is sitting on the floor, blindfolded and with his hands shackled behind his back. Several men in military fatigues beat and humiliate him, posing for pictures while grabbing and shaking his head. The spot where Mohammad sits is stained with blood and his neck and left foot reveal marks consistent with torture.
“I saw most of the men that appear in the video coming in and out of the Youth Sports Club in Tuz, including Al Sayed Hamid,” Abu Mohammad continues.
Al Sayed Hamid, who appears in a picture at the beginning of the video sporting a black turban and a long black beard, looks very much alike Al Sayed Hamid Al Jazairi, the spokesperson for the Khorasani Brigades as well as the Commander of the Special Operations Brigade 18 in the Popular Mobilisation (the umbrella organisation comprising all the Iraqi government-sponsored Shiite militias).
Umm Mohammad’s eyes lighten up with endearment when she speaks about her son. Sinking in the passenger’s seat next to her husband, a flicker of a smile even crosses her lips before reality hits back and she bursts out crying: “They say he was Daesh, but where is their proof? They say that he confessed, but under torture I myself would confess to anything. I swear, my Mohammad was only interested in home, school and work.”
A few days after the first video, a second video appeared on YouTube showing Mohammad’s execution by a militia fighter. The video was removed from the internet shortly thereafter, but the family had already downloaded a copy. Umm Mohammad shows it to me on her smartphone. Mohammad is lying on his back on the ground bare-chested, blindfolded and handcuffed. To his left are a freshly dug grave and a masked man holding a flag of Hussain, one of Shiite Islam’s sacred Imams.
Another knife-wielding masked man declares: “this dog is a member of Daesh, and as revenge for the martyrs of the Shiite, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and he who started shall bear the brunt of the blame. As they [Sunnis] butcher us, we [Shiite] butcher them.”
“Allahu akbar,” echoes the cameraman’s voice.
Khorasani brigade accused
Local websites and social media shared the news of Mohammad’s killing widely claiming that the Khorasani Brigades were behind this crime. Al Taghier Channel ran a story about the murder, accusing Khorasani “of killing an innocent civilian in Tuz Khormato.”
A still image accompanying the article shows a blindfolded Mohammad, as he appears in the second YouTube video. These reports seem to lend credence to the family’s contention that the culprits belong to Khorasani.
Once Amerli was liberated in September, Abu and Umm Mohammad started receiving phone threats from Khorasani militiamen.
“Leave Tuz or we’ll put a bullet in your head and burn you,” he recalls. In one heated exchange, Abu Mohammad shouted at the man on the other side of the line why they had killed his son, to which he answered: “Because he is Daesh. Because he is a Sunni, so he is fair game.”
On one occasion, Abu Mohammad was asked to pay $20,000 (Dh73,460) to know his late son’s place of burial. He refused.
Soon, life for the family in Tuz Khormato became so unbearable that they moved to Kirkuk city, along with hundreds of other Sunni residents and IDPs. Abu Mohammad found a new job and the family settled in a small house in the suburbs. Their daily struggle to come to terms with their loss was once again shaken when news emerged in social media that Kurdish special forces had arrested and interrogated some of the militiamen linked to Mohammad’s murder.
On January 6 2015, Tuz News revealed that “a group of 16 people belonging to the Khorasani Brigades [two from Basra, two from Baghdad and the rest from Tuz Khormato] were arrested by a special force of the Asayish [Kurdish security]. They confessed under interrogation to committing several criminal offences in Tuz Khormato district, including kidnapping IDPs and asking for ransom for their release; slaying an IDP from Sulaiman Bek called Mohammad and filming his execution; carrying out assassinations in Al Tin and Al Askari quarters; looting and torching houses in villages around Tuz Khormato; and threatening IDPs via mobile.”
The entry has been since removed, but not before the family had saved a copy.
Shortly after that, Umm Mohammad received a strange phone call: “He was the same man who would call me and let me speak with Mohammad during his ‘detention.’ He is from Basra and belongs to Badr. He told me that it was true that they [Badr] had held and tortured Mohammad, but they hadn’t killed him.”
The mobile number was the same used to ask for a $20,000 ransom for Mohammad’s body.
Abu Mohammad isn’t surprised: “In Tuz, Khorasani and Badr work hand in hand, they cooperate,” he explained.
On February 22 2015, Dijlah TV aired an episode on the Khorasani Brigades featuring interviews with the organisation’s top cadres, as part of a series exploring the various armed groups fighting Daesh in Iraq. When the questions turned to the Khorasani capture of Daesh members, a snapshot of Mohammad’s first video appears on the screen.
Al Sayed Hamid Al Jazairi replies: “[When a member of Daesh is caught,] he is arrested and punished, his confession is taken and then he is handed over to the competent authorities, [ ...] some cases to the Iraqi authorities, others to other bodies.”
No evidence was presented as to whether Mohammad is indeed an Daesh fighter.
An excerpt from the execution video is then shown, to which the organisation’s secretary-general Al Sayed Ali Al Yasiri retorts: “We reject such actions, we respect the human being as such and the person who did this did something that violates Sharia. In truth, we do not incite any of the fighters to exceed [their boundaries when dealing with] properties, houses and money, so how could we allow such violation to be committed, that a human being be slaughtered? [ ...] We didn’t give permission for this action, we prohibit and punish all transgressors.”
Abu Mohammad emits a bitter laugh. “What does he mean, that it was a mistake?” he says.
“They slaughtered hundreds like they did my son. What’s the use of speaking of it if nothing changes? Since the interview, 50 more people have been killed in Tuz.”
After several email requests for comment, a spokesperson for the Khorasani Brigades echoed Al Sayed Al Yasiri’s words in his answer: “The Khorasani Brigades have nothing to do with the killing of [this] young man. We deplore and condemn any action that contravenes the sublime Islamic Sharia. Our brothers, the Kurds, aren’t detaining any member of Khorasani and our relationship with them is good at the moment.”
He then adds: “We urge our troops to exercise Islamic morality and to refrain from acts of revenge and reprisals that are detrimental to the principle of our cause, namely the defence of our honour, our holy places and land. We do not claim infallibility and aren’t above the law. Thus, any offender that infiltrates our troops is held accountable by us and by the security department of the Popular Mobilisation Authority.”
A Kurdish high official in Tuz Khormato, however, contradicted this narrative. When I first phoned him, he excused himself as he was attending a wake for a dead relative. Later, he explained that the man had died of old age, for a change. He then proceeded to elaborate on what is unfolding in Tuz district: “The security services have information indicating that the Popular Mobilisation, and specifically the Shiite militias, are responsible for kidnappings and assassinations targeting the Sunnis. I cannot be one hundred per cent certain, but before it was the Khorasani Brigades, while information [about more recent incidents] points to the Hezbollah Brigades.”
When I mentioned reports of some militiamen being arrested by Kurdish forces, he promptly remarked: “Regarding Khorasani, eight members of this militia were arrested by the Peshmerga or the Asaish, when they were transferring five kidnapped prisoners to Jalawla at the beginning of the year. They were held at Sulaimaniyah Salam prison and their case was handed over to the Counterterrorism section in Sulaimaniyah.”
Several requests for comment to the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights and the Kurdistan Regional Government went unanswered.
The dire situation in Tuz Khormato was highlighted in a high-level meeting in mid-May between all parties and armed groups in the district. The senior Kurdish official, who attended the event, asserted that an agreement was reached for “the creation of a security and a political committee in order to discuss any problem and reach consensual decisions on how to calm the situation down.” He added: “The security committee will also be in charge of ending the killings and kidnappings. I told the participants that the situation in Tuz Khormato is like a time bomb and that if we don’t solve our differences, God forbid, there will be bigger problems ahead.”
Ending the cycle of violence won’t be easy, however. Turkman Shiite view their actions as lawful retaliation against what they first suffered at the hands of Al Qaida, and now from Daesh with the complicity of their Sunni neighbours. A source quoted in Al Monitor reports how “back in the days when Daesh had not yet emerged, bomb attacks began to target Shiite Turkmen in Tuz Khormato. We later found out that Al Qaida militants, supported by Sunni Turkmen in Yengeja, were behind the attacks.”
From their part, the Sunnis believe that they are victims of a Shiite-led government, which applies the same Daesh label on each and every Sunni, without acknowledging that most have suffered as much as the other communities due to Daesh.
Abu Mohammad puts it bluntly: “We have an Iranian government in Baghdad. If it stays this way, justice will never be done. As long as there is a Shiite government, we won’t be able to go back home.”
Thousands of Sunni IDPs from Tuz district remain scattered in several cities in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government, unable or unwilling to return to their villages with no prior security guarantees. Sitting on a plush sofa in the living room of his temporary Sulaimaniyah abode, Shaikh S. fumes at the thought that Badr is in control of his village.
“Daesh was kicked out months ago, but we cannot go back because Badr is there.”
The gap between the narratives of the two communities appears unbridgeable in the foreseeable future, as suspicion runs too deep. Over a frugal lunch of rice and beans in tomato sauce at the Popular Mobilisation’s HQs in Taza, a half-hour drive south of Kirkuk, a militia leader rambles on about the scourge of terrorism.
“Those who are for Daesh, we have to eradicate them,” he confides to me. He then adds that “after the siege of Amerli was broken, the Sunnis left as they were ashamed of supporting Daesh,” revealing who the terrorists are in his mind.
Questions on Iraq’s future
As for the question of justice, the arrest of some people implicated in Mohammad’s murder was more a result of circumstance than of the Iraqi state’s will to hold perpetrators accountable. The current fight against Daesh seems to have become a free for all. With current operations to dislodge Daesh from Ramadi and Anbar Province in full swing, these are vital questions for the future of Iraq as a functional state of all its citizens.
Even in Mohammad’s case, some of the culprits are still at large. When I rang some of the mobile numbers that had called Abu and Umm Mohammad to threaten them and ask for money, two were still in use. The men on the other side of the line were very suspicious, but confirmed to me that they were part of the Iraqi State’s ‘Islamic resistance’. Although they refused to identify which militia they were part of, one asserted that he was on a new assignment at the front.
He added: “We are the resistance factions. We work everywhere in Iraq and are ready for martyrdom in the path of Allah. We are Allah’s soldiers and we fight the devil and his followers everywhere.”
The day before leaving Iraq, I had arranged a meeting with an official at Tuz Khormato Municipality, who was supposed to provide a list of names of Sunnis kidnapped and killed by the militias in the past months. Half an hour before the appointment, my mobile rang.
“He cannot meet with you today,” a contact person told me. “One of his relatives has just been gunned down in his shop in Tuz city.”
Credit: Franco Galdini is a roving freelance Italian journalist with a background in international politics