August 26, 2014 4:25 pm

Iraqi Kurds fear infiltration by Isis

Kurdish peshmerga fighters©Getty

Kurdish peshmerga fighters

After weeks of fighting jihadi militants at their borders, Kurds living in their northern Iraqi enclave are worried about a new threat: the enemy within.

Kurdish forces, backed by US air strikes, have repelled an offensive against their semiautonomous region by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Isis, which seized nearly a third of northern and western Iraq this summer.

But the Kurdish region was dealt another blow this weekend by a rare string of explosions inside its territory, including a car bomb in the regional capital, Erbil.

Isis, which claimed the attacks, has shown that even if it cannot hold Kurdish territory, it will try its best to destabilise it. The question preoccupying locals is who might be helping from the inside.

“If I had the power, I wouldn’t allow any Arabs in the entire city,” says Kebir Kheylaki, a small man with a large black moustache, selling guns at a weapons market outside Erbil. “We can’t trust them. There are good and bad among them, but how can you differentiate?”

Kurds and Arabs have a complicated history. For decades, Kurds fought for autonomy from repressive central governments of majority Arab Iraq, and the two populations often view each other with suspicion.

Iraqi Kurds initially welcomed the refugees fleeing the Isis onslaught and the indiscriminate government bombings that followed it. But popular sentiment changed as Isis began to threaten the Kurdish region.

At Erbil’s gun market, sprawled along the city’s dusty outskirts, men inspect Kalashnikov rifles, handguns and M-16 machineguns stacked on tattered chairs in the shade of wooden huts.

“Arabs aren’t allowed to enter the market, only Kurds,” Mr Kheylaki says.

Vendors say their sales have doubled since Isis encroached on Kurdish territory early this month, and business has held steady over fears there could be Isis sympathisers within the region.

“When Isis first attacked, I bought a Kalashnikov. But after this last explosion, I wanted something heavier, so I’m looking for a sniper rifle,” said Serward Hassan, a greying 50-year-old browsing the ramshackle stalls.

Local Kurds from frontline areas 40km outside Erbil believe nearby Arab villages helped Isis. Some say the Kurdish peshmerga forces that retook the area have barred Arab residents from returning home.

But it is not just Arabs who could be Isis sympathisers. Iraqi Kurds have their own homegrown militants. Areas along the Iranian-Iraqi border hosted jihadi groups in the 1990s. Their presence was crushed during the 2003 US invasion.

“When Isis first attacked, I bought a Kalashnikov. But after this last explosion, I wanted something heavier, so I’m looking for a sniper rifle”

- Serward Hassan

The border province of Halabja has seen at least 10 funerals for Kurds who died this year fighting with radical groups, including Isis, in Syria, said Kurdish analyst Yassin Taha.

Dozens, if not several hundred, more are believed to still be fighting. Locals who recently visited Halabja say Isis’s black and white flag has been hung in some areas.

“Extremist sympathisers among the Kurds are a small minority, but a dangerous one,” Mr Taha said. “Isis cannot create a popular base here to launch another military assault. But it could use Kurdish young men who know our towns, and our region, to launch more suicide bomb attacks.” But he adds that the region’s problems are “mostly with Arabs”.

Over 1m people have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan from Iraq and Syria, where Isis is advancing. In August, 300,000 Iraqis took refuge, many of them Sunni Arab.

“The Kurds have been very kind. But police do patrol the neighbourhood a lot,” said a frail, elderly Iraqi Arab man sitting outside the metal gates of his new home. He lives in a poor district of Erbil, where many Arabs have rented houses, waiting for the end of violence in their towns.

Like other Arab residents interviewed, he did not blame Kurds for being wary: “You have refugee camps full of people who we don’t really know, and who I’m sure have some Isis sympathisers among them,” he said.

Analysts say the overcrowded refugee camps are hard to secure and could be infiltrated by extremists.

In the town of Baharqa, outside Erbil, a vast field of tents is surrounded by a metal fence. Inside, Iraqis from minority groups stick to themselves and warn visitors against going to the other half of the camp, which is occupied by Arab families.

“Some of the Arabs there are loyal to Isis,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, a refugee from the tiny Kakaiya minority. “The men sent their families here and went back to fight. How do we know people there aren’t sharing information about Erbil?”

Many refugees said security forces monitoring the camp asked men from the minority groups to help them patrol the Arab areas at night.

Even the pastoral scenes around the camp reflect the rising tensions: a shepherd tending his flock holds a wooden staff in one hand, a Kalashnikov in the other.

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