Kurds dis­placed by Iraq ad­vance fear reprisals if they re­turn

Jerusalem Post - - REGIONAL NEWS - By RAYA JAL­ABI

ZINANA (Reuters) – Four hours after first hear­ing gun­fire out­side his home, Abu Ri­war bun­dled his wife and six chil­dren into his car and drove to a re­mote vil­lage 120 km. away.

“We left with the clothes on our back and noth­ing else,” said Abu Ri­war, a mem­ber of the Kur­dish se­cu­rity forces from the eth­ni­cally mixed town of Tuz Khur­mato, seized last month by Iraqi troops and Iran-backed Shi’ite paramil­i­taries. “If the mili­tias found out I was Pesh­merga, they’d have slaugh­tered me.”

They burned his home to the ground in­stead, his neigh­bors, who cap­tured it on cam­era, told him.

Tuz Khur­mato was part of dis­puted ter­ri­tory, out­side the Kur­dish re­gion of north­ern Iraq but held by Kur­dish forces known as Pesh­merga, un­til last month, when the cen­tral gov­ern­ment re­cap­tured it in a light­ning ad­vance to pun­ish the Kurds for stag­ing an in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum that Bagh­dad called il­le­gal.

The ma­jor­ity of Tuz Khur­mato’s 50,000 Kurds – around half of the pop­u­la­tion of the eth­ni­cally mixed city – fled the Iraqi ad­vance to Kur­dish-held vil­lages and towns in nearby coun­try­side, said Mayor Sha­lal Ab­dul.

The mayor him­self fled to the vil­lage of Zinana, 120 km. east of Tuz Khur­mato, where he spoke to Reuters.

Most res­i­dents have no plans to re­turn home, cit­ing re­ports of con­tin­u­ing at­tacks.

“We can’t cope if it con­tin­ues like this,” said the chief of po­lice in Zinana, adding that the gov­ern­ment and aid groups had been too slow to re­spond. “Fam­i­lies have taken over school build­ings, houses and the hos­pi­tal, but we can’t turn them out on the streets.”

Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, more than 180,000 peo­ple were dis­placed by the Iraqi gov­ern­ment of­fen­sive on dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries last month. Aid agen­cies say most of those dis­placed are Kurds, though mem­bers of other mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing some of Tuz Khur­mato’s Sunni Arabs and Turk­men, also fled.

Un­til Bagh­dad’s of­fen­sive, Tuz Khur­mato had been jointly ad­min­is­tered by Kur­dish forces, lo­cal po­lice and the Iran-backed Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces paramil­i­taries, al­lied with the town’s Shi’ite Turk­men pop­u­la­tion.

Though the Turk­men and the Kurds had worked to­gether to push Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists out in 2014, the town’s frag­ile coali­tion soon fell apart and led to open hos­til­i­ties. In the runup to the Kur­dish in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum, ten­sion es­ca­lated be­tween the com­mu­ni­ties.

In Zinana, dis­placed Kurds told Reuters sto­ries of abuse at the hands of the Shi’ite paramil­i­taries who cap­tured Tuz. One man showed a video he had filmed de­pict­ing the crushed body of a rel­a­tive. Fam­ily mem­bers said the vic­tim had been shot in his car, dragged out alive by paramil­i­taries and run over by a tank.

“He was crushed to death in front of me, by those mon­sters,” said Abu Alan, the rel­a­tive who filmed the body. “He was a good man from a good fam­ily.”

A video cir­cu­lated on the In­ter­net, ap­par­ently of the same in­ci­dent, shows a tank run­ning over a body while uni­formed paramil­i­taries stand by.

The paramil­i­taries deny car­ry­ing out any abuse.

“Joint pa­trols by the PMF [Pop­u­lar Mo­bi­liza­tion Forces] and gov­ern­ment forces are se­cur­ing the town, to pre­vent any at­tacks against Kurds,” said Ali al-Hus­saini, a spokesman for the PMF in north­ern Iraq and a com­man­der of the largest of the armed groups, the Badr Or­ga­ni­za­tion. “It’s our job to keep Tuz safe for all sects.”

The mayor, who is col­lect­ing sto­ries and ev­i­dence of abuse, said seven peo­ple were killed when the town was cap­tured, in­clud­ing the man who was crushed by the tank and three other civil­ians. He said he also knew of three women and one man who had been raped. Reuters could not ver­ify those ac­cu­sa­tions.

More than 1,000 busi­nesses and 2,000 homes were looted, burned down or de­mol­ished, the mayor said.

He showed Reuters im­ages of houses and shop fronts in Kur­dish ar­eas, blown up and scorched, their res­i­dents’ be­long­ings be­ing carted away by men in mil­i­tary fa­tigues. Other pic­tures showed paramil­i­taries sit­ting in the mayor’s own of­fice, feet propped up on his desk and on his Kur­dish flag.

Dozens of peo­ple were de­tained, and some say they were tor­tured, like Thiaa, a 20-year-old Sunni Turk­man from the coun­try­side who had gone to Tuz Khur­mato the day after the of­fen­sive to check on his sis­ter who was mar­ried to a Kurd.

“They de­tained me be­cause I don’t speak Ara­bic, so they thought I was a Kurd,” Thiaa said. “They kept me filthy, hun­gry and blind­folded in a dark room with three Kurds. They beat us with ca­bles all day long.”

One night, fight­ers put a gun in Thiaa’s mouth and threat­ened to kill him, only to burst out laugh­ing at his pan­icked tears, he said. He was re­leased after seven days and is now re­cov­er­ing at home from his in­juries.

The Kurds held with him “had no such luck,” he said. More than five are still miss­ing.

(Raya Jal­abi/Reuters)

THE MAYOR OF Tuz Khur­mato, Iraq, Sha­lal Ab­dul, is seen in the re­mote vil­lage of Zinana last month.

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