8:50 pm - Saturday November 7, 2015

In North Iraq, a comprehensive culture in rupture

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Ever since the Islamist insurgents swept through the small north Iraq village of Bashir, rage had been building up, the memories of children and women executed at point-blank range stoked by the searing summer sun. The anger exploded on Saturday, the beginning of the month of penitence, Ramzan. Ethnic Turcomen militia, armed with assault rifles handed over by Kirkuk’s local government, assaulted Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) positions around their village, seeking vengeance.

Five members of the ill-trained militia fell in minutes, though, and the attack began to dissolve — opening the way for another massacre. Kurdish Peshmerga forces stationed near the frontline intervened, suffering eight men injured but driving back ISIS. General Sherko Fateh, commander of the Peshmerga’s 1 Brigade in Kiruk, was blunt: “My troops are here to protect our borders, not fight ISIS,” he said, “but I brought you here because I think the world should know that one of the great tragedies of our time is unfolding.”

Forty-five people, perhaps more, were executed in four villages near Kirkuk, including Bashir, as ISIS insurgents arrived in settlements inhabited by ethnic-Turcomen, mainly Shia, on July 21, riding on pick-up trucks with mounted machine-guns.

The attack, villagers say, began mid-afternoon, as most people were sleeping. First, shells fell; machine gun fire followed. Hundreds from the villages of Brawawchli, Karanaz, Chardaghli and Bashir fled.

“I know at least two children were shot in the back of the head,” General Fateh said, “and so were two children.” “There were elderly people among the victims, all mowed down as they tried to escape.”

Villagers from nearby regions took shelter in Turcomen-dominated neighbourhood of Wasiti, in Kirkuk — an oil-rich town held by Peshmerga since the Iraqi army fled, and now claimed as part of the independent region Kurdistan’s political leadership hopes it will soon become.

Kirkuk’s Governor, heeding demands from Turcomen leaders, arranged for weapons to be distributed to the villagers, and a tribal militia — or sahwa — to be formed.

Fighting has broken out in several other areas, with Peshmerga seeking to stop ethnic cleansing by ISIS. ISIS attacks on Christians and Shia Shabak Kurds in the al-Hamdaniya district, near Mosul, has led to mortar and rocket exchanges.

ISIS has, for its part, hit back, staging the first suicide-bombing inside Kirkuk since the Peshmerga took charge on Wednesday.

Three people, one of them a child, were killed in the bombing, which targeted the Rahimawa market. Munir Kafili, the chairman of the Kirkuk City Council and a prominent Turkmen leader, was assassinated a day earlier.

The city’s cosmopolitan mosaic has survived centuries, but could be torn apart as all communities arm themselves, fearing the worst.

“Every day,” says General Fateh, “thousands are streaming across the border into the city, some fearing ISIS and others the Iraqi army and still others their neighbours.”

Fissures between communities could increase if Iraqi forces engage in revenge killings. Iraqi troops are battling around Tikrit— a city where 46 Indian nurses are holed up, with no viable evacuation route, having elected to remain at their stationsFollowing a loan of at least 11 combat jets with Russian pilot-instructors, Iraq’s government is also expected to step up air strikes on cities further north, like Mosul.

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