The Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi Shiite militia has recruited some 5,000 fighters in its ranks in recent months, including approximately 1,800 Shiite Kurds, who may take part in clashes with mainly Sunni Kurdish forces of Peshmerga, an anonymous local military official told the Kurdish Rudaw news outlet.
“They have an entire brigade for the Kurdish recruits in Khanaqeen, fully armed and funded,” he was quoted as saying by Rudaw. “Even the commander of the brigade is a Shiite Kurd.”
Intermittent clashes between the Popular Mobilization Units, as Hashd al-Shaabi’s name is translated, and the Peshmerga flared up on November 12 at a Kurdish checkpoint in Tuz Khurmatu, a multi-ethnic town lying on the main highway between Baghdad and Kirkuk. The clashes lasted for at least three days and reportedly claimed lives of 21 persons on both sides, including civilians, and multiple arrests. The stand-off is complicated by active engagement of civilians.
“Violence in Khurmatu has resulted in the death and wounding of 21 people, including seven Kurds and others from Arabs and Turkmens of the city,” Jabar Yawar, chief of staff of the Peshmerga ministry, told Rudaw last week.
domdyer70: RT RostamMariwan: Kurdish Anti-Terror forces patrolling the streets of Tuz Khurmatu, situation much cal… pic.twitter.com/HDZiKyJdMz— Ronnie Jacobs (@ronniejacobs417) November 20, 2015
Analysts point to the rivalry over control of territories across Iraq and historical Sunni-Shiite contradictions as possible reasons for violent confrontation. While Peshmerga represents mostly Sunni Kurds, Hashd al-Shaabi recruits Arabs, Turkmens and Shiite Kurds to its ranks.
Madness in Tuz Khurmatu: Badr Brigade firing on PYD during an interview about Kurdish-Shiite clashes in the town. https://t.co/WsKDhWIYk4— agitpapa (@agitpapa) November 19, 2015
The town of Tuz Khurmatu’s disputed status was to be decided after a referendum, being continuously postponed since 2007. Earlier this fall, the Peshmerga forces and Shiite militias entered the city to take it under joint control during an ISIL offensive west of Kirkuk.
Local Islamic clergy has raised its voices to urge Peshmerga and Hashd al-Shaabi to stop the clashes and ease tensions and concentrate on fighting the common enemy, ISIL, instead.
“All hands should join and unite their energy to fight the real terrorists and the war should not be diverted from its course,” a major Shiite cleric Abdul-Mahdi said in a sermon in Karbala, as cited by Rudaw.
This is not the first time clashes between Shiite militiamen and Peshmerga troops have flared up. For instance, in late October 2014, Badr fighters fired rounds and detained some Kurds.