The car bomb that exploded along a busy Irbil thoroughfare Saturday evening was the first attack on the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region since the Islamic State took control of much of adjacent Iraqi Arab territory in mid June, and immediately shocked the city, which has long been considered an oasis of stability and security in northern Iraq.
The bombing itself, according to Kurdish officials reached by phone and interviewed in the local media, was a relatively minor incident as a bomb planted in a car parked on the side of the main road linking Kirkuk and Irbil exploded apparently randomly and wounded four passersby in an area of the city that lacks any obvious target for a terrorist attack. But in the course of the next hour, three more suicide bombs exploded in the contested city of Kirkuk, about 90 minutes to the south, killing at least 18 people at a series of checkpoints leaving most residents convinced the Irbil incident was linked.
“Daash has people active inside Irbil, we all know this,” said Mohammed, a Kurdish vegetable vendor whose outdoor stand is less than a kilometer from the bomb site, using the Arab acronym for the Islamic State. “We have too many Arabs in Kurdistan and so many refugees from Mosul, Tikrit and the rest of Iraq. And we know Kurdish boys have joined Daash. They have promised to attack us and we need to get rid of the Arabs before more bombs kill Kurds.”
The Kurds and Arabs have long been rivals in Iraq, with the Kurdish militia and security forces known as ‘peshmerga’ battling the regime of Saddam Hussein for decades, often being victims of widespread massacres and a chemical weapons campaign in the late 1980s that killed tens of thousands of civilians. And the once primarily Kurdish city of Kirkuk was heavily ethnic cleansed of its Kurdish population by Saddam’s regime and was controlled by Baghdad until the June collapse of the Iraqi security forces that led the Kurds to take control of the city.
During the American occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011, while much of Iraq was wracked by terrible violence that killed tens of thousands, Irbil and the Kurdish regions were mostly spared from terrorist attacks by very aggressive internal security policies that openly discouraged Arabs from entering the Kurdish Autonomous Region, or KRG.
But with the fall of much of central and northern Iraq, which has led to 1.2 million Iraqis internally displaced and many of them taking refuge in the KRG, as well as the new Kurdish security responsibilities for the Arab sections of Kirkuk, the security forces face a new challenge that officials admit few security forces could handle.
“We have a nearly 1,500 kilometer border with areas under Daash control to be patrolled by about 300,000 peshmerga, who also have to maintain control and security in Kurdish cities,” said one security official, who asked not be named discussing security matters candidly. “We have about half a million refugees from Syria, Mosul, and villages all throughout Kirkuk and Salahideen Province that we can barely monitor, and we know hundreds of our own Kurdish brothers from Iraq and and Syria have joined Daash because they’re mentally defective.”
Faced with such widespread threats, the official said that while it was clear that at first the Islamic State was content to mostly ignore the Kurds as they focused on their campaigns against the regimes in Baghdad and Syria. With the recent fight for control of the Mosul Dam, where Kurds aligned with their tense allies in the Iraqi Army to retake the facility with American air support, that equation has changed.
“Now it’s not a case of if Daash conducts these kinds of operations in Irbil or other places,” the official said. “It’s a case of when they do and if we can stop them in time.”
The fears, which first became public after IS forces routed the peshmerga to push to within a 30 minute drive to Irbil, has led to both a brazen security crackdown on the streets of the capital and at checkpoints, as well as a surfacing anger on the Kurdish street toward their Arab neighbors. Two weeks ago, a demonstration by hardline Kurds calling for the expulsion of not just the refugees but of all Arabs inside the KRG had to be stopped by security forces and an a new law announced prohibiting such public speech, in an effort to head off the concern of mob attacks on Arab areas.
While the city simmers with resentment towards Arabs, the official checkpoints controlling access to the capital have engaged in aggressive public profiling of people attempting to gain access to Irbil. Many Arabs, even those with permission to live in the capital as refugees have been barred from entry by officers at the checkpoints and even Syrian Kurds who fled the fighting in Syria for Irbil have found themselves detained, questioned and even turned away by security forces, a form of harassment that was unthinkable even a month ago.
Even as the Islamic State pushed to the entrance of the capital just two weeks ago, Irbil’s large community of oil companies and the contractors who service them engaged in a mass exodus fearing a major assault on the city. The sense that Saturday’s car bombing is just the beginning of a campaign of violence already has some who had planned to return once the American air strikes appeared to secure Irbil from a ground assault reconsidering.
“We were about to decide to come back in,” said one contractor, who didn’t want to be identified as his views might give his competitors an advantage. “But this bomb means we’re going to delay this decision another week, and I doubt the majors will be coming back anytime soon.”
And although officials from the ruthless and feared internal security services, the Asayish, or Kurdish security, have made a number of public statements claiming that they have control over the situation. In local interviews they have claimed that most of the known Kurdish and Arab sympathizers to the Islamic State are well known to authorities and number no more than 300, who have been arrested, security forces have recently been seen taking a less than scientific approach to capturing ‘terrorists.’ In once incident at the main front line border crossing, peshmerga could be seen stopping a car in plain view of the media, pulling out the Arab driver, beating him and packing him into the trunk of a security vehicle, all while shouting they had captured and IS terrorist. When asked how they knew he was a member of the Islamic State, the fighters were blunt.
“He’s Arab, talks like he’s from Mosul and had a Qu’ran in his car,” one said proudly. “That means he’s Daash.”
Prothero is a McClatchy Special Correspondent in Irbil, Iraq.