For Muhammed, a Shia Turkmen from the village of Bashir in Kirkuk province, the advance of the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) on 17 June marked the second time he has been forced from his home.
The first time they were displaced by former Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein in 1986, in order to change the demographics in favour of his own sect and supporters.
Saddam allowed them to take their belongings and then flattened their homes, but Muhammed and his relatives tell me that the ISIS advance didn’t show the same mercy.
The extremist group considers Shia muslims to be heretics. Muhammed said that when they returned to the village in 2003 relations with his Sunni Arab neighbours were never good, but when ISIS attacked them, those same neighbours joined in the assault.
“Isis attacked the village with mortars and snipers – I was afraid and ran away. There were many injured and dead. ISIS have hummer cars and heavy weapons which they used against us.” Muhammed, the father of six says that some local people and federal police tried to fight back but most were killed or forced to flee.
Muhammed’s relative Ali says that the family later buried 18 people from Bashir in the neighbouring town of Taza.
“They also destroyed and bombed our shrines. They attacked us because we are Turkmen and because we are Shia.” 72 of his relatives including 32 children are crammed into the three bedroom house with Muhammed in the city of Kirkuk, which is controlled by the Kurdish armed forces.
Turkmen are one of Iraq’s ethnic minorities, who mainly live in the north of the country. Shia muslims in Iraq are particularly vulnerable to attacks by militants who have taken over large parts of northern Iraq, beginning on 10 June in the city of Mosul.
Along with other Sunni militants, ISIS led the capture of the city and continued south, wreaking havoc in the days following the fall of Mosul. Now they control the western city of Tal Afar, Mosul and Saddam’s home town of Tikrit – as well as large swathes of Syria.
Sunni militant groups also hold parts of Anbar province in the west of the country after fighting began there at the start of this year.
On 29 June ISIS announced via an audio statement the establishment of an Islamic caliphate spreading across Iraq and Syria. ISIS is now closing in on Baghdad but will have to face off Iraq’s burgeoning Shia militias if they want to enter the city. At the same time the political process in Baghdad continues to offer little solution to the disintegration of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines.
The UN reports that 1.2 million people have been uprooted since fighting first erupted in Iraq’s Anbar province at the beginning of the year. In June the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) recorded 2,417 deaths and 2,287 people injured – the highest death toll since 2007, during Iraq’s post invasion sectarian fuelled civil war. With battles continuing between Islamic militants, tribes, the Iraqi army and Shia militias, there seems to be little hope for the people trapped between the lines of fighting.
“I have no money to live in another place.” Muhammed tells me. “I am scared – we don’t know what will happen in the future.”
On the same day that ISIS announced the establishment of the caliphate, local media reported that the Badr brigade, a Shia militia, had tried to attack ISIS in the town of Bashir, only to be repelled. Reportedly 50 members of the militia were killed or injured.
After April’s national election, a government still hasn’t been formed leaving Iraq in political limbo and security turmoil. Incumbent Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s State of Law party won the most seats, but still not enough to form a government without reaching out to other political parties.
On 1 July the first session of parliament since the crisis failed to start the process of electing a Speaker. Soon after it began MPs were trading verbal attacks and Sunni and Kurdish politicians walked out in protest.
Maliki has served two terms as Prime Minister and is now looking to take office for a third. But throughout his tenure deep political distrust has been sewn amongst Sunnis and Kurds, Iraq’s two largest factions after Maliki’s Shia sect.
The Kurds, even though they helped to write the new Iraqi constitution after the US led invasion, feel that they have no impetus to remain within a failing state. Iraq’s Sunnis on the other hand have felt increasingly marginalised during the premiership of Maliki. He is widely accused of consolidated power and dominating the military.
Human Rights Watch in its 2014 World Report, accused the Iraqi government of responded to protest movements and unrest in Iraq with “mass arrest campaigns in Sunni regions, targeting ordinary civilians and prominent activists and politicians under the 2005 Anti-Terrorism Law,” as well as the abuse of detainees with impunity.
The Kurds in the north of the country have governed their own relatively stable region since the allied no fly zone was put into place in 1991, are now planning to hold a referendum on independence. The Kurds are spread across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey and are often called the largest stateless nation.
President of the Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani said in an interview with the BBC on 1 July that “Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people. We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.”
The US, Turkey and neighbouring Iran oppose Kurdish independence and instead are campaigning for the formation of a unified government in Iraq – taking into account Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and smaller groups.
Immediately after the fall of Mosul the Kurds advanced to take control of the oil rich city of Kirkuk, which lies within the disputed territories, areas claimed by both the Kurdish government and Baghdad. The Kurdish armed forces known as the peshmerga, moved into the city to occupy deserted Iraqi army bases as the soldiers fled in the face of the ISIS advance.
The Kurds have now increased their territory by up to 40%, in their view settling long running disputes over territory in one fell swoop. But they must now protect their gains and the rest of Kurdistan along the new 1000km border they share with ISIS.
In a speech on 2 July Maliki accused the Kurds in Iraq of “exploiting current events in order to impose a reality” in reference to their takeover of Kirkuk.
In another push for independence, earlier this year the Kurds announced the start of independent oil sales to international markets from Kurdistan, bypassing the Iraqi’s central ministry of oil – further souring relations.
Kurdish statehood is a long held dream for most Kurds, and with growing political and financial autonomy from Baghdad, many feel the time is right.
“For Kurds, because we have been oppressed [in the past] we don’t trust the Iraqi government” said Hawdang Kamal, a student from the American University of Iraq, reflecting the views of many people in the region. “We can’t solve our problems until we separate from Iraq.”
But the disintegrating relationship with Baghdad brings back fears for some of past violence against the Kurds under Saddam Hussein. One Kurdish journalist was speaking to friends about the proposed referendum on independence in a Sulaimaniyah cafe after Barzani’s announcement. “Is it really the right time?” he said, looking anxious, adding “Maliki has just bought Russian fighter jets.”
Even though Kurds in Iraq are generally more secular than their Arab Iraqi counterparts, fears are also growing over the radicalisation of young Kurds. Kurdish officials reported that around 200 young men from Kurdistan have joined Islamic extremist groups in Syria since the start if the war there, many of them from the religiously conservative town of Halabja have been recruited by ISIS.
Halabja was also the site of Saddam’s infamous 1988 chemical attack that killed 5,000 people, and residents say there are little job opportunities, and that the town still hasn’t received the investment and infrastructure it needs.
Outside the Kurdish region, Shia militias are moving in to fight ISIS and protect sacred Shia sites, bringing fears of a drawn out war. But one Sunni leader says that ISIS are not the biggest threat to Iraq right now, Maliki is.
In a five star hotel in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil, The Big Issue in the North and other foreign media met with Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman, head of Anbar’s Dulaim tribe. Hatem was a leading figure in the Awakening movement, when Sunni tribes with US backing turned from fighting the occupation to fighting Al Qaeda. Sunni tribes such as Hatem’s are now in open revolt against Maliki.
Whilst sipping Diet Coke in a long brown dish dashe, Sheikh Ali denied there was an alliance between the tribes and ISIS, but was clear about his enemy.
“It is not the time to fight ISIS we have another enemy, we have to finish the fight with him [Maliki] and then go to fight ISIS” he said, using the group’s Arabic acronym ‘Daash.’
According to Hatem, the Sunni uprisings initially started with militants on the ground and then ISIS came in.
“ISIS makes up between 7-10% of the armed people fighting, but they will increase” says Hatem, adding that the tribes did not want “a fight on two fronts.”
Hatem says that even though there is no alliance with ISIS, there is coordination between tribes across Iraq, “all the rebels are in different groups, the police are part of the tribes, along with former Iraqi army officers, baathists, all of these groups are under the umbrella of the tribes.”
“Whatever the price we will not give up until we get all of our rights” said Hatem. “Our rights which have been taken from us we want them back.”
As well as removing Maliki, Hatem adds that the aim of the uprising is to have Shia, Sunni and Kurdish federal states in Iraq.
“We know that ISIS don’t believe in the tribes but they want to use us and work under our cover. I don’t think we can work with ISIS and be aligned because culturally we are totally different […] they don’t believe in dialogue, we believe in dialogue and have dialogue with everybody.”
Hatem says that because of Maliki’s oppression of the Sunni people, some citizens have welcomed ISIS.
“Obama in one of his speeches he talked about how to protect Baghdad and Maliki said Baghdad is a red line, but we want to say that there are no more red lines for the rebels, for the tribes. To not have this Baghdad fight we have to have Maliki out of power.”
When asked if the tribes are confident they can defeat ISIS after the fight with Maliki, Hatem says “we already did. Al Qaeda was much stronger than ISIS and we defeated Al Qaeda in 2008 in Anbar, so for us it would be really easy to defeat ISIS when we are done with Maliki.”
He claims the balance of power is still strongly in favour of the tribes, although he admits ISIS is growing in strength. “They can’t stand face to face with us we are stronger but the only thing which they have which we don’t have is the suicide bombers.”
Christine Van Den Toorn is an Iraq researcher and analyst. She says that the problem now will be pushing through a change of leadership in Iraq that make Sunnis feel they are part of the political process.
“Maliki has come to embody everything the Sunnis hate – whether they are right or not it is symbolic.”
“The problem will be maintaining the legitimacy of the previous elections and figuring out what to do about Maliki, who got the most personal votes and refuses to leave office.”
At the time of writing the Iraqi army is continuing its military offensive to recapture the city of Tikrit from militants, but so far they have not been successful. The Kurds are defining their new border and are engaged in battles with ISIS and local tribes in towns like Jalawla on the southern border of the Kurdistan region.
As political infighting threatens to lend the militants muscle, and the borders of the country crumble; it is those caught along fraught ethno-sectarian lines outside of anyone’s protection that are feeling the full force of the country’s collapse.
Muhammed and his family have made it to Kirkuk city, but as Shia Turkmen they remain vulnerable. Back in Muhammed’s temporary home, his relative Jumah tells me that his children wake up in the night, crying. Muhammed nods, “Life in Iraq is getting harder and harder.”
Photo by Jacob Russell