The Iraq and Kurdistan governments must first reach a political understanding before the Peshmerga can return to the disputed areas to form a joint operation command against increasing ISIS activity in the areas, a leader of the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi told Rudaw in an interview.
Karim Nuri, a leader of the Badr Organization, said that ISIS has resorted to al-Qaeda-style tactics following their territorial defeat in Iraq.
The extremist group has killed dozens of people in recent months, often at fake checkpoints, especially in Kirkuk and Diyala provinces.
The change in tactics shows that ISIS is no longer capable of fighting Iraqi forces in a battle, Nuri said.
To combat ISIS, Iraqi forces have to "review" the security plan in Kirkuk in such a way that only one command-and-control room will be in place to coordinate among the various forces.
The decision on whether the Peshmerga should be redeployed to the disputed areas lies with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the Hashd leader said, adding that such an arrangement needs a political understanding before establishing a security mechanism.
The Peshmerga ministry denied on Thursday that there is a deal in place to return the Kurdish force to the disputed or Kurdistani areas under the watch of the US-led Coalition.
Jabar Yawar, the Peshmerga secretary-general, said that the Coalition is not part of the program, although they want to see good coordination between Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Yawar, however, had told reporters on Tuesday that the United States and the United Kingdom have mediated a deal that will result in a Joint Security Mechanism in the disputed areas.
The following is an edited version of the interview with Karim Nuri.
There are many reports about the return of Peshmerga to the disputed areas. What is your stance on that?
First, there is no rivalry or, God forbid, conflict between the Peshmerga and others. Instead, there are political differences. It is something normal, just as there are political differences within a party. There are differences within the Dawa party, but this does not mean that indeed there is conflict.
We do not allow – our Peshmerga brothers fought on our side since the era of Saddam Hussein. They fought as well against ISIS and sacrificed martyrs. Therefore it is not correct to say that there is enmity between the Peshmerga forces and the [Iraqi] security forces. We defend all of Iraq, and they defend the [Kurdistan] Region. There is no problem.
There should be a political understanding before a security understanding
The decision for the Peshmerga to take part in defending the disputed areas and protecting it against threats certainly lies with the commander-in-chief. He is the one who makes that decision.
My personal belief is that we cannot establish stability in Kirkuk with a mindset of rivalry and conflict. The Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs are stakeholders in Kirkuk. No component can be marginalized in Kirkuk, because it will destabilize and tarnish trust in the image of a city for all.
And regarding the return of the Peshmerga to the disputed areas?
The decision lies with the commander-in-chief. It is not within our powers. He is the one who assesses whether this is in the interests [of the areas.] I believe that before their return, trust and understanding have to be established between the KDP, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the PUK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the Iraqi government. There should be a political understanding before a security understanding.
As Hashd al-Shaabi, what is your opinion on this?
As the Hashd al-Shaabi, we are under the command of the commander-in-chief. We do not have an opinion different from his.
What are your thoughts about the formation of a joint force between the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Peshmerga, and the Iraqi forces?
We do not have any problem. There is no conflict in the first place that can then cause a problem. We hope that the decision will be in the interests of stability in Kirkuk and the disputed areas. We believe that the commander-in-chief is keen to have a good relationship
[ISIS has] resorted to installing fake checkpoints and deception techniques because they cannot face the security forces
between the Peshmerga and the security forces.
Lately, we have heard frequent reports of ISIS attacks in Kirkuk, especially in the Sunni areas. In your opinion, what is the reason behind the return of ISIS to the area?
They did not return. They instead escaped from Hawija to the Hamrin hills. There are [ISIS] operations that include some kind of deception and tricks. If they were – If ISIS was capable of facing the security forces and the Hashd al-Shaabi, they would have done so without resorting to installing fake checkpoints and wearing military uniforms… They have resorted to installing fake checkpoints and deception techniques because they cannot face the security forces. This was happening in Baghdad before 2014. There were fake checkpoints in Baghdad for al-Qaeda. But this does not mean we should be indifferent to the presence of ISIS. Security must be maintained.
What has caused that chaos is the lack of coordination among the security forces who are present in Kirkuk. There are various sides making decisions and various security forces. That is why security must be handled by one operation room so that one single decision will be made.
Mr. Karim, why is the Hashd al-Shaabi sensitive to Kurdish symbols? The flag of Kurdistan is not raised in areas under your control. This is despite the fact that such symbols are legal and constitutional?
This issue does not concern the Hashd al-Shaabi. There are regulations. It is because of decisions taken inside Kirkuk. You know it falls under the power of the Counter-Terrorism Service and the Kirkuk operation. The Hashd al-Shaabi is present in remote areas and detached from this reality. That is why banning the Kurdish flags does not concern us. There are security institutions who are concerned about it.
What is your message with regard to the current situation?
Kirkuk is a wreath of flowers. It is not a barrel of bombs
My last message is that we should review the security plan in Kirkuk. We should think that Kirkuk is for all of its people. Kirkuk is a wreath of flowers. It is not a barrel of bombs. We hope that we review, protect all the components, and respect the freedoms of the people because we are in a democratic country.
I also call on our brothers of the KDP, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, to actively take part in the elections in Kirkuk, because I am confident that it will win them votes. It is because the people in Kirkuk, especially the Kurdish components, still respect the KDP and its stances. That is why they should not miss this opportunity. They have to take part in the election despite the situation and the challenges.
Is there a problem now with raising the flag of Kurdistan in Kirkuk?
If the areas are not Kurdistani, then raising the flag is provocative. It depends on the area. In the areas that fall under the geographic and administrative borders of Kurdistan, the flag will be raised. But outside the border of the Region, the flag cannot be raised.
But they are disputed areas, so is it possible?
Outside the border of the Region, the [Kurdistan] flag cannot be raised
They are disputed areas. When the dispute is resolved, then any flag can be raised. But there is still dispute, there should be – yes, you have swathes of territories, from Erbil, to Zakho, to Sulaimani, to Halabja, all the way to Duhok. The flag must be raised in these areas.
So it is forbidden for the flag to be raised?
I do not say it is forbidden. But in the areas outside the Region, the flag will not be raised. But the areas within the Region, the flag can be raised. The Kurdish flag is respected. The dear blood of our Kurdish brothers was shed under that flag in the fight against ISIS mobs, the terrorists, and al-Qaeda. That is why the flag must be respected. We respect the Kurdish flag, but certainly not raising it in areas outside of the Region does not mean lack of respect for the flag. The flag remains sacred, just like the blood [of the martyrs.]