ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Kurdish residents continue to flee Kirkuk, fearing abuse at the hands of the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi forces, including looting of houses, according to Kurdish officials. Large numbers have headed towards Sulaimani after Hashd forces blocked the route to Erbil.
“Everyone fled. Everyone is scared, saying that the situation is bad. In brief, they are assaulting the Kurds. That is it. Every Kurd fled on foot or by lorries,” said a Kirkuk woman who had fled.
“My husband is Asayesh. He is missing. We don’t know where he is,” she added.
A Kurdish person from inside Kirkuk told Rudaw that Shiite militants have stormed Kurdish neighborhoods such as Rahimawa, Kurdistan, Panja Ali, and some other areas, going door-to-door to inspect houses and separating women from men, thus causing violence and confrontations.
The head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Kirkuk confirmed the reports, but added that some people who fled when the Iraqi forces first approached the city have now returned.
“Some Hashd al-Shaabi gangsters have stormed Kurdish houses," Aso Mamand, head of the PUK’s office in Kirkuk, told reporters from Sulaimani. ”But generally, the situation is calm and people have returned.”
Interim Kirkuk Governor Rakan al-Jabouri as well as Iraqi army officials and the Kirkuk police chief urged people in a press conference on Wednesday to stay in their homes saying there were no threats to their lives.
Those who have fled disputed his words.
“People wouldn’t leave their homes if the situation in Kirkuk was good. Some of my children are in Kirkuk. My thoughts are with them,” said an elderly woman who had fled Kirkuk.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said security in the city is under the control of local police supported by the Counter-Terror Service and has ordered all other armed groups to stay out of the city, in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
The security forces are mandated to protect the security and property of all citizens, Abadi said.
An estimated 61,200 people were displaced in the Kirkuk area since the Iraqi forces began their incursion in to Kurdish-controlled areas, the UN stated Tuesday night, noting that many were quickly returning home.
Authorities have confirmed that the majority of displaced families from Kirkuk are already returning to their homes in Kirkuk city,” said Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq. “Most of the families who are still displaced are staying with families and host communities.”
She urged all parties to protect civilians.
When Shiite militias and the Iraqi army entered Kirkuk and Peshmerga pulled out, tens of thousands of Kurds abandoned their homes fearing violence at the hands of the Shiites.
Kirkuk city, the capital of the diverse province, has been home to Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and other groups. It came under Peshmerga control in 2014 after the rise of ISIS. Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi and the Iraqi army took over the city on Monday.
Iraqi forces, including the US-trained Counter Terrorism Service and the Hashd, began an attack on Peshmerga-controlled areas south and west of Kirkuk on Sunday at midnight. Monday afternoon, Iraqi forces entered the city of Kirkuk and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered Iraqi forces to take down the Kurdistan flag in the disputed areas and hoist only the Iraqi banner.
On Tuesday, Iraqi forces continued their advances, taking control of Khanaqin in Diyala province, Shingal and Bashiqa in Nineveh.
The attack by the Iraqi forces ordered by Abadi follows weeks of punitive measures taken by Baghdad against Kurdistan in response to the September 25 independence referendum that saw 92.7 percent of people voting to leave Iraq, despite Iraqi opposition.