ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A Kurdish official claimed that some 400 civilians were killed in Kirkuk and 200 others are missing after a military incursion of the Iraqi army and Iranian-backed Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi was launched on the city of Kirkuk and disputed areas on October 16. He blamed the Hashd as largely responsible for most of the deaths and disappearances.
“According to reports by some organizations, 400 civilians in Kirkuk and its surroundings have been killed,” claimed Dr. Dindar Zebari, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government's High Committee to Evaluate and Respond to International Reports.
“Some 200 people are missing in Kirkuk,” he added.
“Mass killing by Hashd al-Shaabi is not something new,” he said, calling to mind to the battles of Fallujah and Ramadi in which the Hashd spearheaded offensives to drive ISIS out of these areas and were accused of committing large scale human rights abuses against the Sunni civilian populations.
Zebari also claimed that "around 150 to 200 people have also been killed in Tuz Khurmatu. These numbers only include the killed civilians."
Asked about the accuracy of the death tolls, Zebari said “we have people in Tuz Khurmatu and Kirkuk telling us.”
He said they have tens of very detailed cases.
Official investigations in the field, however, are not possible, he said, because "the Hashd al-Shaabi does not allow any international organization to go to Kirkuk to investigate.”
He noted that the United Nations and Human Rights Watch have both published reports, documenting the burning and looting of homes, and some deaths.
Speaking by phone to Rudaw, Karim Nuri, a commander of the Hashd al-Shaabi in Kirkuk, dismissed the claims, saying the Hashd was not involved in any "crimes against civilians in Kirkuk."
He, however, did not deny that there were violations conducted against Kurdish civilians in Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu.
“I was aware of that, there were evil doers there doing bad things against houses. There must be security forces there to preserve people’s properties,” he said.
“Anyone making any mistakes against our Kurdish brothers is wrong and a criminal and is threat to Kurds and civil people,” Nuri said. “We have to work to stop bloodshed.”
He described burning and looting of civilian homes as “cowardly acts” and the Hashd al-Shaabi has no connection to such behaviour.
Human Rights Watch had reported that Iraqi security forces did nothing to prevent the looting of homes for at least a full day.
Nuri said he does not believe Human Rights Watch.
An Iraqi minister on Saturday described Tuz Khurmatu as “out of control
” and unsafe for Kurds to return to.
Nuri said that no single Hashd remains in Kirkuk and described the incursion into the city as not a fight, “but the process of the redeployment of forces to secure stability."
“Peshmerga are our brothers and part of us,” he insisted.
He condemned desecrations of the Kurdistan flag. “Those who offend the Kurdistan flag will definitely want to serve ISIS,” he said.
Concerning a ban on Rudaw Media Network working in Kirkuk, Nuri said that was imposed because of Rudaw’s “discourse.”
Iraqi forces, including the Hashd al-Shaabi, took over control of disputed areas in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Nineveh provinces last week, including Kirkuk, Khanaqin, Tuz Khurmatu, Makhmour, Zummar, and Shingal.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has warned of the possibility of a humanitarian crisis
if confrontations and insecurity escalate in the disputed areas, causing more people to flee their homes.
“So far, one hundred sixty-eight thousand and three hundred seventy-two (168,372) civilians have been displaced from Kirkuk, Khanaqin, Khurmatu, Zummar, and Rabea to Kurdistan Region,” read a statement from the Ministry of Interior on Saturday.
The government is worried that many more may flee because of “indiscriminate violence, torture, looting, burning civilians’ homes and properties, especially the Kurdish people in these areas,” by the Iraqi and Hashd al-Shaabi forces, the KRG stated.
The United Nations
and Human Rights Watch
have reported civilian deaths, looting, arson, and forced displacements, mainly of Kurds, in Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu.
The UN had reported that many displaced on Monday, in the first day of confrontations, were already returning home by Tuesday. Subsequent waves of civilians have fled, however, as fears of insecurity remain.
“The situation remains volatile, and many people are returning to their homes only to flee for a second or third time when hostilities erupt again,” said Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, on Saturday.
The takeover of the disputed areas is part of a series of measures taken by the central Iraqi government as it seeks to exert federal authority in the Kurdistan Region and Kurdistani areas after the September 25 referendum that saw 92.7 percent of people voting for independence, despite Iraqi opposition.