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Story Publication logo May 14, 2014

Why are Iraqi Kurds Fighting with Militant Islamists in Syria?


Image by Sebastian Meyer. Iraq, 2014.

Today Iraq is consumed by sectarian fighting, but in the north the legacy of the US-led war is...

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Late last year, in response to what appeared to be an increasing number of young Iraqi Kurdish men leaving northern Iraq to fight against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced that, should those Kurds die, they should not be given a funeral at home. Their participation was being described as jihad – a term in Islam meaning "struggle" which has been appropriated by extremist groups – and reports circulated that, at the behest of some local clerics, the Kurds were joining Al-Qaeda linked rebels in Syria. Numbers were low (officially around 150) but the KRG's anxiety was understandable— while sectarian violence tears apart much of Iraq, the northernmost region's reputation as safe, secure, and religiously moderate is at stake.

"Kurdish Islam is not the Islam of Saudi Arabia or Iran," Mariwan Naqshbandi the KRG's minister of religious affairs has been quoted as saying. "We have often been made to suffer by those who were our Islamic brothers. It has made us more tolerant." Whether or not these forward-thinking declarations manifest in the day-to-day lives of Kurds in Iraq (statistics about the role of women in society hint at its limitations) they are vital to the image that Iraqi Kurdistan wants to promote to the rest of the world. So is its relative security.

In addition to banning funerals, Kurdish security arrested young men who tried to cross the border with Syria into Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish media erupted with worried stories about the missing youth, and the threat to Kurdish stability that came with links to terror groups and the weakening borders between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria, already blurred by an influx of refugees. In late September, a suicide bomber in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, had left six dead and dozens injured. That explosion, the region's first in six years, was attributed to extremist groups, but many wondered whether those extremists had also been Kurds.

While Syria to the West and portions of Iraq to the south buckle under the weight of war, Iraqi Kurdistan seems to shine. The region, once oppressed by Saddam Hussein, benefited from a no-fly zone established in 1991, and was almost entirely untouched by violence after the 2003 US-led invasion. Untapped oil reserves, foreign investors, and strategic importance to old allies like the United States and newer friends like Turkey, all depend on maintaining that security and stability.

"The [KRG] security forces are good at dealing with people that pose a threat," Fazel Hawramy, a journalist in Sulaymaniyah, told me. "But in the long term if there is no solution, then of course this [trend] is going to be a threat. You can only check and contain these people to an extent…. It damages the Kurdish region. One of the things Kurds are proud of and always promote is that we have security."

The KRG formed an investigative committee, headed by the minister of interior, and by early April, just seven months after the bombing in Erbil, Wasta Hassan, the security chief in Sulaymaniyah province sounded victorious. "It has decreased," Hassan said in an interview with the Kurdish news service Rudaw. "The youth have discovered the misleading reality over there." The young Kurds who did make it back home, Hassan assured the public, were "regretful."

But the KRG appeared to have underestimated the religiosity of portions of the Kurdish population and the draw of charismatic and highly visible clerics who reach out to alienated populations. This set of religious leaders, whose emphatic sermons are routinely posted on YouTube, are particularly appealing to young Kurdish men set adrift by the contradiction they embody: Their actual, stagnant lives clash with the ardent declarations of Iraqi Kurdistan's progress. "When candidates put an emphasis on Islam, they get more votes [in Kurdish elections]," Hawramy told me. "Religion plays an important role."

In April, Salim Shushkay, a popular cleric who recently came under fire for alleged links to a handful of young jihadists, was running for parliament. Shushkay preaches in a mosque in the suburbs of Erbil, where the gates of two-story concrete homes are backboards for neighborhood soccer games, and hair salons draw attention to their storefronts with garlands of blinding florescent lights. The mosque is a light yellow-green, surrounded by a tall fence and a tranquil courtyard. Shushkay's large office is lined with glass bookshelves and couches. When I arrived with a Kurdish friend who had agreed to translate, Shushkay retrieved cans of fruit-flavored soda from a mini fridge humming in the corner, before sitting in a rolling leather desk chair. He slouched in his chair and spoke softly, giving only clipped answers.

Shushkay's sermons are fiery and delivered at full-volume; many are posted on You Tube. Favorite topics include female chastity and the war in Syria. But, as with many interviews in Iraq, my conversation with Shushkay began with his personal experience living through war, in this case the 1991 Kurdish uprising against Saddam. He was fourteen at the time. "I remember they killed a lot of people in front of my eyes," he told me, folding his hands over his thick waist. "I wrote a poem about it."

Memories of war are strong among Kurds in Iraq, and some officials have used this to explain their jihadist presence in Syria. A young generation is living in relative peace, but they grew up on their parents' stories of struggle. To these young men the fight against the Assad regime, long made murky by a fractured and radicalized opposition, might nevertheless appear clearly righteous. Hawramy thinks that clerics like Shushkay build upon this naive impression of the Syrian war. "There is a lot of talk about Islam, jihad," he told me. "People are constantly reminded of that. They take it a bit further, as a battle between good and evil."

Shushkay was still a young politician, but you wouldn't know it by his steady and confident denial of a connection between his sermons and the jihadists. "I never encouraged people to go to jihad in Syria," he told me. He maintains the position that jihad is an important tenet of Islam that is deformed, not fulfilled, by terrorism. "I knew [jihad in Syria] would only make trouble," he said. Like Hawramy, he blamed the media—"They broadcast the tragedies in Syria"—and he was quick to point out the futility of joining a dangerous conflict that is also ambiguous. "It's a war without any outcome or result," Shushkay said.

The accusations, he insisted, were a ploy to take votes away from the Islamic parties which, as dissatisfaction with the government grows, have become more popular. "My sermons are fair," he said. "Most of the people who attend my sermons are youngsters and I defend their rights. I am very frank, that's why people like me." He poked his toe through a small hole in his sock, and sighed. "I am an independent person," he said.

When Shushkay preaches he sounds furious, and when he talks about Syria it is reasonable to think that his fury is directed at inaction. He does not shy away from controversial topics, and was direct with me about both his support of Shariah law and his belief in the reach of extremist groups into Iraqi Kurdistan; when I asked him why he didn't actively discourage youth from going to Syria his face lit with paranoia. "They would kill me," he said.

But the cleric insists that he was only doing his job, and that his words have been misinterpreted by Kurdish officials and media. "It's the style in the mosques," he told me, about his sermons. "You have to be strong and give strong messages." It's hard to imagine that his defense is entirely genuine, but his style is effective. By May, according to preliminary election results, Shushkay had won 50,000 votes, enough for a parliamentary seat in Baghdad.

One-hundred and sixty miles east of Erbil and Shushkay's mosque is the city of Halabja. In 1988, in an incident at the height of the Saddam regime's al-Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds, the city and parts of the surrounding province of the same name were battered with chemical weapons. Over the course of one day, thousands of people died and thousands more were injured, and the attack looms in the Kurdish collective memory; nowhere more so than in the memories of the people who still live in Halabja. A memorial to the attack dominates the road into town, and includes a museum of gory images, dioramas modeled off those images, and a black wall listing the names of the dead. On the lawn outside the museum a wrecked truck is parked atop a concrete plinth; it had been discovered filled with bodies. Spent bombs are plunged into the ground around it.

In 2006, protesters, angry that the government continued to use the massacre for political gain while ignoring the city, which remained in poverty with its main road unpaved, burned down the monument. It was a moment of defiance in a town that had become known for opposing the mainstream. All three major Islamic parties were founded in Halabja (at one time, the only viable opposition parties to the two dominant Kurdish ones), and it was reportedly also the hometown of many of the Kurdish jihadists.

"People here really sympathize with oppressed people," Peshawa Ahmad, a Halabja native said. "Most of the people in the city think they have been oppressed for most of the time." Ahmad, who had just completed his masters degree in public administration in the US, struggled to make a connection between the jihadists, some of whom he had known, and local religious fervor. The neighborhood where the boys came from wasn't particularly religious, he said, and they were too young to be deeply influenced by the Islamic parties. One imam had been arrested but soon released. Ahmad was careful to remind me that rumors were rife.

In Halabja, the scars of the past are more visible than the promises of a Kurdish future. Like many smaller cities and villages in Kurdistan, it has not yet benefited from the development projects and investments that have inspired comparisons between Erbil and Dubai. New construction is mostly limited to sturdy, practical concrete homes. In Halabja, a city that remains both the center of Kurdish consciousness and a town isolated by an inattentive government, the dissatisfaction is obvious. So are the potential consequences. "[The KRG] hasn't created a state that functions properly," Hawramy told me. "When there is unaccountability you lean on what you trust more."

Ahmed was equally direct in his assessment. "About a month ago I was talking with the head of the security forces in Halabja and the topic came up," he wrote to me in an email. "He was telling me, Those young people can't do anything here. They look at Syria and think they are going to change the war."






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War and Conflict

War and Conflict

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