BIL, Iraq — War is an ugly business, but in some northern villages scattered near the front line between Kurdish fighters and the jihadis of the Islamic State, there is growing evidence of a far uglier crime perpetrated by America’s closest allies in Iraq. For months, humanitarians working in areas wrested back from the Islamic State have quietly documented a pattern of Sunni Arabs, who were displaced during the jihadis’ advance, being denied the right to return home.
Witnesses — including a half-dozen aid workers, a European diplomat, and a terrified resident of the affected area — say the Kurdish Peshmerga, the military force of Iraqi Kurdistan, has an agenda that goes beyond fighting the Islamic State: establishing the boundaries of a future Kurdish state and moving the Arabs out.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has been edging away from Baghdad for years, as KRG officials leverage their region’s relative stability and oil wealth into greater autonomy. Baghdad has played its own part by withholding the KRG’s share of Iraq’s national budget and dragging out negotiations over oil sales. The KRG has also parlayed its lead role in the fight against the Islamic State into advancing its greatest cause: an independent Kurdistan. The same is happening in Syria, as the Syrian Kurdish militias there beat back the jihadi group and flex their power over a vastly weakened Syrian state.
In the looming battle for Kurdish independence, the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, 50 miles south of Erbil, is a crucial front line. Long a disputed territory between Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurds seized control of Kirkuk in June 2014 as the Iraqi Army fled the Islamic State’s lighting advance in northern Iraq. As the Peshmerga defended the city and pushed the jihadi group back, the Kurds have consolidated — and, some observers say, abused — their power.
One European diplomat who had recently visited this stretch of land spoke of “deliberate, systematic destruction of Sunni Arab property at the hands of the Peshmerga, with only the most tenuous of security justifications.”
“It’s not just collective punishment for perceived support for [the Islamic State],” the diplomat continued. “It’s wholesale ethnic cleansing…. If you overlay this with the wider map of Kurdistan, you can predict which villages will fall next, where they will draw the buffer zone, and when it will stop.”
The challenge, this diplomat says, is in turning the tide of public opinion, especially in the West, that the Kurds are above reproach. As one of the most effective forces on the ground, the Iraqi Kurds are the lynchpin of the anti-Islamic State coalition. They’re supported by coalition arms, expertise, and airstrikes in Iraq and Syria — which the Pentagon prices at $9.2 million per day across both countries. Along the front line south of Kirkuk, those strikes have helped Peshmerga fighters claw back close to three miles of territory, and strikes continue almost daily.
U.S. officials have also publicly embraced the Kurds as some of their best allies in Syria and Iraq. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in July, Defense Secretary Ashton Carton praised the Peshmerga as “an example of a competent ground force,” saying that it was the type of force “we are looking for in that entire region.”
But one aid worker who operates between Erbil and Kirkuk said he’d seen enough egregious behavior by the Peshmerga to warrant serious investigation by the group’s sponsors. “In my view, none of these countries know where their guns are going.”
The evidence, aid workers and residents say, is in the destroyed, empty villages scattered along the front line between Erbil and Mosul and the dusty flats south of Kirkuk.
“These houses are all being destroyed after the conflict,” said another aid worker who works across Iraqi Kurdistan, speaking anonymously so as not to anger the Kurdistan Regional Government and lose access.
The destruction in some villages appears to go beyond simple collateral damage. On a trip to the front line in the area of al-Gweir, 35 miles southwest of Erbil, it looked as though an impossible wind had blown through, yanking house after house down on one side. The fields and gardens that had fed these mostly Arab villages were charred and black.
Heavy fighting has devastated much of northern Iraq, but humanitarian workers, who have seen dozens of these villages, describe consistent and curious patterns of destruction: scorched fields and empty, burnt-out houses stripped down to the wiring. No livestock, no machinery, no curtains, crockery, or any other detritus of daily life that fleeing people typically leave.
“They want to change these villages demographically,” said a Kirkuk-based aid worker. “If they burn and destroy these villages, people won’t come back. And they want the Arabs to go elsewhere.”
The best place to investigate these allegations, the aid worker said, was the district of Daquq — a sprawl of 130 villages that lies 30 miles south of the city of Kirkuk, a major oil production center. Daquq was part of Saddam Hussein’s Arabization campaign, which was designed to ensure ethnic Arabs were well-represented across Iraq, thus cementing Saddam’s power base. In Daquq and the sprawl around Erbil, Arabization began in the 1970s and continued for decades, until the Kurds won control of Kirkuk.
According to Saed Kakei, a senior advisor to the minister of Peshmerga affairs, the village of Wahda was one of the most Arabized in the area. Now, it’s empty: Peshmerga fighters pushed the Islamic State out of Wahda in March 2015, but residents have yet to return.
“Wahda is destroyed. But there is no Daesh there,” said the Kirkuk-based aid worker, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Even four villages after, there is no Daesh. So why keep the people out?”
The entrance to Wahda is marked by a small checkpoint on the side of the highway between Baghdad and Kirkuk. Emerging from the shelter into the midday sun, a young Peshmerga fighter in a knockoff U.S. Army T-shirt said approval from his boss, the general, was required to go any further.
He warned this reporter not to take any photographs. “Everything is destroyed, and it would be bad for the Peshmerga’s reputation if people saw,” he said.
Gen. Sardar Abdul Wahab, clean-shaven and wearing the khaki shirt and loose trousers favored by Peshmerga, oversees Wahda and the rest of his sector from a base in the village of Khir Wali. Sitting cross-legged on the floor with a laminated map before him, he pointed out where he and his men had advanced since late 2014, when the front line with the Islamic State was so close to the highway that concrete slabs were erected to protect motorists from snipers.
The front line is now several miles further west, but most villages are still empty.
“When we consider this area safe to live, people can come back,” he said. “For now, there’s regular shelling and no water or electricity. Daesh is still sneaking in and placing IEDs.”
But men like Abdul Wahab have trouble trusting the area’s Arab residents. One reason some Peshmerga are wary of letting Arabs back into newly accessible villages, he explained, is the fear of being attacked from behind. If Islamic State operatives slipped into the village and hid among Arab civilians, the group could attack the Peshmerga from both sides.
“Most of the Arabs around here are Daesh right now, unfortunately,” Abdul Wahab said.
The general said he had heard about allegations of looting, razing, and forced expulsion but denied them. “If we did this, then we’re no better than Daesh. In a war, when you liberate an area, there is always property damage. And if a family can’t find services in an area, how can they survive?”
A young soldier standing in the doorway chimed in, “The Kurds would never loot.”
Someone, however, is responsible for stripping Wahda to the bones. Driving past the checkpoint from the highway into the village, the paved road is studded on each shoulder with craters from IEDs. Scores of earthen berms stretched up a hill, footprints of a moving front line.
Wahda itself is a ghost town. Broken chunks of masonry, bullet-pocked walls, and blast caters are everywhere. But there are no vehicles, and no curtains, chairs, or knickknacks that usually litter towns after civilians and armies abandon them.
When asked where everything was, the Peshmerga fighters accompanying this reporter said people took their things with them when they left. But Wahda was a farming village — so what about the tractors? After repeated queries, a new answer: The Islamic State took them.
But was that plausible? Would the Islamic State have had time to strip the village completely bare while defending it from rocket fire and airstrikes?
Most of the buildings bore scorch marks. In one house, some smashed, charred bits of a computer monitor lay on the floor. “Sometimes they burn their computers and information,” said one Peshmerga fighter.
Sheikh Ahmad, a 40-year-old former Arab resident from the Shammar tribe, had his own version of events. He said in the first three days after the Islamic State was driven out, some villagers had accompanied Peshmerga fighters to Wahda and reported back that “everything was fine.” After a week, Sheikh Ahmad went to check it out himself and found a vastly worsened situation.
“One man found 40 washing machines in his house,” he said, speaking by telephone from the nearby village of Omar bin al-Khattab. “They were gathering them in one place to take them away.”
When asked who had done this, he was adamant.
“The Peshmerga did this. When they entered the village, they brought a Kurdish mafia specialized in taking everything — wiring, washing machines, everything we owned.”
Over the following weeks, Sheikh Ahmad claimed his village was emptied by men in Peshmerga-type uniforms. He said that after they stripped the village of valuable goods, they burned houses, claiming to have seen this from the highway about one kilometer away.
The goods, he alleged, soon began showing up in markets nearby that he calls Souk al-Farhood — the market for stolen things. When the people of Wahda heard that their things had popped up in a market, they’d go there and buy it for a lower price, he said. Sheikh Ahmad was bitter about seeing his village’s possessions sold for almost nothing, and also at the lie he believes he and his neighbors were told.
“We hate Daesh, but we know they didn’t do this,” he said. “It was the Peshmerga.”
The Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs is the department of the regional government tasked with battling the Islamic State and maintaining the security of the Kurdistan region. Peshmerga fighters fought the battles that led Iraqi Kurds down the road to independence from Baghdad, and the military group’s commander in chief, Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, has cast a skeptical eye on allegations made by Arabs in predominantly Kurdish areas. In the case of Wahda, the Shammar tribe has no historical links to the Kirkuk area and only arrived with Saddam Hussein’s Arabization campaign. As a result, local Kurds often regard them as untrustworthy interlopers.
“Relying on questionable sources adds nothing but more confusion to politically motivated claims,” said Kakei, the senior advisor at the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. “One has to treat claims of the people from the ‘Arabized’ al-Wahda village with a great deal of suspicion.”
Kakei admitted mistakes were made in Wahda, allowing that the Peshmerga needed more training from their international backers, with greater focus on ethics and international norms to avoid what he called “uncivilized behavior.”
“Wahda is a sensitive and strategic location for us,” he said. “Some villages were looted by all parties, including the Peshmerga, but this matter must not be used against one party while ignoring those who were the main causes of fighting and war.”
Sheikh Ahmad, for his part, said government officials had promised Wahda’s residents that they would be able to return home. But four months on, that hasn’t happened. Like the soldier at the checkpoint, he thinks access to the ruined settlement would carry a public relations risk for the Peshmerga.
“They are afraid of international condemnation,” he said.
Condemnation, or at least some questions about accountability, may be coming. Human rights researchers and international law experts are increasingly looking into the allegations of Peshmerga abuses — and demanding answers.
“The case of Wahda seems to be the first time Peshmerga have been undisputedly directly implicated” in the forced displacement of Arabs, said Human Rights Watch researcher Christoph Wilcke.
The organization published a report in February, alleging that Kurdish forces had prevented Arabs civilians displaced from their homes in Nineveh and Erbil provinces from returning, even as Kurdish civilians were allowed back in. Some Arab civilians had been cordoned off into “security zones,” the report said, where residents said they were denied basic services or the opportunity to work.
The charges also raise a complex question for the countries that train and equip the Kurdish forces: Can they continue to supply military aid if their weapons are used to commit what experts say may amount to war crimes?
One of those countries is Germany, which has sent 1,700 tons of military aid to Iraq — from guns and ammunition to helmets, mobile phones, and first-aid kits — and whose military trainers have worked with the Peshmerga stationed at the base in Khir Wali.
Gero von Fritschen, a spokesman for the German Defense Ministry, said that his government had “no proof” of allegations that German-backed Peshmerga fighters had pillaged and razed Arab villages. When Germany raised such allegations with their Iraqi counterparts, he said, “They say it is not part of their policy [and] that they will look into it.”
The United States, meanwhile, has a legal responsibility to vet security forces to which it dispenses assistance. The Leahy Law is a 1997 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, which requires the United States cut off assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights.
Leena Grover, a legal expert on international human rights and a research fellow at the Swiss National Science Foundation, said that the crucial element is “credible information” of human rights violations.
“The evidence unearthed in Wahda has the potential to start a conversation around the ‘credible information’ part of the Leahy amendment test,” she said.
State Department spokesman Michael Lavallee said that the United States was “deeply concerned” by any abuses committed in the fight against the Islamic State and had previously raised its concerns about possible Peshmerga abuses with KRG President Masoud Barzani.
“The allegations you raise are serious, and we urge the Kurdistan Regional Government to conduct an investigation to determine the facts,” he said. “If confirmed, those found responsible for such abuses must be held accountable.”
Elissa Smith, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, said that the U.S. Embassy in Iraq works closely with the Iraqi government to address “any confirmed issues” of U.S. equipment being misused.
“Prime Minister [Haider al-Abadi] has stated that he has a zero tolerance policy of human rights abuses by any security element, that perpetrators must be held accountable, and all armed groups and militias should be incorporated under state security structures,” she said.
Smith’s comment highlights a significant structural problem: Even though coalition weapons to the Kurds are funneled through Baghdad, Abadi, and the Iraqi state, they have no control over Peshmerga forces on the ground. As Maria Fantappie, senior Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group, noted: “The current coalition policy provides Western countries with a nominal legal framework for sending weapons to Iraqi Kurdistan, discharging them of the responsibility to follow up [on] what the end-users actually do with these weapons on the ground.”
Back in the village of Omar bin al-Khattab, just down the road from Wahda, Sheikh Ahmad was trying to stay hopeful. His tribe took pride in their good relationship with their Kurdish neighbors, and he thought the fact that his village had been burned — but not burned and razed — spoke to some goodwill.
“We hope they will allow us to go back to our village and defend [it] against Daesh,” he said. “We don’t want to be militants. We want to work with the government.”
But as weeks of displacement had stretched into months and then half a year, it has gotten harder to hope.
“They are trying to kick Arabs away from Kirkuk and declare the state of the Kurds. With the weakness of the Iraqi government, and if America supports them, they will succeed.”