Cleric’s Murder Threatens to Blow Up Kurdish-Shia Alliance

Kurds blamed militiamen for the killing and burned one of their trucks


On Dec. 27, a group of armed men gunned down a Kurdish cleric in a drive-by shooting in the ethnically-mixed Iraqi town of Tuz Kharmato.

The gunmen escaped without being identified. But the prime suspects in the killing are Shia militiamen. Kurdish residents of the town responded with demonstrations against the militia presence—with residents setting fire to a truck belonging to militiamen.

It’s a deadly escalation in the northern Iraqi city—and it signals a deteriorating relationship between the town’s Kurds and Shia volunteers.

Regardless of whether a Shia militia actually killed the cleric, ever since the militias arrived in Tuz Kharmato, they’ve butted heads with Kurdish troops and police—and made themselves very unwelcome.

Tuz Kharmato is under the control of Peshmerga troops commanded by Maj. Gen. Abdulla Musla Boor. But Shia volunteer militias from southern Iraq have been in the area since the summer.

The militias were instrumental in protecting the nearby Shia Turkmen village of Amerli from Islamic State.

The Peshmerga in Tuz Kharmato are also loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—a political party with historic ties to Iran. That’s something the local Kurdish troops share in common with the Shia irregulars.

But after saving the Shias in Amerli, the militias exposed their more sinister side. They burned and looted homes around Amerli belonging to Sunni Turkmen and Arabs.

Then Sunni Arabs and Turkmen began disappearing in Tuz Kharmato.

At top—Kurds burn a Shia militia truck in Tuz Kharmato. Photo via Above—Kurdish Peshmerga in Tuz Kharmato during a power outage. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Kurdish forces accused the militias of being behind the disappearances. Several of Boor’s troops said they consider it their responsibility to protect civilians of every ethnicity and sect. They’re particularly concerned about the militias’ shady tactics.

In return, the militias frequently blocked Peshmerga movements and detained Kurdish fighters. The two sides have even gotten into a few, brief firefights.

Shortly after the siege of Amerli, one unnamed Peshmerga officer told a Reuters reporter that the militias are “the Shia Islamic State.”

In October, a photo emerged of Maj. Gen. Ghassem Soleymani—Tehran’s top agent in the Middle East—posing with Peshmerga fighters in Tuz Kharmato. There’s a possibility he visited the PUK-aligned troops to ease tensions with Iranian-backed Shia militias.

Disagreements and clashes persisted. But so far, the militias have mostly avoided targeting Kurdish civilians—instead preying on Sunni Arabs and Turkmen.

As a result, the Kurds grudgingly maintained their tenuous alliance in the interest of defeating Islamic State.

But the killing of a Kurdish community leader—a religious one, at that—is a bad sign. It has the potential to unravel an already shaky alliance. If that happens, Islamic State will benefit the most.