ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – In recent weeks, a number of unknown fighters have taken positions in the mountainous area between the Salahadin and Sulaimani provinces amid reports they plan on forming a new anti-government militia.
In the aftermath of the Oct. 16 assault and takeover of Kirkuk, Khurmatu and other disputed areas by the Iraqi army and Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militia, a group of armed men emerged in the hilly region between Khurmatu, Kifri and Sleman Beg.
On Monday, a Kurdistan 24 team traveled to the Ghara Mountain where the fighters have taken safe haven and witnessed their movements in the area.
The mountain range, where no Iraqi or Kurdish security forces are present, is located in northern Salahadin, southern Sulaimani, nestled between Peshmerga and Iraqi army and Hashd al-Shaabi frontlines.
The Kurdistan 24 team spoke with Darko Ahmed, a resident of Kifri, in the Sulaimani province, who has been observing the fighters' movements. He noted that the armed men were based in the mountain areas located between Kifri and Khurmatu.
Ahmed revealed that the fighters sometimes set up checkpoints in the area and tell the people that they will bring no harm to residents.
“According to the people who have had direct encounters with the fighters, they are between 500 to 600 of them who operate freely in the mountains between Kifri and Khurmatu,” Ahmed said.
While local security forces claim the armed group would be unable to gain full control of the rough terrain, the presence of the militia has generated fears among villagers living nearby that they may become targets, reported the Kurdistan 24 field team.
Sulaimani-based Awena Weekly Newspaper in its Tuesday edition asserted the armed group goes by the name “Sunni Liberation Army,” and was formed following the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in the area.
Mala Karim Shkur, the Head of Hamrin’s Committee for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), told the Kurdish newspaper that it was clear the armed group is comprised of Sunnis, but their objective and ideology remains unclear.
Some of the fighters are remnants of IS, Ansar al-Islam, and other extremist groups, Shkur said.
“We know that they will create instability in our area in the future.”
According to the Kurdish official, the group carries a white flag with a lion’s head embroidered in the center.
A high-level source from the Garmiyan Asayish (Kurdish security), speaking to Awena on the condition of anonymity, said the fighters were IS extremists looking to regroup.
“We will not allow them to expand in our area.”
Editing by Nadia Riva