WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) - The London-based al-Quds al-Arabi carried a story on Friday describing the prominent display on the streets of Kirkuk of pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the eminence grise behind Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and, subsequently, the country’s first Supreme Leader.
The raising of Shiite banners and pictures of Shiite religious figures is one element in a campaign of intimidation, carried out by Shiite militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or Hashd a-Shaabi.
As a Kirkuk police officer told the Arabic paper, “The excesses of the pro-Iranian [PMF] groups are increasing.”
On Oct 30, a militia group brutally murdered a cameraman for Kurdistan TV, Arkan Sharifi, in his home. His killers left a knife in his mouth, signaling their motive while intimidating other journalists.
Sunnis are the target of this intimidation: Kurds, who are overwhelmingly Sunni, as well as the Sunni Arab population of the city. The ostentatious sectarianism, amid acts of violence, has a strategic objective: to transform the city’s population and force Sunnis to flee.
The conspicuous display of Shiite symbols, which also include pictures of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, and Khomeini’s successor, is another way to convey to Kirkuk’s Sunni residents that they are no longer safe nor welcome.
Regular Iraqi forces are increasingly involved in the abuses, alongside the PMF. According to al-Quds al-Arabi, Iraqi army intelligence has started to accompany the militias, as they raid cafes and homes and carry out “arbitrary arrests” of “young men in a barbaric manner.”
The PMF are also engaged in “kidnappings and robberies,” creating panic and fear among the population.
As of Nov. 2, over 183,000 civilians have been displaced since the Oct 16 attack on Kirkuk and other disputed areas, with 79,000 people having fled the city of Kirkuk, according to the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq.
In Shingal, the head of the mayoral council announced, also on Nov 2, that the medical staff of its sole hospital had fled, because of the increasing PMF presence, leaving the area without health services, Kurdish media has reported.
Regular Iraqi forces, along with the PMF, have imposed their own religious strictures. Since last fall, alcohol has been banned in Iraq. It is now prohibited in Kirkuk.
Two days after the assault on Kirkuk, a PMF militia burned down a woman’s fitness center, ostensibly because it contained a swimming pool.
It is particularly ironic that it is on US President Donald Trump’s watch that pictures of Khomeini and Khamenei appear in areas of Iraq where they have been little seen before.
On Oct 13, Trump announced a tough, new policy against Iran, and the administration has since highlighted the history of Iranian aggression against the US and its allies.
That includes the Oct 23, 1983, bombing of the barracks of the US Marines in Beirut, as well as that of French paratroopers, who were deployed alongside the Marines to maintain peace in Lebanon, following Israel’s invasion of that country the year before.
The attacks, backed by Iran and Syria, as US officials said at the time, resulted in the death of 220 Marines, along with 21 other US servicemen, and 58 French soldiers. It was the most lethal single day for the Marines since1945.
On the 34th anniversary of that assault, Vice-President Mike Pence addressed Marines at Washington DC’s Marine Barracks.
In what was a moving, and, doubtless, heartfelt speech, Pence affirmed, “President Donald Trump has put Iran on notice that we will no longer tolerate their destabilizing activities or their support of terrorism across the region and across the world.”
Unfortunately, such words ring hollow in Kirkuk today.
Editing by Sam A.