ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The disputed town of Makhmour on the outskirt of the Kurdistan Region’s capital has witnessed an uptick in Islamic State movement, with locals warning of threats they continuously face from the jihadist group.
Makhmour is a disputed town claimed by both the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the federal government of Iraq. It is located some 60 kilometers southwest of Erbil.
The town used to be jointly administered by the two governments since the fall of the Iraqi authoritarian regime in 2003.
Following the emergence of the Islamic State in 2014, throughout many disputed areas, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces held their frontline and prevented sleeper cells from entering their territory despite the terrorist organization controlling adjacent land.
Security in those regions, however, significantly deteriorated after Iraqi forces backed by Shia militias, in response to the Kurdistan Region’s September 2017 independence referendum, overran Kirkuk and other disputed territories and drove Kurdish forces out.
Kurdistan 24 Reporter Kamaran Haji Omar on Thursday interviewed several people from the area on the Makhmour – Erbil road as they passed through a security checkpoint.
Residents were quick to point out to Kurdistan 24 that the security situation had noticeably deteriorated, with people feeling insecure as with the increased activity of Islamic State militants in the region.
“We do not feel safe, not even for a second,” one man said.
“There was none of that when the Peshmerga were present, but now, ISIS is back.”
Others described the Islamic State militants as fearless and out in the open, approaching people and forcing them to pay taxes or give them livestock.
Since October 2017, Iraqi forces have been in charge of protecting the area, but locals question their abilities.
“The Iraqi army and Hashd al-Shaabi are holding on to their hats so tightly as to not to let the wind blow them away,” one man said, using a Kurdish proverb meaning that they are too preoccupied with their own safety to think of others.
“It’s hopeless. People are waiting for the Kurds [Peshmerga forces] to do something,” he continued.
Now, a notorious hideout for the terrorist group still lies in Mount Qarachokh, a harsh, barren tract of land where Peshmerga and Iraqi forces intermittently carry out operations against the militants. The international coalition against the Islamic State also strikes the group’s tunnels and weapons stockpiles with airstrikes.
Over the past few months, dozens of villages in Makhmour have been evacuated, with residents warning of the reemergence of the Islamic State in the area.
Iraq declared its military victory against the jihadist group in December 2017, but it continues to carry out insurgency attacks, bombings, ambushes, and kidnappings.
Saadi Ali, a Peshmerga Commander on the Makhmour frontline, explained to Kurdistan 24 a couple of military operations had been conducted against ISIS militants on Mount Qarachokh, located in Makhmour, which killed dozens of jihadists but also resulted in several casualties on the Peshmerga side.
“So Da’esh [ISIS] is still active, namely on Mount Qarachokh and its surrounding areas.”
On complaints regarding the Iraqi forces being unable to protect Makhmour, Ali believes the Iraqi army and Shia militias focus on guarding the main roads and town centers rather than securing the entire region.
“The formation of the Iraqi army, at the beginning , was not based on the strong belief and duty to protect the homeland, as part of the responsibility of a strong central command and leadership... So, it is like having a militia in a military uniform,” Ali added.
He mentioned that the only solution to address the deterioration of the security situation in those areas was to allow for the return of Peshmerga forces.
Over the past few months, military commanders in Erbil and Baghdad have held several meetings, supported by the US-led coalition, to increase their cooperation and coordination, namely in the disputed territories where the Islamic State remain considerably active.
Editing by Nadia Riva