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Archive for the ‘Kurdistan’ Category

Into the Mountains-New Work on IS in the Troubled Governorates of Northern Iraq

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Al-Shorta al-Ittihadiyya (Federal Police) patrol Kirkuk’s comparatively secure city centre as the Disputed Territories become increasingly insecure beyond its urban periphery. I was caught at a Fed Po checkpoint later this day and forced to delete this image under duress. I was able to recover the deleted file after finding the appropriate Youtube tutorial combined with 2.5 hours of navigating the solution. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

New York-I have a new piece out in the September 2018 issue of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point’s monthly Sentinel journal on IS’s insurgent rear bases and operations in Iraq’s northern federally controlled governorates of Kirkuk, Salah ad-Din, and Diyala. (I excluded the dynamics in Mosul and wider Ninewa as that would’ve made the topic too broad and unwieldy) This project was a long time in the making as it first took shape when I returned to Kirkuk in February of this year and it was abundantly obvious how much the situation had changed since the federal and Shia militia takeover in October 2017 when the forces of the PUK, and less so KDP, were ousted.

After spending a month working in northern Syria I returned to Kirkuk to conduct interviews and do some more digging while speaking with civilians from Diyala and Salah ad-Din who told me in detail about the shaky security conditions along the Baghdad-Kirkuk road and what nightly life was like in the dangerous administrative seats that were and are suffering through nocturnal militant attacks as Fed Po largely kept in their barracks after sundown according to interviewees.

The city was by then plastered with campaign posters for the May parliamentary elections and the presence of Hashd militiamen seemed less overt. Baghdad was very keen to visibly assert control of Iraq’s arguably most tense major city (saying that without regard to the conditions down in Basra at present). In the interim while I’d been busy in al-Hasakah and Halab (Aleppo) governorates on the other side of the Euphrates, a few major security incidents occurred that the government of (still) PM al-Abadi could not ignore–particularly the ambush of 27 Hashd men in al-Hawija district later in February after I’d crossed into Syria. Returning in late March, Dibis and Kirkuk districts simply felt more tense. I attempted to interview the Baghdad-appointed governor Rakaan Saeed Ali al-Jubouri but was thrown out for being at his compound with a flimsy KRG visa after circumventing the security cordon somewhat by driving via the oil town of Taq Taq. Though not before I was able to gather plenty of nuanced detail on the security environment.

As a very visible symbol of the restoration of central authority over Kirkuk, the gigantic peshmerga statue at the city’s northern gate brandishes a republican flag after its formerly trademark Kurdistani flag was torn down. It can be argued without a hefty amount of vigor that security has worsened there since Iraqi security forces and Hashd militia brigades took control last fall. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

It was becoming undeniable the IS ease of use of the Hamrin and Makhoul mountains and Lake Hamrin basin area coupled with the nature of the area’s physical geography have enabled a rather permissive environment for insurgent activity. I had been on the edge of the Hamrin in September of last year when visiting PUK frontline positions in Daquq and Tooz districts before the KRG’s territorial project collapsed in the Disputed Territories. These places are far more difficult–and dangerous in my opinion–to visit a year 0n. At the time Erbil and Baghdad were, albeit in a temporary realpolitik mode, on the same side in a somewhat conventional war against IS. Now they have returned to the pre-2014 status quo as military peer competitors.

Met this effusive taxi driver from Riyadh subdistrict who described the deleterious conditions after central authority was restored to the Hawija pocket but never fully asserted 24 hours a day. He seemed happy about the relative safety of Kirkuk city and to give random Westerner  a ride to Governor al-Jubouri’s compound on the southern bank of the Khassa river. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Today federal authorities have their hands full. With the eyes looking down at the protest movement in Basra and other southern cities and the tussle over political power as a new government has yet to be formed months after the controversial May vote. The attacks emanating from the Hamrin range are ongoing while the COIN campaign being implemented does not have the feel of an overarching strategy. It’s a proverbial game of cat and mouse in those rocky hills.

PUK fighters in the southern part of Daquq district near the Hamrin mountains this time last year. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

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September 10th, 2018 at 2:35 pm

In the Disputed Zone

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Commander Khosrat of the KDP faction of the Peshmerga in the agrarian area of Kandenawa, within the so-called ‘Disputed Territories’, watches the road warily with Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries not all that far away. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Kirkuk-I have a new piece out with Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required) in the UK on my latest findings in troubled Kirkuk governorate and the Disputed Territories. Following the now notorious events of 16 October last year in which the PUK Peshmerga and Asayish made a highly controversial retreat from the oil rich city and eponymous governorate of Kirkuk thereby ceding power to the Iraqi central government and its plethora of Iranian-sponsored Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary forces.

In what’s come to be known in Erbil and throughout the KRG as the ’16 October crisis,’ Iraq’s Kurdish political elites took an immense gamble in holding the disastrous 25 September independence referendum with lots of hyperbole but not concrete plan or even an outline to secede from republican Iraq. As Kurdish security forces took advantage of the security vacuum when ISF abandoned Kirkuk during an IS advance in 2014, the al-Abadi government took advantage if intra-KRG and even intra-PUK bickering–with the help of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani–to take Kirkuk back from Kurdish control in a big win for central authority and a huge loss of the Kurds ‘Jerusalem.’

Having last been to the city when it was under PUK-dominated KRG control, the contrast was stark in returning in February. As soon as I got to the city centre and began shooting photos, I was immediately questioned by Federal Police and asked to delete my photos. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was walking around freely last August.

Baghdad has visibly put Iraq’s Kurds on notice that the game has changed. The lucrative oil fields are now back under the control of ISF and Hashd units and hydrocarbons may now be heading for Iran rather than Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

IDPs return to Kirkuk from the KRG. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

March 2nd, 2018 at 10:57 am

Posted in Iraq,Kurdistan

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Hawija Finally Collapses but for How Long?

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KDP-affiliated Peshmerga fighters look on toward then IS-held territory in Dibis district, Kirkuk governorate which is disputed between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I have an article out in the October issue of the CTC Sentinel entitled “The Hawija Offensive: A Liberation Exposes Faultlines,” based on my fieldwork in Kirkuk governorate in August and September. I began this work before the offensive to retake the IS-held, so-called “Hawija pocket” kicked off in late September, just days before the Kurdish referendum on independence was going to be held. During my visits, the frontline was effectively stalemated because Kurdish forces could not agree on who would control the neighbouring district of Hawija with Iraqi security forces and the Shia militias known in Iraq as Hashd al-Shaabi.

Both sides were equally wary of each other’s intentions. In the end, Iraqi state forces and heavily armed Shia factions chased IS out of Hawija where they had been entrenched longer than Mosul or ar-Raqqa in terms of firm territorial control. Hawija was the quintessential building block of the aspiring ‘khilifah’ (‘caliphate’).

Ultimately Shia-dominated forces stormed into the long-held Sunni salafi enclave and evicted IS who ended up surrendering en masse as the khilifah was in its final stage of collapse as a military and administrative entity.

Little known to the world outside Iraq, Hawija is hugely symbolic in terms of Sunni grievances. A disastrous raid by then PM Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces in April 2013 acted as a catalyst for an IS takeover of the eponymous district a mere eight months on. In Iraq, Hawija is synonymous with Sunni Arab resentment of Shia power politics and armed insurgency.

It won’t be long before we begin to hear about IS regrouping in small numbers of “sleeper cells” around Hawija for that geography and the rage within it is part of what enabled IS to begin its territorial quasi state-building project in the first place.

PUK-affiliated Peshmerga along the frontline northwest of Tuz Khurmatu. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

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October 18th, 2017 at 8:41 am

The Festering Bastion

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A Peshmerga commander in Dibis district points toward IS controlled villages some five kilometers away on the baking hot horizon. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- I have a new article out for Jane’s Intelligence Review on the forces arrayed around what has come to be known as the ‘Hawija pocket’ in southwestern Kirkuk governorate. The traditionally Sunni Arab town of Hawija, a restive northern bastion of insurgency from 2004 forward, and its hinterlands acted as an accelerator of Sunni grievances when Iraqi security forces stormed a protest camp there in late April of 2013.

The Peshmerga and their battlefield peer competitors in the Hashd al-Shaabi have been stuck in operational limbo as there has been no agreement on who would govern a post-IS Hawija once the smoke has cleared. The ethnic Turkmen stationed outside the town of Bashir (alt. Basheer) from the local brigade of the Badr Organisation withstood IS sniper fire at the time of my visit which they promptly answered with a Zu-23 anti-aircraft gun mounted atop a BTR-50 tucked safely behind a berm.

Knocking IS out of Hawija will be more like Tal Afar than Mosul or ar-Raqqa. The armed groups surrounding the pocket just haven’t been able to come to terms on a battle plan. That should change very soon. Hawija simply isn’t valuable enough for IS to continue to hold onto till the last man. It is more likely planning a salafi version of taqiyya (dissimulation) into the local population while it decides to regroup in the nearby Hamrin mountains.

 

 

Written by derekhenryflood

September 20th, 2017 at 9:08 am

The Hard March

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Peshmerga along the Bashiqa front northeast of occupied Mosul just after sundown on August 8. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

Peshmerga milling in front of bulky British-produced HESCO Bastion ‘Concertainer’ barriers along the Bashiqa front northeast of occupied Mosul just after sundown on August 8. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- Very proud to have an article from my recent trip to Iraq’s Ninewa Governorate in the August issue of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s Sentinel publication. As you may have read or heard, there has been much talk of an offensive to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul at some point this October. On my recent trip to Iraq, this notion seemed virtually entirely unlikely although if war planners want it badly enough, I suppose a slim possibility.

The article out in this month’s issue isentitled “The Hard March to Mosul: A Frontline Report,” or you can download the entire issue here. It’s late August at the time of this posting leaving not much time for an ‘October surprise’ to give a democratic administration in Washington a win during the very last phase of a bizarre election cycle.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vaguely promised the defeat of the so-called Islamic State inside Iraq’s borders (or former borders depending on one’s perspective) by the end of this year. Then came the talk of October. In Erbil I was informed of a November rumour. But just the talk of Mosul’s liberation is a quarrelsome affair to the hilt.

The two biggest issues seemed to me to be whether the Hashd al-Shabi (referred to as Popular Mobilisation Units in Anglophone media) will a) take part in the operation and/or b) enter Mosul itself with Iranian advisors quite possibly in tow–or being towed by perhaps. The second biggest question I encountered regards what will be the role of the peshmerga and will said peshmerga enter Mosul? A pesh commander reminded me of their forces being booted out of Mosul in 2003 after just ten short days to appease the Arab population’s wishes at the time.

A veteran peshmerga volunteer pauses after the natural stress cause by an Islamic State attack, a minuscule incident in a life scarred by decades of on again, off again conflict. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

A veteran peshmerga volunteer pauses after the natural stress caused by an Islamic State attack, a minuscule incident in a life scarred by decades of on again, off again conflict. ©2016 Derek Henry Flood

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August 23rd, 2016 at 6:19 am

Posted in Iraq,Kurdistan

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Out the Window

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Room with a view. In the comfort of the EU with mind adrift on other places. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Room with a view. In the comfort of the EU with my mind adrift in other places. Barcelona is obviously home to the age-old vociferous Catalan separatist movement but all in life is relative. In terms of veracity, when one looks at other realms of separatism in the east that invoke large-scale political violence and weave in acts of state-sponsoered terrorism, such movements in the heart of the West in Scotland, Flanders or here in Catalunya are quite tame. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- After an egregiously long sabbatical in the chunky, ‘polar vortex’ torn streets of NYC, I finally made it back across the Atlantic. I put plans for returning to Iraq’s Green Line and Ukraine’s chaotic Donbas region on hold for the time being to work on a couple of armchair pieces. As a perennial freelancer, sometimes a sure thing outpaces an unsafe bet and so I’m remaining in the West for the moment.

I brought loads of prints over to do some more photo walls as I had been doing the previous month in Long Island City. In my original idea conceived in 2000-2001, I had wanted to plaster prints up on either side of the Euro-Atlantic community to pique interest in the historical juncture of Central-South Asia in order to bring attention to that region’s political maelstrom by appealing to the public with its beauty. Such was not to be.

As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, those plans were imediately tosed out the window after 9/11 because it was going to involve obtaining an Islamic Emirate visa for Afghanistan which was immediately unrealistic despite my efforts of reaching out to members of the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan and Flushing, Queens just before the attacks.

Now well over a decade on, I hope to close that loop albeit under far different circumstances. Below I’ve posted snapshots of my final two projects in the U.S. Hope to do some new ones here very soon…

My final photo installation in Long Island City, Queens. These images were shot in Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh and Kunduz Provinces, Afghanistan over the span of a month in November 2001. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

My final photo installation in Long Island City, Queens. These images were shot in Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh and Kunduz Provinces, Afghanistan over the span of a month in November 2001. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

These prints were from an exhibit I did in the fall of 2008 on the stateless Rohingya crisis. I shot these on the Teknaf River that marks the Bangladesh-Burma border. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

These prints were from an exhibit I did in the fall of 2008 on the stateless Rohingya crisis. I shot these on the Teknaf River that marks the Bangladesh-Burma border. I put these up near the entrance to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. When a Triborough Bridge policeman asked me what the hell exactly was I doing, I reflexively responded that I was beautifying a blighted area. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

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July 23rd, 2014 at 10:09 am

Scenes From an Enclave

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Scenes from a Mall. Took a taxi to the Family Mall here in Erbil on the search for a rare Trade Bank of Iraq ATM. Erbil’s malls are somewhat reminiscent of those found in the GCC states replete with imported Bangladeshi janitors in bright colored coveralls. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- Here are a handful of snapshots from my iPod from my day running around the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan while trying to get situated.

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A portrait of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and President of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Mullah Mustafa is the godfather of modern Kurdish independence/separatist movements and was part of the short lived Kurdish Republic of Mahabad that was established in what is now Iran following World War II. The Kurdish state lasted for less than a year between 1946-1947 before the Americans came to an agreement with the Soviets to retreat from Soviet-occupied Iran whereby Barzani went into Soviet exile until 1958. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

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It seems that with each passing year the notion of a sovereign Kurdistani state is becoming closer to a ground reality. As the tug of war between Erbil and Baghdad grinds on over federalism, security and oil export law while mainstream Iraq descends into another fit of sectarian warfare of which the Kurds want no part. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

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Late night Ramadan street food. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Strolling by the Jalil al-Khayat mosque late night while searching for a falafel vendor. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Strolling by the Jalil al-Khayat mosque late night while searching for a falafel vendor. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

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July 31st, 2013 at 4:58 pm

Twenty Long Years

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An Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) rally in the square across from my hotel in Diyarbakir. The speakers expressed outrage at the putsch in Cairo that ended the short lived presidency of Mohammed Morsi and expressed solidarity with the suffering Muslims of S Syria, Iraq, Kashmir and Bahrain. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) rally in the square across from my hotel in Diyarbakir. The speakers expressed outrage at the putsch in Cairo that ended the short lived presidency of Mohammed Morsi and expressed solidarity with the suffering Muslims of Syria, Iraq, Kashmir and even the Shia of far away Bahrain. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Diyarbakir- Though I try not to get overly personal with TWD’s posts as it’s more of a news/analysis site, I’ve just arrived in southeastern Turkey (northern Kurdistan to some) and this marks twenty years of my travels in the Middle East. In the summer of 1993 I traveled to Israel/Palestine to be a volunteer worker on a grueling archaeological dig not too far south of the Lebanese border. Lo and behold A short, hot war broke out that summer two decades ago called either the Seven Day War or Operation Accountability depending on whom one asks (as is everything in this zone).

Here I am twenty long years later with both Syria and Iraq just to the south at war and the PKK resurgent in Turkey while in peace talks with the Erdogan government drag onat the same time. The eponymous province of which Diyarbakir is the administrative center is not without occasional political violence either.  In this area there is so much going on seemingly at all times whether in terms in broad brush geopolitics or furious insurgencies being clumsily batted back by traditional military institutions employing awful scorched earth tactics that it just keeps calling me back.

Importantly, at least to me, is that I feel privileged to be here at all after all this time. I’ve met journalists over the years who are no longer still alive to tell these stories. I still think about them.

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The Muslim Brotherhood had a post-Iftaar rally in the square across the street from my hotel. Speakers fired up the crowd about the unjust nature in which Mohammed Morsi was recently deposed in Cairo. This to me symbolizes how much Turkey has changed in the era of the AKP government ruling in Ankara. I couldn’t have imagined this in the 1990s when I first started coming here where it was all about Ataturk and the Ikhwan was spoken of in hushed tones. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Street scene, downtown Diyarbakir. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Street scene, downtown Diyarbakir. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

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Çorba (lentil soup) and Vişne Nektarı (Cherry nectar juice)-my two staples in Turkey. Lentil soup is to Turkey what Dal Makhani is to India-available everywhere, cheap, and nourishing. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

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July 29th, 2013 at 4:55 pm