Tuz Khurmatu has experienced high levels of tension and conflict in recent years with violence and instability prevalent
Families returning to the village of al-Salam, which is located in the southern part of Iraq’s Tuz Khurmatu district, have found their homes destroyed and possessions looted, amidst a never-ending series of incidents that have completely compounded their misery.
The ISIS surge in mid-2014, coupled with ethno-religious conflict and the recent emergence of the White Flags group, have all contributed to instability in the district.
One of the returnees, Um Ghasan, who came back with her family, weeps as she stands inside her house, which was burnt and destroyed.
“After 4 years of displacement we have nothing left. No beds, no covers, no plates, nothing,” said Um Ghasan. “Life is hard. What will we use to rebuild? This house is completely burnt and destroyed.”
According to the local administration, 50 homes have been recorded as burnt and damaged, while a further 17,000 people, out of a population of between 180,000 – 200,000 people in the district, are still to return to their homes.
“First, Tuz Khurmatu was affected by ISIS, afterwards it was affected by the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias,” said Laith Hamid Khalaf, the Mayor of Tuz Khurmatu. “Later on it was affected by the ethnic conflict between Kurds and Arabs.”
Tuz Khurmatu has been ravaged by tensions and conflict in recent times. In June 2014, when ISIS sacked the city of Mosul, extremist elements that had pledged allegiance to the group took up arms and gained control over most of the district, leaving just Tuz Khurmatu City and the town of Amerli as the two areas that ISIS did not manage to control.
While ISIS was ousted from the district by the Kurdish Peshmerga and fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) by October 2014, thus pushing the group back to the town of Hawija, much of the district had been damaged, with displacement and killings carried out by militants both rife.
Following the defeat of ISIS, Tuz Khurmatu became a zone of contention between the various military and ethno-religious groups. The district is split between a mixture of Kurds, Arabs (both Sunni and Shia), and Turkmen, the third largest ethnic group in Iraq who descended from the ancient Sumer.
Since then and up until mid-October 2017, the district was split between PMU and Peshmerga control. The former presided over the major towns of Yengije, Suleiman Bek, Amerli and Bir Ahmad, while the latter presided over Tuz Khurmatu City and the Sadiq Airbase. However, clashes have occurred between both side, with the end of 2015 a notably tense period.
In mid-October, in the aftermath of the Kurdistan Independence Referendum, Iraqi forces started to capture disputed territory from the Peshmerga, which included Kirkuk, border crossings, and Tuz Khurmatu City itself. While clashes erupted in some cases, these areas were largely retaken within a few days.
In recent months, however, a new threat has emerged: the White Flags. This new group, which is formed of ISIS militants and remnants of other extremist factions, has been staging attacks in Tuz Khurmatu and has contributed to undermining the security situation in the district.
At the beginning of February, the PMU launched an operation in the Hamrin Mountains around Tuz Khurmatu in an attempt to eliminate this threat. While this operation was labelled as a success by PMU officials, and quells a growing menace to the area, it remains to be seen whether lasting stability will be achieved in Tuz Khurmatu.