The White Banners militants are reportedly made up of disgruntled Kurds who have joined forces with ISIS.
LONDON – Iraqi forces began a military operation against militants who are threatening an oil route between Iraq and Iran, rekindling fears over the security of the country despite Baghdad’s announcement of victory against the Islamic State (ISIS).
The military operation aims to secure areas between Kirkuk’s oil fields and Khanaqin on the Iranian border, two Iraqi officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity before the operation started. The officials said six pro-government guards were killed by the militants south of the Hamrin Mountains.
“With the goal of enforcing security and stability, destroying sleeper cells and continuing clearing operations, an operation was launched in the early hours of this morning to search and clear areas east of Tuz Khurmatu,” the Iraqi military said in a statement on February 7.
The Iraqi Army, special security units and the predominately Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) took part in the operation, which had US air support and coordination with peshmerga fighters, the Iraqi military said.
As part of its plans to boost oil exports, Iraq announced that it would be transporting crude oil via tanker trucks from Kirkuk to be refined in Iran. There are reports that an Iraq-Iran pipeline will be built to export oil from Kirkuk, replacing the one that heads to Turkey via areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
It remains unclear which group the militants threatening the oil route are aligned with, ISIS or the mysterious al-Rayat al-Bayda (translated as the White Banners or the White Flags). The group’s flag is white with the head of lion in the centre.
The White Banners militants are reportedly made up of Kurds who objected to the control of the Iraqi central government over Kirkuk province and Tuz Khurmatu in Saladin province, which were under KRG control for more than two years before being retaken by Baghdad in October.
“The White Banners group [has] been accused of carrying out terrorist activities and targeting judiciary members,” Al Arabiya reported.
Turkmen MP Jassim Mohammed Jaafar accused Kurdish leaders in December of supporting the group, Al Arabiya said.
The KRG denies links to the White Banners but central government officials have accused their Kurdish counterparts of not doing enough to fight the militants.
Abu Reda al-Najjar, a PMF commander, said the White Banners is a new group composed of Iranian Kurdish separatists, most notably the Kurdistan Free Life Party.
Other Iraqi officials told Arab News that the group is not new but made up of militants from Ansar al-Islam, which includes predominately Kurdish fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda.
There are reports that the group has welcomed former ISIS militants to its ranks.
The White Banners group is “said to be an alliance of former Islamic State militants and disgruntled Kurdish mafia members pushed out of the nearby town of Tuz Khurmatu,” wroteTom Westcott in the website Middle East Eye.
There are separate reports of Kurdish groups not affiliated to the White Banners taking up against the Iraqi Army and the PMF following the fallout between Baghdad and Erbil over the referendum on Kurdistan’s independence last September.
These groups, which call for the “liberation” of Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu from central government control, are made up volunteers that are no longer affiliated the peshmerga or the KRG.
“The myriad armed groups in Iraq are constantly emerging, merging and dividing. The list is as mutable as everything else in the country,” wrote Wassim Bassem in the website Al-Monitor.
The fight against such militancy is likely to continue, albeit not in the same scale as that against ISIS.
“The fight against insurgency continues and goes beyond the full-on kinetic phase to address the many enabling structural factors behind Iraq’s insurgencies (corruption, illicit money, uneven state capacity, unemployment),” Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, told the National newspaper.