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It was another hellish day in Baghdad as Hashd al Shaabi attacked the KDP office in the Green Zone.
In the turbulent Iraqi capital of Baghdad, located between the two great rivers of the Middle East - the Euphrates and Tigris - weekends were once about relaxing across beautiful riverside locations.
Since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the capital’s undependable security has ultimately pushed people to stay at home over going out given the constant threat of bombings or clashes.
On Saturday, the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the most powerful political entity within Iraq’s predominantly Kurdish region, were attacked by Hashd al Shaabi, the country’s most powerful Shia militia umbrella group.
“A [typical] weekend in Baghdad,” says Haydar Karaalp as his voice slips into a bitter laugh. “Most of the time protests happen on weekends in Baghdad since 2014,” the Baghdad-based political analyst tells TRT World. This time, protests organised by the Iran-backed Hashd al Shaabitargeted the KDP office, burning its interior alongside the Kurdish region’s flag, angering both the KDP and the regional government.
“This attack marks a new and interesting dimension in the multi-layered conflict in Iraq,” Karaalp says, pointing out Arab-Kurdish political differences, which have in the past led to deadly clashes between the central and regional government forces.
“The attack could be the biggest incident concerning Arab-Kurdish tensions since the [failed] Kurdish independence referendum in 2017,” says Bekir Aydogan, the Erbil-based correspondent for Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.
Masoud Barzani casts his vote during the independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq on September 25, 2017. After the move failed, Barzani resigned from power. The referendum orchestrated singlehandedly by Barzani divided Kurdish political establishment despite the overwhelming support from Iraqi Kurds. (Azad Lashkari / Reuters)
After the referendum, which was backed by most Kurds despite the fact that it was considered illegal according to the Iraqi constitution, central government forces led by Hashd al Shaabi claimed back oil-rich Kirkuk - a strategic city between the Kurdish region and central Iraq, formerly controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
Anti-KDP protests were triggered by a statement from Hoshyar Zebari, the former Iraqi foreign minister, who is also a powerful member of the KDP, and the uncle of Masoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP, who had long been the president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
Zebari suggested that the Kazimi government, backed by Washington, needs to “clean up the Green Zone [in Baghdad] from the presence of Hashd militias”. After the incident, Zebari appeared to backtrack from his original statement, saying that Hashd al Shaabi has done a good job defeating Daesh, indicating that his words were misinterpreted.
But he later returned to his original emphasis.
“Today’s storming and burning of the KDP office in downtown Baghdad under the guise of ISF [Iraq Security Forces] and anti riot police of 500 strong show that the unruly militia are in charge and NOT government forces,” wrote Zebari on Twitter.
“A sad reminder of the state of Iraqi State,” he added.
Iraq's Hoshyar Zebari speaks to the media at the IISS Regional Security Summit "The Manama Dialogue" in Manama, Bahrain December 9, 2016. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters Archive)
Barzani, who also pushed for the unsuccessful independence referendum, and lost the presidency of the Kurdish regional government after the event, responded strongly to the attacks that took place on Saturday.
“They will pay a heavy price for what they did,” said Barzani. However, despite the fact that the regional flag was burned, there were no demonstrations against the incident in the Kurdish region, says Aydogan. “People appear to be more concerned about unpaid salaries, which they have not received for months,” Aydogan tells TRT World. The only tangible reaction appears to be the touring of a helicopter, from which a Kurdish regional government flag was waved around Erbil, Aydogan observed.
But both Aydogan and Karaalp still think that the incident could foment nationalist emotions in both Arab and Kurdish communities as the upcoming elections in summer of 2021 loom across the country.
The weak Baghdad government, which has to navigate through both Iranian and American influence, could not do much in reaction to the incident, particularly against powerful organisations like the Hashd al Shaabi.
Iraq's designated prime minister Mustafa Al-Kazimi delivers his first televised speech after his nomination ceremony, in Baghdad, Iraq April 9, 2020. (Credit: Iraqiya TV / Reuters)
“There is a constant discussion over the lack of authority or the existence of a parallel state [referring to powerful militias] in Iraq. With the Kazimi government, there was a widespread hope that the state would again become powerful, breaking up the strength of militias,” Karaalp says.
“But as the latest incident signifies, that does not happen,” the analyst observes.
The Kazimi government detained 15 people who were allegedly involved in the incident, and also fired one of the generals following the burning of the KDP office. There are allegations that suggest all detainees have been released, Kayaalp says.
A day before the incident, social media accounts with close links to Hashd al Shaabi openly declared that they would target the KDP office in Baghdad, admits Aydogan. “Days before, the government knew that this kind of incident would probably happen there,” Karaalp adds, according to his sources in the government.
“But there were no particular security measures to prevent any incident,” Aydogan says.
Even after the incident exploded, security forces were slow to respond. “Security forces, which arrived at the scene of the incident, have not intervened much. Even security personnel [of the KDP office] were being seen to shoot the burning of the office by their mobile phones,” says Karaalp. “They were shooting how the attackers were burning the [Kurdish regional] flag and how the protesters were putting up the Hash al Shaabi flag in the office.”
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