ISIL Takeover and Expulsion
As Mosul fell in June 2014, the Iraqi army and the local police, with no top-level command to report to, collapsed in Rabi’a sub-district. The next day, ISIL effectively took control of Rabi’a town by establishing a checkpoint that, despite being manned by only four fighters, remained unchallenged.
ISIL fighters in Rabi’a were largely local, as in other districts included in the research. The group reportedly also included scores of Sunni Turkmen IDPs who had settled in Rabi’a after 2006, fleeing violence in Tal Afar. In September 2014, the head of the second-largest tribe in Rabi’a, the Juhaysh, asked all tribal leaders to come to his house in Moumi to pledge allegiance to ISIL.2
ISIL’s appearance in Rabi’a was not a surprise, even if the Shammar tribe, which constitutes 80 – 90% of the sub-district’s population of 86,000, has traditionally supported all post-Saddam Iraqi governments and fought al-Qaida alongside the US. The Shammar hold key positions in Rabi’a; the mayor, the city manager, eight of the 10 local council members.3 and the head of local police belong to that tribe.4 A local elder pegged the blame for not resisting ISIL on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had allegedly confiscated the weapons of all tribes living close to the border in early 2014, leaving them powerless against the group.
An investigative journalist revealed, based on intelligence sources, that ISIL had controlled the import of goods from Syria through the international border crossing in Rabi’a town well before taking Mosul and that it had levied a US$300 – 600 tax on each commercial truck passing through.5 This scenario was possible because ISIL had, for some years, planted eyes along the international highway connecting Rabi’a to Mosul to observe freight transport and set up ambushes against military convoys.6 In addition, locals alleged that ISIL had used Juhaysh-majority villages in Rabi’a and Ayyadhiyya as safe havens and launching pads to attack Yazidis in neighboring Sinjar district since 2011 – similar to how ISIL has drawn support from the Sunni Turkmens of Tal Afar.
Half of Rabi’a sub-district’s population fled before and during ISIL’s control. Many settled in Kurdish-controlled areas in the east (e.g., Dohuk, Erbil), others in areas controlled by the Federal Government, but a significant proportion of the population fled immediately across the border into Syria. The head of the local council noted that he, his family, and all of the council’s sitting members fled into Syria when ISIL took control. The headquarters of the local police force and three other police stations in the sub-district were destroyed, as were all holding facilities.
KRG Security Forces, aided by US and UK air strikes,7 cleared Rabi’a town on October 2, 2014, after a fierce, 48-hour-long battle to clear the road toward Sinjar. ISIL had been committing genocide against Yazidis there, stranding them on barren Mount Sinjar in August, among other atrocities. Local tribesmen provided information to Kurdish forces leading the operation but did not engage directly in combat.8 Locals also give credit to the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) for having shot dozens of ISIL operatives up at the unfinished Rabi’a general hospital building, which is across from their sniper lookout on top of a silo at the Syrian border. Although Rabi’a town was liberated relatively quickly, ISIL retained control of the surrounding rural areas, which have comparably less strategic importance, and the entire sub-district was not fully under Kurdish control until December 17 – 19, 2014.
Besides the destruction brought by ISIL, most damage to property resulted from artillery fire as the front line shifted through Rabi’a town and more than 20 of the 82 villages in the sub-district. There was little damage to civilian property observed in Rabi’a town during a visit in February 2017, but the houses of the hundreds of Sunni Turkmen IDP families who all fled after ISIL’s expulsion looked derelict. Four villages northeast from Rabi’a town, Mahmoudiyya, Qahira, Saudiyya, and Sfaya were largely destroyed, reportedly by Kurdish forces. This level of property destruction is similar to that in neighboring Zummar.
Security Forces in Rabi’a
Since taking control in 2014, the KRG Security Forces have largely stabilized Rabi’a. According to a local police officer interviewed in February 2017, the sub-district is completely safe, with the exception of a few Juhaysh-majority villages close to Sinjar, which might experience sporadic retaliatory attacks by Yazidis. He added that crime levels were also down because the “troublemakers” had joined ISIL and fled after its expulsion.
The KDP-Peshmerga in Rabi’a include two unusual components. First, at the time of a visit to Rabi’a in February 2017, the Rojava Peshmerga were manning smaller checkpoints along the main route from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to Sinjar and were later mobilized to Sinjar to engage Yazidi Protection Units affiliated with the YPG.9 KRG President Masoud Barzani established the Rojava Peshmerga in February 2012 in an attempt to create a KDP-friendly Kurdish force in Syria. By September 2015, the Rojava Peshmerga’s two brigades had 3,000−4,000 fighters, trained by the Peshmerga and, more recently, Coalition forces.10 The Rojava reports to the Peshmerga’s special forces, the Zeravani.11 Because the YPG have denied the Rojava access into Syria out of fear that their presence would cause a split in Syrian Kurds like the one between the PUK and KDP in Iraq, this Syrian Kurd force was deployed in Iraq against ISIL as part of the KRG Security Forces. The presence of the YPG’s all-female equivalent, the YPJ at the silo, and their alleged control of the customs have not caused open confrontation to date.
Second, the KDP-Peshmerga has established a 2,000-strong tribal force in the areas that have come under exclusive KRG control since September 2014: Rabi’a, Zummar, and Ayyadhiya sub-districts of Tal Afar. The Jazeera Brigade reports to the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs and includes two Sunni Arab battalions of 1,000 fighters each. According to a statement by the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, the primary task of these tribal forces is to hold their ancestral lands, which were cleared by Kurdish security forces, and to foil future incursions.12 Rather than through active combat, the Jazeera Brigade helps stabilize an area by gathering intelligence from locals on the behest of the KRG Security Forces.
The head of Kurdish security forces on the Zummar-Rabi’a front, Colonel General Za’im Ali, agreed that the biggest asset of the tribal forces is their local knowledge and valor in protecting their lands (which also prevents them from joining extremist forces), but he also hinted at possible deployments to the front lines. Similarly, Sheikh Fahd Khalaf Jasim, the tactical leader of the second Arab battalion, claimed his troops could engage in combat in areas outside Rabi’a, such as Sinjar district. This move would lead to a very delicate situation because Shammar tribal forces in Sinjar are allied with the KDP’s fierce enemy, the Sinjar Resistance Units, a Yazidi force alleged to be loyal to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).13 When asked, Sheikh Fahd claimed he would follow the KDP-Peshmerga’s orders without hesitation, even though “[he] will surely be labeled Barzani’s puppet.”
Like the Rojava, the Jazeera Brigade reports to the Zeravani and has been trained and equipped by the Peshmerga and Coalition forces at the Khanas camp in Ninewa’s northeastern Sheikhan district. Training lasts 40 days; fighters then receive a 10-day break before being mobilized to their assigned area of responsibility, explained Sheikh Fahd. The first Arab battalion – composed mainly of the Juhaysh, Muamara, Sharabi, and Jibbour tribes – graduated in February 2017, and some were deployed in March 2017 to Sinjar to reinforce the Rojava Peshmerga forces that clashed with PKK-sympathizers near Khana Sur town. Most of them, however, took up duty in Zummar and Ayyadhiyya sub-districts. The second battalion, called al-Ajeel Battalion, graduated in July 2017, and is composed mostly of Shammar and other tribesmen from Rabi’a.14
All interviewed community representatives claimed that relations between the KRG Security Forces and locals were good, and many had close relatives who had recently enlisted in the al-Ajeel Battalion. While the preference for local security actors is not surprising, the indifference to whether tribal forces report to Baghdad or the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs in Erbil shows a rift in what was known as an area deeply loyal to the Federal Government, even if many expressed a preference for shared control of the sub-district’s borders between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga.
The KRG’s control in Rabi’a is unique because the sub-district is not considered a “disputed territory” that would fall under the provisions of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution. As such, Kurdish forces operate next to Baghdad structures. For example, the local council and the local police continue to report to Mosul. In practice, then, the Asayish is the main counter-terrorism and counter-crime entity, but it often investigates cases together with the local police because of its knowledge of local customs and people, explained a Rabi’a‑based police officer while showing gestures of walking side-by-side.15
Tribal Mobilization Forces were also briefly established in Rabi’a. In March 2016, Member of Parliament Ahmed Madlul al-Jarba announced an agreement with the KRG and Baghdad (and donated US$25,000) to establish the West Ninewa training center in Abu Hujayra village and form a tribal mobilization force (hashd al-asha’ir) called the Ninewa Lions. The Ninewa Lions would be tasked with clearing ISIL-controlled areas primarily in Ninewa governorate, including its remote western areas such as Ba’aj district.16 The tactical leader of the force, Sheikh Fahd Khalaf Jasim saw the agreement as a recognition of his earlier success training a Shammar tribal force in Syria, Hashd al-Nawadir.17
Although MP al-Jarba announced receiving authorization to train 1,500 fighters18 and Sheikh Fahd said he amassed 2,000 under his command, only 600 fighters could be formally enlisted and placed on salary.19 He said his fighters received training and light equipment through the TMF program and were trained at West Ninewa Camp by Coalition forces (notably including Spanish forces), which was confirmed through Coalition sources. However, the West Ninewa camp was closed in November-December 2016 due to frictions with the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government, in coordination with KRG, deployed the 600 tribal fighters to Mosul airport in early 2017, who then participated in the recapture of Mosul under the command of the Federal Police according to a key informant.20 Frustrated by the low numbers and poor equipment of the enlisted Ninewa Lions, Sheikh Fahd submitted in early 2017 the names of 1,000 fighters to the KDP-Peshmerga for security checks to form an Arab Peshmerga Brigade within the Jazeera Force (see above).