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Distrust Between Kurdish Forces And Arabs May Benefit ISIS


A story now about an ancient ethnic division that's playing out in the fight against ISIS. Kurdish forces in northern Iraq have closed off Arab enclaves to try to protect them from ISIS. But as part of that protection, the Kurds are also forbidding people, even residents, from going in or out. Arabs say it's harassment. And as NPR's Leila Fadel reports, it makes for the kind of tension that could end up benefiting ISIS.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: This is Sheikhan, an area under Kurdish control, but long contested by Arabs and Kurds. And now with the war against ISIS raging, Sunni Arabs feel squeezed between the extremists of ISIS and Kurds who see Arabs as terrorist sympathizers.

ALI AWNI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: We meet Ali Awni in his office in Sheikhan, and as a local head of the Kurdish Democratic Party, he basically runs the area. It's near Mosul and is controlled by the Kurds, but there are dozens of Arab villages nearby. And Awni isn't hesitant to say he doesn't trust them. He suspects they are all sympathizers with ISIS, which he calls by its Arabic acronym DaAsh.

AWNI: Because all the village of Arab, even if one person of DaAsh or ISIS entered the village, all the villager will join them and they become DaAsh.

FADEL: He even claims he saw Arabs in the villages nearby celebrating at one point when Kurdish forces known as Peshmerga retreated from ISIS advances.

AWNI: Betrayers, nobody can trust them.

FADEL: Now the Arab villages that dot the path to the ISIS-held city of Mosul are considered a military zone. The Kurdish forces have cut off all exit and entry points and no one is allowed in or out without special permission. And it's not just here; there are even areas where ISIS took control and were pushed back, but the Kurdish forces haven't let Arab residents return. Analysts say this creates a tension that extremist groups like ISIS pray on to gain support. Joost Hiltermann, an expert on the Kurdish-Arab conflict at the International Crisis Group, says the tensions are as old as the modern Iraqi state.

JOOST HILTERMANN: It's been a very unhappy relationship from the beginning.

FADEL: Now, facing a serious ISIS threat, many Kurds are lumping all Arabs together, even though most disagree with ISIS ideology. Again, Joost Hiltermann.

HILTERMANN: It's a dangerous situation because you alienate people that way and you drive them into exactly - it's a self-fulfilling prophecy - you drive them into activities that you actually try to prevent.

FADEL: I was still in Awni's office when three mayors from those cordoned off Arab villages walked in. And the tensions were apparent as they complained in differential tones about their treatment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: The three men tell Awni they got blocked at a Kurdish checkpoint even though they had an appointment. Awni takes a diplomatic but firm tone with the men. You have to understand, the soldiers are scared of ISIS. But the men say we are mayors, they need to respect us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Awni acknowledge that the Kurdish forces have made mistakes. And he has tried to tell them we can't kill or chase out all the Arabs, so we have to recognize they're not all terrorists.

AWNI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Since the Arab villagers can't leave their area, the mayor's ask Awni to allow in more food and medical supplies. The Kurds control the entrances. Awni promises to work on it, and the men leave.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: I followed them out and speak to them on the side of the road because the Kurdish forces won't let us go to their villages.

MYASAR HAMDAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Myasar Hamdan, the tribal leader of the village called Taq Harb, says it's been cut off for 60 days by Kurdish forces. They can't go to Mosul, it's controlled by ISIS, and they can't come to Sheikhan because the Kurds won't allow it.

HAMDAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: The problem in Iraq, he says, is that people blame a whole group for what just a few do. They see an Arab and because he's an Arab that means he's ISIS to them. But ISIS are all kinds - Arabs, Kurds and many others. This treatment, he says, is unjust. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Erbil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.