"Why did our peshmerga die in the fight against Daesh?" asks Hawre Ali, who stands by while protesters pose for pictures with yellow sad-faced smileys. Outside the United Nations compound in Iraqi Kurdistan's capital Irbil, peace protesters gather. They mourn for the territories the Iraqi army has taken back from the Kurds over the last few days, some of which peshmerga fighters had recaptured from the "Islamic State" terror group, or Daesh, with the loss of Kurdish lives.
"What did we fight for?" Ali wonders. For three years, the peshmerga fought IS — mainly in the so-called "disputed" territories that both the Kurds and Baghdad claim for themselves — with air support from the US-led international coalition against IS. They lost almost 2,000 peshmerga troops in battle, with another 18,000 wounded.
"The fight was not even our responsibility," says Ali, who is angry with the international community for letting the Kurds down. It allowed the Iraqi army to take back control of land which, according to the Iraqi constitution of 2005, lies outside the Kurdistan Region. "We are disappointed they did not prevent this. We will no longer fight against IS; it is not our concern."
He vows to return the next day with a tent, to pitch it here and put pressure on the UN to give the Kurds back the lands. But virtually all the world supported Baghdad's actions, with the Americans declaring them part of their united Iraq policy.
Punishing the Kurds
Last month, Washington warned Kurdish President Masoud Barzani against holding a referendum on Kurdish independence, saying the timing was wrong. The offer the Americans made in return for a delay was recently leaked to the press, and showed that the US and the UN would help the Kurds in their negotiations over outstanding issues with Baghdad and support a referendum if, after two years, these had failed.
Despite massive pressure, opposition from other Kurdish parties and threats from Baghdad and neighboring Iran and Turkey, the referendum went ahead on September 25 with over 90 percent of those who participated voting in favor of independence. One of the first measures Baghdad took to punish the Kurds for this — in its view illegal — vote, was to block all international flights to the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Suleimaniyah.
The plane taking off from the airport next to the UN compound is heading for Baghdad, now the only way out of the country for the Kurds, apart from the land border with Turkey — as long as that remains open, of course, as closing it was one of the threats Turkish President Erdogan made after the referendum. The Iranian border crossings have been closed, reopened and closed again in recent weeks.
"We will face a lack of food and water, but nobody is protesting," says Chiman Khaled, a woman in a long red dress whose father was a peshmerga fighter killed by the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. She calls on the international community to help the Kurds. "I have not eaten for two days. I was in thought with the peshmerga, and this is all about Kurdish rights."
Putting the blame on US, Iran
When asked who is to blame for losing the oil city of Kirkuk and the other territories — and with them the possibility of an independent Kurdish state in the near future — Khaled points to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who gave the orders, and the Shiite Hashed al-Shabi militias, who executed them along with the Iraqi army.
Mohammed Jamal, who is holding a small red-white-green Kurdish flag, agrees. "What happened has nothing to do with the referendum. Abadi and the militias were already planning this." Fatima Sinda, a university professor dressed completely in black "because of the blood on the ground," voices her agreement and points out that the Iraqi constitution, the legal justification claimed by Baghdad for its actions, has been abused by all parties. "The Iraqi government has been undermining it for years, ignoring it in its actions against minorities and now attacking us with American weapons."
On Facebook and Twitter, the Kurds' favorite media, many have turned against their leaders for the loss of Kirkuk — the city many had seen as the capital of the anticipated Kurdish state — playing a blame game over which of the parties was the first to give in. But the peace protesters are hesitant to say as much. They mainly blame the US for not helping the Kurds and for working with Iran and their Iraqi Shiite militias to take over the city and disputed territories. They simply had not believed the Americans when they warned that they would be unable to shield the Kurds from the consequences if the referendum went ahead.
Merely a setback for the dream
Huner Ismael, who spent many years in the US and now works for an oil company near Kirkuk, even shows some understanding for the Kurdish politicians. They must have made an agreement with Baghdad about returning the lands, he thinks. "There was a deal; otherwise they would have fought."
Reports indicate that Kurdish leaders gave in to severe pressure from Iran, which even threatened to burn down Kirkuk.
"If someone takes my land, I have the right to retake it. I would not fight for something that is not mine," Ismael adds in a rare show of support for the leaders who held back.
Beshar Said disagrees. He points to the fact that after the takeover in Kirkuk, the new Arab governor during a press conference ordered the police chief not to speak in Kurdish, but in Arabic — even though Kurdish has been one of the two official languages in Iraq for years. "Next they will change the language of education, too."
Said calls on the Kurdish parties to reunite to demand their rights — and, somewhat oddly at a peace rally, on the international community to help the Kurds militarily. "We need weapons for the peshmerga to liberate these areas again."