Salah Hasan Baban, NIRIJ team, July 2022, Translated by Walaa Rayya
Everything was peaceful in the middle of the place surrounded by old trees. In the center of the families’ gathering site, Arabic, and Kurdish songs were echoing loudly and young men were splashing and playing with the water when a bomb exploded in the middle of the site. The sound of the explosion was deafening and shocking to everyone, and before the smoke could rise, screams rose. Women and men were shouting and children were crying.
Ahmed (32 years old), a tourist coming from Baghdad to spend a short holiday in the Kurdistan region amidst picturesque nature and moderate weather, says that it ended in tragedy when artillery rounds landed from a nearby Turkish military site, killing 9 citizens including a child and injuring 31 others, three of whom are in critical condition.
Ahmed adds: “We started running in all directions, overwhelmed by the shock that left us unable to think about what was happening. I passed by more than one person who was injured and their clothes were soaked with blood. Some of them walked a few steps and then fell again. Before we could understand what was happening in the chaos, a second bomb fell, and then a third… I’ve never seen such a catastrophic scene in my life.”
He adds and sweat is running down his face: “We ran and we called on God to save us… we had nothing but prayer for us to reach the farthest possible point in the public street far from the location of our cars, as we were afraid they might be targeted.”
The bombing took place in the resort of the village of Barkhi in the Darkar subdistrict of Zakho district, adjacent to the Turkish border, which has been witnessing almost daily bombardment and military operations that have been going on for years, as Turkey has established many military bases and security headquarters inside Iraqi territory and between the residential areas under the pretext of chasing down PKK fighters and eradicate their existence.
Employees providing services at the resort, which had been receiving an average of 1000 to 1300 people daily for the past few weeks, confirm that additional bombs fell, but in more distant locations. They were occupied with security forces who quickly arrived at the site to transport the dead and injured to the Zakho district hospital in cars.
Dalir, who is one of the natives of the area and was visiting the resort with two of his friends, says: “I don’t know how much time passed before we were sure that the chaos had ended and that our car had left the place and was safe, far from the Turkish fire.”
Dalir who visits the area periodically considered it completely safe as it’s close to the Turkish border where Turkish security headquarters and Iraqi forces are present and there is no existence of PKK, he stated that he doesn’t know why the resort was targeted. “Why did the bombing take place? I don’t know… Why did they target tourists? Yes, we heard that nearby areas and the surrounding area have been bombed in the past, and some of the farmers’ fields have been targeted by Turkish fire, but no one expected a tourist resort to be bombed.”
A large number of casualties put the Turkish bombardment series inside Iraqi territory in a new yet more dangerous stage, especially since the targeted location is a resort visited by tourists from the Baghdad, Basra, and Najaf governorates. Among the casualties was a young man who had just been married for five days, a university student, and a child who had not yet completed their first year.
Escaping the intense heat of their cities, tourists sought refuge in the cool and picturesque landscape of Kurdistan for a brief getaway. Unfortunately, Turkish bombings reached them within the resort while around 1,300 tourists were staying there. This marks the third attack on the village in question this month, with previous incidents being less intense and occurring in the vicinity of the resort with no loss of human life.
After the attack, an Iraqi tourist, filled with anxiety and terror, spoke to his mother in a video clip he captured on his phone in his native tongue after the attack: “There’s a bombing going on. If something happens to me, just know that I love you all… be safe… take care of my parents… I love you… I love my sisters.”
Another tourist addressed the outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kazemi: “Where is your state and government, O Al-Kazemi?” Al-Kazemi’s response came indirectly by dispatching Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein, Deputy Commander of Joint Operations Abdul Amir Al-Shammari, Personal Secretary Muhammad Al-Bayati, and Commander of the Ground Forces, Qassem Al-Muhammadi, to the bombing site to investigate the attack.
A statement issued from his office stated: “Turkish forces have again committed a blatant and clear violation of Iraqi sovereignty and the lives of Iraqi citizens and their security by targeting a tourist resort in Duhok province. This ruthless attack demonstrates that the Turkish side is not paying attention to Iraq’s ongoing demands to stop military violations against Iraqi lands and the lives of Iraqis.”
In the aftermath of the Turkish bombing, there was widespread anger among Iraqis, and calls for action against Turkey were heard on social media, calling for a range of economic and diplomatic measures to be taken in response. This was accompanied by statements of condemnation from some politicians and government officials, some of whom did not directly name Turkey and called for an investigation of the incident.
Popular reactions expanded in the evening and included protest demonstrations in front of the Turkish embassy in Baghdad and the closure of the Turkish visa office in Najaf province. Additionally, the Turkish flag was burned in front of an office affiliated with the Turkish embassy in Al-Houli street in Karbala. In addition, activists and social media users described the government statements regarding the Turkish attacks as “words on paper”.
On Wednesday evening, July 20, 2022, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the Turkish embassy in the Iraqi capital, where the Turkish flag was taken down from the embassy building. Similar protests took place in the provinces of Basra, Najaf, Karbala, and Wasit. Later, the closure of all Turkish visa issuance offices was announced, and additional security forces were deployed to secure the Turkish embassy and consulate locations.
Citizens organized a protest on Thursday, July 21st, 2022, in front of the Turkish visa application center in the city of Erbil, and calls were made to organize demonstrations and protests in many other cities.
Voices of Iraqi parliament members from various blocs have called for Turkey to be held accountable, with 98 MPs demanding an emergency meeting of the Council of Representatives to discuss Turkish violations, attended by both the Prime Minister and the Iraqi Defense Minister.
Additionally, many Iraqi travel and tourism companies have announced the suspension of trips to Turkey in solidarity with the victims of the bombing.
On the government movements front, the National Security Council held an emergency meeting, and several decisions were made, including demanding that Turkey withdraw its military forces from all Iraqi territories and halt the procedures for sending a new ambassador there. An immediate complaint was also submitted regarding this matter to the International Security Council and the United Nations. In addition, the Turkish ambassador to Iraq was summoned and informed of the condemnation.
The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Fouad Hussein, declared during his inspection of the site of the incident accompanied by various military officials, that the Turkish bombing caused the death of 9 Iraqi nationals, including a child, and injured 31 others. He requested that Turkey immediately cease all military actions within Iraqi borders and offer an apology to the Iraqi population. Furthermore, he stated that military specialists who were present at the bombing site have confirmed that the attack was executed by the Turkish side.
The Security Media Cell issued a statement indicating that at 1:50 PM on the 20th of July, a resort located in the village of Barx within the Darkar region of the Zakho district in the Duhok province of Iraqi Kurdistan was subjected to heavy artillery shelling.
While the Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Ahmed Al-Sahaf, stated that the diplomatic measures that Iraq will take “will not be conventional this time,” he emphasized that Iraq will seek the help of all its partners and friends to condemn the vicious act that affected its people.
Denial by the Turkish government and condemnation by the PKK
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party announced its disassociation with the bombing and warned of “hiding this deliberate massacre by the Turkish state,” referring to the fact that “this is not the first massacre by the Turkish state,” as it targeted two senior Iraqi military officials on August 11, 2020, and also targeted civilians in Pamiran and Kani Masi in recent years.
He added, “Our forces are not in the area where the massacre took place. The surrounding hills are occupied by the Turkish state that controls the area. There are also Iraqi border guard forces and various forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government in the area and we are not present there at all.”
The Turkish government rejected any involvement in the reported attack, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied that Turkish military forces conducted any assaults against civilians in Duhok. He stated, “Based on the information received from our armed forces, no attack was carried out against civilians in Duhok.” He further added, “We reject these accusations directed towards us and are willing to collaborate with the Iraqi authorities in conducting an investigation.”
History of Turkish operations
Since 2015, Turkey has carried out extensive military operations within Iraq. However, it has broadened the scope of these operations in the past two years, launching hundreds of attacks, which, according to the Iraqi team in the Community Peacemaking Organization (CPT), killed 138 138 civilians in the Kurdistan region.
According to the organization, the conflict between Turkey and The Kurdistan Workers’ Party over the past three decades has led to the evacuation of approximately 600 villages, mostly located in the province of Duhok.
Typically, the attacks are carried out using artillery and drones. Before the recent Zakho attack, several areas near Darkar were subjected to heavy bombing in the Bersiv region, which includes a camp for Yazidi refugees who panicked. Many residents of Zakho have fled their areas due to the bombing in recent years, and they fear approaching their homes or going to their farms unless they have Turkish security clearances.
On July 17, 2022, a Turkish drone targeted a car carrying five people including a woman in the western Ninawa governorate, resulting in the death of all of them. Kurdish security sources stated that the car was carrying elements from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, but later it was revealed that the driver of the car was an Arab from Ninawa and had no connection with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, while the identity of the other victims is still unknown.
Previous to that, a drone also targeted a car carrying four individuals belonging to a Syrian political party allied to the Workers’ Party in the area of Kolar in the province of Sulaymaniyah resulting in the death of three of them. Kurdish sources mentioned that among the deceased was a local Syrian Kurdish official who had arrived in the region for treatment.
On May 26, 2022, two children were killed and two men were injured in the area of Bamerne, while they were at a large celebratory gathering attended by hundreds of residents. A Turkish military base is located there. While residents blamed the Turkish forces for the attack, local officials stated that the victims fell as a result of exchanges of missiles with the Kurdish Workers’ Party.
The area of Sinjar has been subjected to multiple drone attacks, the most recent one being on June 17, which targeted a local administration building in the Snuny district and housed Yazidis affiliated with the Kurdish Workers’ Party. The attack resulted in the death of a child who was sitting in his father’s store selling fabric, as well as other civilians. In June 2021, a Turkish attack resulted in the death of family members at the Kunamasi resort in the Sulaymaniyah province.
According to Kurdish journalist Karim Abdullah, Turkish attacks have resulted in the death of over 30 individuals over the course of approximately two years.
40 bases and a security center
In the past five years, Turkey has enhanced its direct security presence in the Kurdistan region by establishing more than 40 military bases and security centers, as shown by official Turkish maps. These are located along the border and in some cases, up to 30 kilometers inside Iraqi territory. It built military roads to its headquarters and removed hundreds of thousands of trees.
But Kurdish sources say that these bases, security centers, and checkpoints, the number of which has reached 70 in recent months, are mainly located in mountainous areas in various parts of the Duhok province, reaching a depth of 30 kilometers, while others are located in the Erbil province, creating a situation similar to a security belt extending from Syrian to Iranian territory.
Turkey uses these centers to target the Kurdistan Workers’ Party militants, but in doing so, it has forced the evacuation of numerous Kurdish communities and denied their citizens access to their primary sources of income, including agriculture, livestock, and mining, as a result of constant bombing and the inability of farmers to reach these areas because of their proximity to the military sites.
Typically, Turkish drones launch from those military sites to attack the Workers’ Party militants, and at times, the casualties include civilians from villages in the Erbil and Duhok provinces.
Turkey has a military presence in Bashiqa, located in the Shekhan district. The Iraqi government has repeatedly asked for Turkish troops to withdraw from Iraq and leave their bases, however, Turkey has not complied, claiming to protect its national security and citing the existence of a security agreement from the 1980s with Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government.
The Iraqi Foreign Minister previously denied the existence of any agreement between Turkey and Iraq. He stated that “there is no agreement with the Turkish side for military intervention. However, there are minutes of a meeting signed by Tariq Aziz and its duration was one year.”
Other Iraqi officials confirm that there is no existing agreement that permits Turkey to intervene, and they assert that any agreement signed with previous governments before 2003 has been canceled.
According to legal expert Ali Al-Tamimi, “Turkey cannot rely on the agreement with the previous regime, because this agreement was not renewed after 2003 and a copy of it was not deposited with the United Nations following Article 102 of the Charter.”
Al-Tamimi considers the Turkish bombardment as a “violation of international law” and stated that “Turkey violates international law by striking Iraq, specifically violating Articles 1, 2, and 3 of the UN Charter, which obliges all countries to respect the sovereignty of other countries.”
He added: “Iraq has the right to complain about Turkey, while Turkey cannot use Article 51 of the UN Charter, and Turkey cannot invoke Article 51 of the Charter, which allows for the right to legitimate defense, but with conditions, the first of which is to inform the Security Council promptly”.
Al-Tamimi describes the Turkish attacks on Iraqi territory as “genocide” according to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. stating that “repeating these strikes is a disregard for international law and the United Nations Charter, and under Article 9 of this Convention, Iraq can also resort to the International Court of Justice.
Condemnations and political positions
The Kurdistan Ministry Council denounced the Turkish bombing and stated that the ongoing clashes between Turkish forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the border areas pose a constant threat to citizens’ lives. He urged for Kurdistan to be kept at a distance and dissociated from regional problems and conflicts that harm innocent civilians.
President Barham Salih also denounced the Turkish bombing, calling it a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and a threat to national security. He stated that “the repeated occurrences of such actions, which contradict international law and the rules of good neighborliness, are unacceptable, especially in light of previous calls to cease them”.
Mohamed al-Halbousi, the Speaker of Parliament, stated that “Iraq should not be an open field for settling regional scores and external conflicts, which the Iraqi people pay for with their blood in vain.” He did not mention Turkey by name, which drew criticism from many activists who described his tweet as “shameful given the magnitude of the crime.”
The prominent Iraqi position came from the leader of the Sadr Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, who presented four proposals, stating that Turkey “has increased its audacity, thinking that Iraq cannot respond except with a feeble condemnation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, unfortunately.”
The proposals of al-Sadr are limited to reducing diplomatic representation with Turkey, closing airports and land crossings with it, filing an official complaint with the United Nations as soon as possible, and canceling the security agreement with it.
After al-Sadr’s statement, Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Shiite al-Hikma Movement, described what happened by saying: “These condemned acts and other repeated bombings of the cities and villages of Iraqi Kurdistan, in addition to violating the sovereignty of Iraq, require a serious stand by the Iraqi government to denounce them and adopt diplomatic means to prevent their recurrence.”
While the Secretary General of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Movement, Qais Khazali held the Iraqi government responsible for the Turkish bombing of Iraqi territory and called on the House of Representatives to carry out its duties regarding preventing the violation of Iraqi sovereignty and preserving its sanctity.
For its part, the Kurdistan Democratic Party bloc in the Iraqi parliament, which controls most of the areas subject to Turkish bombing and is an ally of Ankara, accused the central government of failing to preserve the lives of its citizens and the sovereignty of its lands, demanding the Turkish government to stop killing innocent people, taking the lives of women and children, and evacuating villages from their inhabitants under the pretext of the presence of the PKK militants.
The United States of America, through its embassy in Baghdad, in turn, condemned the attack on Duhok Governorate, and stated in a statement: “The United States condemns the attack that took place yesterday in the Iraqi Governorate of Duhok, which resulted in the death and injury of civilians.”
The statement said:” The killing of civilians is unacceptable, and all states must respect their obligations under international law, including the protection of civilians. We extend our condolences to the families of those killed and our sympathies to those injured. We maintain our strong support for Iraq’s sovereignty and its security, stability, and prosperity, including that of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region”.
As for the United Nations Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), it only condemned the bombing in Duhok and called for a comprehensive investigation to determine the circumstances surrounding the attack.
The weakness of State and Government
In the context of interpreting the Turkish attacks and their goals, The Kurdish political and academic analyst, Adelat Abdullah, states that the renewed crimes of the Turkish army against Iraqis are due to the weak position of the Iraqi state towards the ongoing Turkish aggression. He explains that the Turks have killed hundreds of citizens in the border areas since 1991, and are currently killing Arab Iraqis in cold blood. Despite this, Baghdad’s response has only been limited to issuing statements of condemnation.
Montadhar Naser, a journalist, comments on Turkish violations, saying: “while Iraq remains silent…Turkey is stealing oil and gas in collusion with well-known political leaders, and Iraq is blessing it… Turkish products are being imported to Iraq while the national industry is being destroyed. At the same time, Turkey is sending terrorist groups to Iraq, while Iraq is sending tourists to it, and allowing it to humiliate the Iraqis at the borders and in companies.”
He adds:” The journalist also points out that the Turkish military is crossing Iraq’s borders, seizing its lands, and building bases on them, all while Iraq fails to issue any response. As a result, Turkey feels emboldened to bomb and kill Iraqis because they believe that Iraq will not react.”
The journalist and writer Saman Nooh believes that by targeting civilians in the border region where its security forces are deployed, Turkey aims to create an area devoid of inhabitants or, at the very least, an area with no life and no economic activity.
Furthermore, he adds: “Having a population and economic activity in the area where Ankara seeks to establish a security belt does not serve its project, and may cause it concern, as in the end, these Kurds do not like those who occupy their lands.”
He adds, “Throughout the past two years, Turkey has carried out dozens of limited attacks in the vicinity of villages in the region and inside their agricultural fields, resulting in the deaths of many Kurdish people. However, no one cared about their killing since the area is considered a security zone and it is possible to make mistakes when targeting people between the fields, as it is difficult to determine whether they are farmers or fighters.”
He explains, “As a result, many villages have become deserted due to repeated targeting, and residents of other villages have been unable to farm, work in honeybee hives, or harvest their spring crops, becoming almost trapped inside their homes.” He points out that Turkey “imposes a sort of security cordon around its centers, and any approach to them is met with a violent response.”
Destroying the tourism
According to Moaz, the owner of the targeted tourist site, and other workers at the site, thousands of tourists have been flocking to the location for weeks, making it a destination for anyone visiting Zakho from the south and center of Iraq.
One of the workers said: “For six years, we have been running the place, and recently we made a great effort and had recently invested a significant amount of money to expand and cater to more tourists. We have witnessed an unprecedented revival in recent weeks, with the place being visited by more than 100 cars daily carrying thousands of tourists. But the attack destroyed everything and completely killed tourism here.”
During the Eid al-Adha holiday, over 100,000 visitors arrived in Dohuk province, which is twice the number anticipated by the Tourism Directorate.
Gia Amin, the director of tourism in Zakho, had anticipated that the number of tourists visiting the region would reach 270,000 by year-end. He additionally mentioned that the directorate’s strategy, as well as the area’s administration, aims to increase the number of visitors to 500,000 to 600,000 in the upcoming year through the implementation of various fresh tourism projects.
If it hasn’t come to a definite conclusion, all of the aforementioned is currently at risk. Shvan, who is employed at a nearby resort that was shut down due to security reasons after the attack, stated, “Our income source has been destroyed… they have eradicated tourism in this area, so who will visit after this bombing?”
An official from one of the teams organizing tourist trips to Duhok from central and southern Iraq announced on Thursday, July 21st, that about 50 tourism companies have canceled their travel programs to Duhok.
According to Othman Sawarh, a member of the Kurdistan Parliament, if both the Baghdad and Erbil governments do not take an official position, the Turkish attacks within Iraqi territory will continue. He cautions that the attacks may escalate and take on more dangerous forms than the current ones.
Sawarh reveals that many reports have been submitted to the governments of Baghdad and Erbil about the border areas being targeted by Turkish shelling, after visiting the areas. However, he wonders why no measures have been taken in response.
This report was produced with the support of The Network of the Iraqi Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ) and published on the Daraj website.