In the multiethnic town of Tuz Khurmatu, 110 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq's blistering sectarian divides play out in miniature: Improvised concrete barriers separate Kurdish and Turkmen neighborhoods, with an Arab minority trapped in the middle, as paramilitary forces police the population of 60,000. Over the weekend, following a small explosion near the respective headquarters of Kurdish and Shiite groups, intense clashes started in densely populated areas, clearing the streets of residents. More than 20 people were killed, and at least two civilians, including a child, were wounded.
Despite calls for a ceasefire from Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, requesting that military commanders "defuse the crisis and focus efforts against" the Islamic State group, fighting continued Monday.
“This is not the time for such futile fighting. Nothing can justify this violence,” said Ján Kubiš, special representative of the secretary general for Iraq. “We urge the parties to stop fighting and to focus their efforts on the battle against the common enemy, Daesh," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the violent extremist Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
Tuz Khurmatu historically has been a flashpoint of violence for different ethnic groups. Last November, Kurdish and Shiite groups fought for several days before the violence died down. Those aligned with the central government in Baghdad have claimed that the town is a part of Iraq proper, while the Kurds claim it as their own.
The latter regard the Shiite offensive as a blow to their efforts to secure autonomy, but Iraq's central government is resistant to the idea of a Kurdish state within Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan has access to some of the world's largest oil and natural gas reserves, and while the Kurdish government is supposed to share the profits with Baghdad, as well as clear all exports with the central government, it has yet to do so.
It is unclear if the factions fighting in the town are affiliated with the larger umbrella organizations — the peshmerga (Kurdish armed forces) and Hashd al-Shabi (Shiite paramilitary group) — since the clashes were initiated by local men who are aligned to the larger organizations but are not members of a particular battalion. However, both sides were aided by their respective groups: Both the peshmerga and Shiite paramilitaries delivered armored tanks and ammunition to aid the fighters, with each side accusing the other of inciting violence.
The clashes in Tuz Khurmatu could not come at a worse time for Iraqi prime minister Abadi, who has failed in his efforts to rid the country of corruption with his cabinet reshuffle, aiming to bring in a a slew of technocrats. Several of his nominees refused to accept the jobs, and in the ensuing vacuum, officials are quietly trying to skew the economy for personal gain. Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shiite cleric who used to support Abadi, is now threatening to uproot the government altogether. In a handwritten letter published on social media, he called on the government to form a new cabinet and warned that if it did not move forward with negotiations, it would break down altogether.
Abadi was forced out of the Parliament building Tuesday after lawmakers began throwing water bottles at him. The vote on cabinet member nominees eventually proceeded, but Abadi was blocked from speaking. At the end of the session, Parliament voted on five of Abadi's nominations, the remainder to be voted on Thursday.
Meanwhile, thousands of people took to the streets demanding immediate government reform. A hundred miles away, in Tuz Khurmatu, residents and leaders were resigned to more fighting.
Abdul Ahmad, the town's governor, told Al Jazeera the outlook was bleak. "We have lost the ability to keep people safe," he said. "The armed groups are the most powerful in the city, and the government is not doing much to help us restore order."