For the past 40 years, Iraq has bled. Heinous attacks in the country of 40 million are not uncommon. But yesterday’s artillery attack that killed families on holiday at a tourist resort area of Zakho in the northern Kurdistan region, is a singular tragedy that must be condemned and accounted for. The victims – at least nine civilians, including two children – all died before reaching hospital. Two dozen others were wounded.
Usually, the paralysed Iraqi state’s response to attacks of this kind is limited to condemnation and condolences. This time, it recalled its charge d’affaires from Turkey. Baghdad’s expected appointment of an ambassador to Ankara has also been put on hold. Barham Salih, the Iraqi President, “condemned and denounced” the attack on social media, in addition to similar statements of outrage from most political actors in the country.
It is important to remember that the region around Zakho has long been a target of Turkish military campaigns, aimed at hideouts of militants belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara considers the Kurdish separatist group to be a terrorist organisation, as do the US and EU. But the lack of strategic precision – killing civilians instead of terrorists in hiding – raises questions about these continued military moves.
Turkey itself is no stranger to terror, having suffered heavy fatalities in a series of bombings in recent years. A ceasefire between Ankara and the PKK broke down in 2015 after two and a half years. And there too, civilians have paid a price.
For years, Ankara carried out military operations in the Kurdistan region to flush out the PKK. In 2008, when Turkey sent forces into Iraq, both then Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki and then US president George Bush were informed in advance by Ankara and little was done to stop it. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in recent months been calling for Kurdish dissidents domiciled in the West to be deported. Ankara, meanwhile, is preparing to send troops into neighbouring Syria to target the YPG, a group Ankara considers to be an offshoot of the PKK.
But as long as resource-rich Iraq remains riddled with political dysfunction, sectarian strife and institutional corruption, Baghdad struggles to assert its sovereignty, which is necessary to ensure the security of its citizens. Since the parliamentary election in October of last year, politics has been locked in bitter competition over forming a new government.
Until a permanent government is in place – independent of external influences in the region – Iraqi sovereignty will be routinely threatened. Families could well remain on familiar terms with the ravages of grief. And deadly attacks, such as the one on Wednesday, may be condemned by all sides, but ultimately, unless Iraqi sovereignty is restored, they could be indexed as just one more tragedy in the country’s long list of devastations.