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Black and white: Iraq’s ‘new’ enemy is nothing new

Leader of a a new armed Kurdish faction, dubbed, the 'the bearers of White Flags'

Wildly circulating rumours first published December last year posit the birth of a new armed Kurdish faction, dubbed, the “the bearers of White Flags” (WF).

As the name suggests, their flag of choice is white and bears the face of a lion stencilled in black.

“Mysterious militants raise new fears of insurgency” was the first headline to break. Published by the Iraq Oil Report, the article stated that the newest terrorist actor in town is “giving rise to anxieties that a new era of Islamic State-inspired insurgency is in the making”, in reference to Daesh.

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Well versed in the tactics of guerrilla warfare, pundits allege that the group is Kurdish, led by Peshmerga volunteer fighter Asi Qawali – or so is the claim touted on social media. The blazing sun of the Kurdish flag is seen in other photographs of balaclava donning, gun wielding members of WF, whose faces remain unknown.

They employ strategies long associated with Daesh, including hit and run attacks, the abduction and execution of truck drivers and theft of road vehicles.

Anchored primarily across northwestern Iraq, sightings of group members have been reported in Tuz Khurmatu and the surrounding towns of nearby Kirkuk.

Iraqi journalist Suadad Al-Salhy wrote in Arab News that almost “daily attacks” are carried out by the latest newcomer on Iraq’s embattled stage.

Al-Salahy’s article was picked up by Airwars who wrote in a tweet: “The emergence of a new militant force in northern Iraq, the ‘White Flags’ or ‘White Banners’ – which are reportedly attracting both former ISIS extremists and militant Kurds.”

In an interview with France24, interior ministry spokesman Saad Maan parroted claims voiced by other officials. Everything was being done to prevent the birth of a copycat movement, he said.

Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) commanders are said to be pushing the group back, having “identified group members”.

At best, information regarding the group’s genesis and ideological orientation is scattered and at worst, unattested.

The logic applied across digital media platforms draws an uneven line that places Daesh and WF in the same basket, with little more than anecdotal evidence to support what some view as tall tales.

“A jihadi group linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is carrying out attacks in the ethnically mixed Iraqi town of Tuz Khurmatu,” tweeted the Dawa party affiliated blog “1001 Iraqi thoughts”.

Terms like “jihadist”, frequently used to describe Daesh, now litter tweets and passing remarks about the WF.

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In another tweet, “1001 Iraqi thoughts” reported that members of the White Flags had “killed and injured over 74 civilians in and near Tuz Khurmatu”. The images of some of these victims were also shared on unofficial social media accounts.

Some reports were attributed to the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, although no WF related posts on their Twitter feed are available.

The PMF affiliated English language paper “South Front” also wrote: “White Flags is a new name of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al-Islam … was formed back in 2001.” Fanciful claims shared on social media connect WF to the Barzani family who are accused of deploying the group in an effort to destabilise the area.

The use of imprecise language such as “regardless of its origins”, forces us to delve deeper into the undusted shelves of critical thought to distinguish fact from fiction. Origins matter, so why on this occasion are “trusted” journalists advising readers otherwise.

“Local sources say that the terrorist group” — vagaries as such are being employed to revive old fears.

The Iraqi governments and affiliated PMF actors are working hard to brand their victory over Daesh as irrevocable, but the reality is startling as something more sinister boils.

Even after its alleged crushing, Daesh is escalating guerilla-style attacks. The conditions that nurtured radical ideas and spawned the terrorist “Daesh” group are more fertile than ever before. The return of the Deash, regardless of these rhetorical shields, is already making headlines. Liberation and its associated discourse have failed to mask developments.

The White Flags movement is simply a publicity stunt which allows militia factions that assumed victory over Daesh to prolong the image of this “victory” for as long as they are able.

What started off as an imagined threat is now real in the minds of news consumers, while the threat Daesh poses is yet to be extinguished.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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