In the early hours of the morning of June 30, there was an explosion in a weapons store in the Behirke area, on the borders of the Erbil province in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan. On July 3, there was another in a weapons storage facility in Tasluja, in the neighbouring province of Sulaymaniyah. Then another in another armaments cache in Erbil, later the same day. And then on July 5, during the night, there was yet another explosion in a weapons storage facility in the Raparin area, back in Sulaymaniyah again.
The local authorities were quick to deny terrorism or extremists at work, explaining the incidents away due to technical problems. A lot of locals remained suspicious though, saying the “accidents” were to cover up corruption, or even that international actors were at work, sabotaging the regional military. Talking to officials didn’t really clear anything up.
“Most of the storage facilities that exploded don’t belong to the Ministry,” Jabbar Yawar, the secretary-general of the Ministry of Peshmerga, which is in charge of Iraqi Kurdish military, told NIQASH. The ministry itself has three main weapons depots in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk. “And these are run under the supervision of the international coalition against the Islamic State group,” he explained. “They all fulfil the required conditions for storing armaments.”
The depots where the explosions took place were the responsibility of other parties, he noted. This is because the Iraqi Kurdish military is split between the two major political parties in the region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.
Yawar says the depots where the explosions occurred either belonged to the PUK, the KDP or the Iraqi Kurdish militarised police force.
And he blamed high summer temperatures for the explosions, saying that the armaments had been stored together in a jumbled way, under a tin roof – this led temperatures to climb high enough inside the storage facility that some of the armaments exploded.
Weapons are supposed to be stored underground, with air conditioning and covered by several meters of sand or earth, says Khurshid Salim Doski, a former Iraqi army commander in Kurdistan. The weapons and ammunition should be carefully categorized and their date of manufacture also taken into account, he adds.
“The lack of adequate storage is why we had these explosions,” he told NIQASH.
But asking around a little more, not everyone believes this. Military commander Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa, whose unit is responsible for one of the depots in Sulaymaniyah where there was an explosion, says he doesn’t think the accident had anything to do with faulty electrical contacts or high temperatures. Although he doesn’t attribute the incident to that, he is also not sure what caused it. A committee has been formed to investigate, he told NIQASH.
“We have doubts about this incident,” Mustafa said. “Which is why we have also notified Germany and the US about investigating this explosion.”
The reason for informing the international coalition is because of concerns that the explosions happened in order to conceal absent weaponry that had been given to the Iraqi Kurdish troops between 2014 and 2017 by the international forces, in order to fight the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group.
Adding to the complication, the head of the military police unit, Ahmad Koye, pointed out that some of the weapons that had been destroyed in the explosions were actually far older: Some were left over from the era of Saddam Hussein and others had been confiscated from the IS fighters, who had adapted them (making them even more temperamental).
“The weapons exploded because they were not stored properly and were all on top of one another,” Koye said.
Adding further to the mystery, responsibility for the weapons depots also appeared to be a contentious topic. Neither the Ministry of Peshmerga nor the regional Interior Ministry would acknowledge that the explosions occurred on their watch. Both blamed the other.
After the successive incidents and many question from the general public about what was going on, Iraqi Kurdish politicians also got involved. The parliamentary committee on Iraqi Kurdish military had summoned army representatives and asked for answers, Shilan Jafaar, who heads the body, told NIQASH. “He [the representative] said there were ongoing investigations and we would be informed of the results,” Jaafar said.
Meanwhile the parliamentary committee on internal affairs had also sent an official letter to the military, asking for a report on the explosions this year and a set of similar ones last year, Ayoub Abdallah, chairman of the committee, said.
As yet, they had had no response, he added.
Last year, there were two similar incidents in and around Erbil but because the Iraqi Kurdish parliament had been suspended at the time, the incident was never followed up on by MPs, Abdallah said.
As it is, even if a report on the recent explosions and any others does eventually emerge, the general public may never get to know what was in it. Details about the kinds of weaponry lost in the explosions are classified, Yawar, the Ministry of Peshmerga secretary-general, pointed out.