KHANAQIN, Iraq — Tantalizing bits of news began to stream into the social media feeds of Kurdish news organizations late Wednesday: Kurds angry with an Iraqi military takeover of their towns and cities were rising up and chasing the troops away.
Unsteady cellphone videos of young men rampaging through the streets of Kirkuk, a city at the heart of a political dispute between the Iraqi central government and Kurdish separatists, were being played on loops on Kurdish television stations. Twitter users from Irbil to Baghdad to Washington offered breathless commentary that a long-awaited reckoning had begun.
Hemin Hawrami, a senior assistant to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, then posted a tweet that indicated protests were growing and had erupted in the town of Khanaqin.
“Kurdish people in Khanaqin upraised against the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq militia,” he wrote, referring to an Iraqi-government-allied Shiite militia. “Raised massively Kurdistan flag in the town and drove the militia out.”
The percolating unrest, given authority by Hawrami's tweet, was seen by many Kurds and some of their supporters in Washington as an affirmation of their prediction that Baghdad's sweep into Kurdish-claimed territory would lead to chaos and should have been preempted by the United States.
Except the news wasn't entirely true. There had been some isolated incidents in Kirkuk and Khanaqin, but they died down quickly.
Wednesday's episode was the latest and sharpest example of how the Kurdish bid for independence from Iraq has been strongly colored by a stream of sensationalized news reports that have dented the credibility of normally reliable Kurdish news organizations. It has also put Iraqi towns at the heart of an international debate over whether Iran outmaneuvered the Trump administration in Kirkuk, with each side using news events of dubious veracity to bolster their arguments.
Visits to the sites of the purported uprisings in disputed Kirkuk and Khanaqin on Thursday showed little evidence of a sustained revolt or signs of tensions boiling over.
In Khanaqin, a Kurdish town 110 miles north of Baghdad, a few dozen young men paraded in the main square waving Kurdish flags and chanting that they didn't want federal police forces patrolling their streets. The demonstration was small but energetic, ending with some dancing before they all left. Many said they just wanted the local police to have a presence in town and were not concerned with the larger political struggle over Kurdish independence.
Rudaw, a Kurdish network that broadcasts in English, Kurdish and Arabic, said the protest had turned violent, but that report could not be independently confirmed.
Residents said that the night before, some men pelted federal police vehicles with stones as they drove away. The militia Hawrami said had been chased out had actually withdrawn on its own, abiding by an order Wednesday from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that it leave all disputed areas wrested back by Iraq earlier this week. Abadi's order was probably in response to incidents of militia members harassing locals.
In Kirkuk, a much larger city with massive oil reserves, the stakes have been higher, but the streets were largely calm Thursday, and the main market was open.
On the street in the Rahmani neighborhood where demonstrations were reported Wednesday evening, shopkeepers and residents said the incident was overblown. “It was a gathering of a few people here,” said Hamid Rashid, a 58-year old Kurd who works at a small stall selling cigarettes by the road, He said the crowd was never bigger than 30 or 40 people.
One man pulled down an Iraqi flag from a local police vehicle, Rashid said. The officers did not react, he said, but later a passing convoy shot in the air to clear the road. “Most of the people were just here to watch,” he said. “They were seeking problems, just young men who wanted to make problems.” Others came to the street with flags to celebrate after Abadi ordered militia forces removed from the town, onlookers said.
Some on social media tried to frame it as an uprising that had pushed out militia forces, known as popular mobilization units. But Rakan Jabbouri, the acting governor of Kirkuk, said the units were pulled back for other reasons.
“The [PMUs] aren't a unified force; there were some incidents where people were robbed or harassed,” he said. “That's why it was decided to pull them out of the civilian neighborhoods to avoid chaos.”
Since Iraq's military moved into Kirkuk and other disputed areas Monday, frantic news reports on Kurdish channels have fueled sporadic exoduses from the city. Iraqi authorities have denied that any abuses of Kurds by Iraqi troops have taken place and warned soldiers against firing their weapons during the move on the city.
Some Iraqi news channels, mostly those linked with the influential Shiite militias, have also contributed to the tension. A reporter for Al-Ahad, a network funded by the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, referred to Kurdish forces as “the Zionist entity” in one broadcast — an apparent pointing to the fact that Israel is the only nation in the region to publicly support the Kurdish independence referendum.
Reports of Kurdish homes being looted and burned in territory taken by Iraqi forces and Shiite militias have caused “considerable displacement in the past few days as people fled preemptively, fearing clashes,” the United Nations said Thursday, saying that it was expected that the residents would soon return home.
Two Kurdish networks, both funded by senior officials with the dominant Kurdish Democratic Party in Irbil, have come under criticism for spreading unverified reports of abuse and allegedly broadcasting calls for Kurds to resist Iraqi troops. On Wednesday, the Joint Operations Command in Baghdad and the Kirkuk provincial council urged the Iraqi Commission for Media and Communications to revoke the broadcast licenses for the two networks, Rudaw and K24, for allegedly broadcasting false news. The JOC, which administers all Iraqi military operations, said it would revoke the networks' access to military operations.
Rudaw has said it has been threatened by militia forces and has withdrawn all reporters and other staffers from Kirkuk for their safety. The network issued a statement denouncing the JOC move as “contrary to the Iraqi constitution and freedom of press.” It defended its reporting and pledged to sue any entity defaming the media network.
Morris reported from Kirkuk. Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.