In Kirkuk, Last Bastion For The Kurds

Facing advancing jihadist fighters, the Iraqi army fled without fighting, and the city of Mosul fell on June 10. Kirkuk, a multiethnic oil city, has been saved by Kurdish fighters. So far.

Peshmerga fighters defending Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled.
Peshmerga fighters defending Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled.
Jean-Pierre Perrin

KIRKUK — The heat is suffocating. Not a single tree or patch of grass, nor any illusion of finding some shade. There are no hills either in these desperately flat plains, where several oil well flares are burning in the distance.

The annual summer furnace is not stopping the Peshmerga fighters, young and smiling, from coming and going along a dangerous frontline, where a vague embankment shelters a tank and a row of artillery.

The Islamists are about two kilometers away, on the other side of a bridge above a river, which may have dried to a trickle by this point in the season. The man in charge here is Colonel Fatah, whose headquarters is a prefabricated cube. A bit plump, with a Chaplin-like moustache, he seems to have just stepped from a period of lethargy. He livens up a bit when he starts talking about strategy. “We are not in an attacking position,” he says. “We have come to defend Kirkuk because the Iraqi army has fled.”

Kirkuk, a big, dirty, faceless and overbuilt city, rich from the surrounding oil fields, is both multiethnic (Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen) and multireligious (Sunnis, Shia, Christians, Zaidiyya…). Violent clashes are nothing new.

But for the Kurds, the city is their Jerusalem, the one that makes the independence of Kurdistan conceivable in some undetermined future. They have been fighting the Arabs over the question for a long time. Even if they do not admit it out loud, the surprise conquest of Mosul on June 10 and of a large part of the Nineveh province by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant of Syria (ISIS, or “Da’ish”, in Arabic), combined with the panic of the army in the north of Iraq, was good news.

The Kurds already controlled Kirkuk politically — 10 of 12 members of Parliament. Now, they control it militarily. And with a sense of accomplishment. They claim to have saved the town from those they call the Barbarians. Colonel Fatah’s second-in-command, Captain Firman, is positive. “Take the brigade 47: It fled without firing a single shot. We, the Peshmerga, don’t run away after hearing a few salvos.”

Stop-and-go war

The frontline, located around 15 kilometers away from the city, was formed from this mass desertion. On one side, the Sunni provinces largely controlled by ISIS and its allies; on the other, Iraqi Kurdistan, which now includes Kirkuk. Until now, there were only skirmishes, some deadly, between ISIS and the Peshmerga. It is no longer a time of peace, but it is also not war yet.

“Let’s say it’s a non-continuous war we are giving to the Islamic State," says Mohamed Kamal, a Kurdistan Democratic Party member of Parliament.

On the front, Captain Firman points out that the enemy that he and his men are facing is not actually ISIS, but rather fighters from tribes that joined the Islamists to form a large Sunni front. According to him, they are few in number — around 100 men. But they are well-armed with mortars, RPGs, machine guns and six or seven tanks taken in Mosul. “We lost three men the day before yesterday,” Firman says.

In reality, the umbilical cord between Kirkuk and Baghdad has not been completely cut yet. The town's police forces did not flee after the fall of Mosul. And there's a good reason. Unlike the army officers, the police officers, Arab or Kurdish, are from Kirkuk.

Their head, General Sarhard Mohamed, was wounded by shrapnel last Tuesday when he came to “give a hand” to the police in Beshir, a village made of Shia Turkmen that was surrounded by the Sunni attackers at the time. The Sunni have since taken control.

But today, the 46-year-old is back leading his men. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “Around 4 a.m., the rebels attacked us with cars they took from the army. They came from six different directions and surrounded us. My driver and my bodyguard were killed, as well as four other police officers. Ares, my 16-year-old son who I brought with me, was wounded at my side. Then the other policemen deserted us, even the Peshmerga that had come with us. We managed to escape by walking for three hours.”

Talk of war crimes

In Beshir, “war crimes” have been committed against the population, says Rushdie Chalabi, who presides over a Shia Turkmen party. “The village was pillaged and burned down,” he says. “Seven children and 15 young people were executed by the Islamists, five women were hung to death, and the bodies of three men were then attached to water tanks with their arms crossed.”

Though there is no physical evidence of these crimes, this sort of information feeds the fear of the non-Sunni people living in the region. The Sunni-Shia division now runs through the Turkmen community. All the massacres that Rushdie Chalabi reports in the neighboring Sunni provinces of Saladin and Diyala happened in Shia Turkmen villages. “The rebels haven’t taken any of the Sunni Turkmen villages,” he points out.

Will Kirkuk meet the same fate? Officially, the city’s population is 1.4 million, but the figures, for political reasons, seem to be considerably exaggerated. It is more likely under one million. At least half are Kurds, and between and 35% and 40% are Sunni Arabs. This is why Kurdish leaders fear that ISIS could find support inside this sizeable Sunni minority, which has complained of major discrimination since the Shia came to power in Iraq in 2005. “It’s true, the situation here is not good,” says Mohamed Kamal, the Kurdish MP. “And some neighborhoods could start helping the rebels.”

Hamad Amid Obeid, the head of a coalition of small Arab parties hostile to ISIS, shares the same concern. “The Arabs work along with Da’ish (ISIS) because they aren’t happy. Ordinary people support them only because they are the strongest among the Sunni,” he explains.

Mohamed Hussein, one of these “ordinary people” from the neighboring town of Mutlaqa, which was also taken by ISIS, concedes that point. “The army fled on June 10, as did the police the following day. Then the Da’ish fighters arrived. They committed no act of violence against us the Sunnis. They told us, ‘Relax, you’re our brothers. You can leave town if you like.’”

Hamad Amid Obeid is skeptical. “Whether we like it or not, since the Mosul attack, there are now three Iraqs: the Sunni, the Shia and the Kurdish. It will be like that for a long time. And tomorrow will be even darker than today.”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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