Iraq’s Indigenous Peoples Can’t Face Another Conflict

Despite the Islamic State’s retreat, Assyrians fear for their security in the Nineveh Plains. They need stronger support from Washington and Baghdad.

A boy herds sheep in the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq on Nov. 11, 2016.
A boy herds sheep in the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq on Nov. 11, 2016. Martyn Aim/Corbis via Getty Images

Elishwa never thought she would return to Bartella. She fled the village in northern Iraq four hours before an Islamic State attack in August 2014, and she never thought she would see its sand-washed masonry again. But after three and a half years in exile, she returned in January 2018 from Duhok in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. She does not regret coming back but considers the future of her community to be precarious. “We fear a conflict is coming,” Elishwa, who requested the use of a pseudonym out of safety concerns, told Foreign Policy in May, referring to the presence of Iran-backed militias.

Elishwa, like most of Bartella’s population before the 2014 Islamic State offensive, is Assyrian—part of an ethnic community indigenous to northern Iraq that is predominantly Christian and the last Aramaic-speaking group in the world. Over the last two decades, punctuated by the Iraq War and rise of the Islamic State, the population of Assyrians in Iraq has declined by a staggering 90 percent: from an estimated 1.5 million in 2003 to just over 150,000 today.

The U.S. government’s current focus on the coronavirus pandemic and reports of troop withdrawals could augur an era of disengagement with Iraq. Yet this drawdown could not come at a more critical juncture for Assyrians, who face increasing persecution from both Iran-backed militias and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) security forces seeking control of the last region in Iraq where Assyrians are a plurality: the Nineveh Plains.

The Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq have been the linchpin of Assyrian life for centuries. While it has always been a diverse area—many Yazidis live in the region—it was the last major concentration of Assyrians in Iraq before 2014. In the period immediately following the defeat of the Islamic State, Iraq’s central government could have prioritized the return of its Indigenous peoples. Instead, it returned to the same security arrangement that led to an Assyrian exodus from the plains in 2014: a U.S.-supported balance of Arab and Kurdish forces claiming the plains as their own.

Iran’s territorial influence extends to part of the western and southern Nineveh Plains. Two Iran-backed paramilitaries are actively obstructing the return of Assyrians: the 30th Brigade, a militia comprising primarily members of the Shabak ethnoreligious group, and the 50th Brigade, a nominally Christian but predominantly Shiite Arab militia. Both are closely associated with the Badr Organization, an Iran-backed Shiite faction, and Iran. The brigades’ leaders were sanctioned by the United States last year for corruption and human rights violations.

Iran’s militias have adopted a strategy utilized by the Iraqi state since the 1930s: forced demographic change through the settlement of Shabaks from outside villages, leading to a surge in their population in the Nineveh Plains. “All we know is that they are building housing complexes in which they bring in people from outside the region,” Elishwa said. This policy appears to be enshrined in law. On June 3, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces Commission—which oversees Iran-backed militias—issued a statement containing a purposefully ambiguous yet dangerous provision that would possibly lead to housing militia members in combat areas where they served, potentially exacerbating the demographic shift in the plains.

Over the last year, Assyrians living under these militias in the Nineveh Plains have experienced significant intimidation and violence, from a priest having a pistol pointed to his head to two elderly women being stabbed by Shabaks with unknown affiliations in May 2019. Last fall, the Iran-backed militias even imposed a curfew on Christians on a Shiite holiday.

Admond, an Assyrian from Bartella, which is primarily controlled by the 30th Brigade, said the Assyrian community feels increasingly threatened and he thinks the curfews will become more frequent. “You feel [the fear] through their behavior,” he said of the 30th Brigade. “They force you to feel that they are the masters of the area now, or they remind you that they are the ones that liberated the region, when, in fact, the anti-terrorism forces liberated it,” he added, referring to a division of the Iraqi Army. (Admond also requested the use of a pseudonym out of safety concerns.)

While Iran seeks to carve out a Shiite buffer zone and facilitate arms exports to Syria, the KDP’s presence in the plains serves as pretext for its eventual annexation of the territory into the Kurdistan Region. The role the KDP has played in destabilizing the Nineveh Plains has largely evaded censure from its Western allies. It can be traced to 2006, when, in its draft constitution, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) suddenly claimed the plains as one of many “disputed territories,” meaning it should be administered by Erbil. From the KRG’s perspective, the status of the plains as part of the Kurdistan Region was a fait accompli. In the decade leading up to the Islamic State invasion, the KRG created the appearance of security in the plains through the harassment of locals and a system of political and financial patronage.

Throughout 2017 and 2018, the mayor of Alqosh, Faiz Jahwareh, was detained, beaten, and harassed by Kurdish security forces in politically motivated attacks. He was removed from office on spurious corruption charges twice dismissed by an Iraqi federal court and was barred from returning to office by the KDP. Kurdish officials replaced him with an Assyrian member of the KDP, Lara Yousif Zara. Alqosh residents who protested Zara’s installation were threatened with their lives by Kurdish security forces. Last year, Zara was dispatched as an emissary to Washington to burnish the KRG’s reputation, meeting with State Department officials, including Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, to discuss religious freedom in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Kurdish security forces have stifled opposition to KDP rule in towns such as Alqosh, detaining and torturing protesters and creating an environment where even social media is monitored, said Athra Kado, an Assyrian advocate from Alqosh. Kado said there has been a gradual reduction in anyone speaking out against the mayor or Kurdish forces. Kado is familiar with the intimidation: He says he has been threatened by Kurdish forces on three occasions over the last six years and was beaten by Zara’s husband’s relatives last year for opposing her appointment as mayor.

That U.S. officials continue to legitimize Zara and the KDP’s rule in the Nineveh Plains despite popular opposition has undermined the idea of a democratic Iraq. “In Saddam’s time we’d say, ‘Don’t speak. The walls have ears!’ It’s the same now,” Kado said. “Maybe they’re not killing, but it’s bad—not just for Assyrians but also for Kurds who stand against [the KDP]. There’s no future for us if the KDP isn’t removed from Alqosh. They want everybody to be controlled by them, either by force or money.”

If Washington and Baghdad want to ensure the continued existence of Iraq’s Indigenous peoples, they must give immediate support to the only force proven to promote the return of Assyrians to their villages: the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian-led force. Reporting to Iraq’s National Security Council, the NPU was formed in response to the disarmament and abandonment of the Assyrians of the plains by the Kurdish Peshmerga when the Islamic State invaded in 2014. The force received training from U.S.-led coalition forces and fought alongside them. Today, it controls a sizable portion of the southern Nineveh Plains.

Internally displaced Assyrians cite mistrust of security forces as the primary impediment to their return, so it is no surprise that the NPU—the only force made up of locals from the plains—has return rates in areas it controls significantly higher than in areas secured by Kurdish forces or Iran-backed militias alone and higher return rates than all areas controlled by other forces in the plains combined, according to a June assessment by the Assyrian Policy Institute (API).

The NPU is not backed by the United States and currently receives only tepid support from the Iraqi central government. Washington and Baghdad should make their support for the NPU explicit. It would address mistrust held by minority communities due to the Peshmerga’s 2014 retreat, shift a burden from Baghdad to a trustworthy force without a record of human rights abuses, and could alleviate the region’s refugee crisis.

Tens of thousands of Assyrians from the plains remain displaced in Jordan and Lebanon, and the API’s fieldwork suggests that a significant proportion would consider returning home under security conditions like those facilitated by the NPU. Finally, Baghdad should work toward implementing federalism by revisiting the Iraqi Council of Ministers’ January 2014 decision to establish a Nineveh Plains province for minorities like Assyrians and Yazidis.

Iraq’s Assyrians cannot endure another conflict. If Iraq’s Indigenous peoples are to have a future, there must be a reckoning with both Iran-backed militias and the KDP’s role in undermining the only option that has yielded results: empowering local Assyrians to defend themselves within proper legal authority, providing them a chance at survival in a land devoid of equality for generations.

R.S. Zaya is a writer whose work has been featured in the Telegraph and Hyperallergic, among other publications. He is a researcher at the Assyrian Policy Institute.