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Assyrian Militia in Iraq Battles Against ISIS for Homeland
By Betsy Hiel
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BAQUFA, Iraq -- The farmland here is rolling and fertile, but some of it is blackened by war. Villagers stand in the fields in scorching heat to harvest sunflowers. Not far away, other men prepare for a desperate battle to return the land to their people. The Islamic State terrorist army seized Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, and surrounding villages in 2014; a million or more refugees, including tens of thousands of Christians, fled into Kurdish Iraq. Two years later, many remain in refugee camps there. Intense fighting has ravaged many villages as an assortment of anti-ISIS forces moves on Mosul. A Navy SEAL, Charles Keating IV, 31, was killed here in May while advising Kurdish troops in battle. Baqufa, 18 miles north of Mosul, is part of a 650-mile front manned by Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga, or "those who face death." Fighting beside them is a small Assyrian Christian militia -- Dwekh Nawsha, "the ones who sacrifice," in the ancient Aramaic tongue that many believe was the language of Christ. More than two dozen Westerners, many of them U.S. military veterans, have joined Dwekh Nawsha.

Sergeant Moayed Zaya, 46, is a fighter with the Assyrian Christian militia known as Dwekh Nawsha, or 'The Ones who sacrifice, in the ancient language of Aramaic, the language of Christ. On the front line in Baqufa, 18 miles north of ISIS-held Mosul, Zaya points to ISIS fighters around a water tower. ( Betsy Hiel/Tribune-Review)
Surrounded by some of his 40 Assyrian volunteers and American veterans, Capt. Majid Elia, 42, rests in a two-story house just a 10-minute walk from the battlefront. A small artificial Christmas tree and a picture of the Holy Family are in a corner; an Assyrian flag hangs on a wall. Short and slender, Elia wears olive-green fatigues and a close-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. A large Christian cross is tattooed on his right hand; a pistol is strapped to a thigh. Most of his Assyrian men come from this or other Christian villages on Iraq's Nineveh plain. Drawing deeply on a cigarette, he explains why they fight ISIS. "Our message to the world is that Christianity is a religion of peace, but that doesn't mean it is a religion of surrender," he says in a raspy voice. "The message to our people is just that: We believe this is Assyrian land and we need to hold it -- not go to the borders, begging to go to other countries." FEWER CHRISTIANS EVERYWHERE Dwekh Nawsha formed in August 2014, four days after ISIS began its onslaught. It is one of two military units supported by the Assyrian Patriotic Party, according to Wilson Khammu, who heads the party in Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan. Its members are self-financed and armed with old weaponry. Their numbers are fluid; some are refugees who must return to the camps to support their families, Elia says. They are not the only Assyrian Christian militiamen; 1,500 serve in units attached to the Kurdish peshmerga and 500 are in units with the Iraqi army, according to Dr. Duraid Zoma, a minority-affairs adviser to Nineveh's provincial government-in-exile. But Iraq's Christian population is dropping at an alarming rate, Zoma and others say. Many are emigrating to Western nations to escape the sectarian violence. "In Iraq, there are 250,000 Christians," Zoma says. Most are refugees in Kurdistan, with 100,000 scattered in Baghdad, Basra and other Iraqi cities. "In 1975, the Christians were about 3 million," he says. "I think in one or two years the number will be 150,000 to 100,000 in Iraq, and within 10 years it will be much less. Not just in Iraq, but in the whole Middle East." Elia is disturbed to see so many of his faith leaving their homeland: "Of course, we can't blame them for fleeing. ... But this immigration, this pushes us more and makes us believe we have to take this land back from ISIS -- because it belongs to us." A former journalist for the Assyrian Patriotic Party's official newspaper, he was an officer in the Iraqi army for seven years. He insists on a careful distinction: "I will not say 'Saddam's army.' It was the Iraqi army." Many of his men, too, served in the army during Saddam Hussein's reign. The war against ISIS is something different, however -- "a street fight," Assyrian party leader Khammu says, "for which we don't have training (and) our weapons are old." Elia agrees: "In the army, you know who your enemy is, where the hits come from and how to defend yourself from that. The problem fighting ISIS is that it is an international organization. "They use multiple tactics to hit us. They come at us from the south and the north, from inside and outside, with social media and their television stations. You don't know where it will come from." The enemy, he concludes, "isn't an organized force. They are just a group of gangs." 'I CAN'T LIVE WITH THEM' Even as Elia and his men desperately fight ISIS, hoping to encourage their people to stay in Iraq, many Christians here doubt they can ever go home. Marium Khaled, 24, works at a hotel in Ainkawa, a Christian enclave in the Kurdish city of Erbil. She fled her home and university studies in Mosul when ISIS took over; her family has dispersed among Australia, Canada, France, Lebanon and Sweden. "I don't want to return to Mosul again," she says. "I can't live with them again. They took our lives, and now we have no future." Others say they will return only with international protection. Because Nineveh province was home to many ethnic and religious groups -- Christians, Yazedis, Shabak, Turkmen, Sunni Arabs -- "it will be hard to blend the different communities together again," Zoma says. He believes a year or two will be needed to "make sure every single ISIS member is gone." Nineveh political leaders, he says, talk of dividing the governorate into five parts -- Mosul as an open city, the Nineveh plain for Christians, Sinjar for the Yazedis, Tel Afar for Turkmen and Shabak, the south, for Sunnis. He supports the idea because people "won't be able to live together after ISIS. I believe this will happen, because if it doesn't, there will be no stability." Khammu has heard of such a plan but insists international protection is essential. Otherwise, Christians "will not return." But today, "we are on the front line and holding our position ... telling our people not to immigrate," he says. "We will get these villages back with the will of God -- and the will of the young men of our Dwekh Nawsha forces."

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