Late last month, in an unexpected political maneuver after Iraqi Kurdish officials went ahead with their controversial referendum on independence, Iraq's central government restored its dominance over most of the so-called disputed territories in the north of the country. Even though they fall outside the jurisdiction of the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, these areas had effectively been controlled by the KRG for the past three years, amid the chaos created by the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the retreat of Iraqi forces.
Iraqi forces swept through the key, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, as well as Sinjar and much of the Nineveh Plain, north and east of Mosul, meeting little or no resistance from Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga. The Nineveh Plain and Sinjar, home to many of Iraq's minority communities, are officially part of Nineveh Governorate, whose capital is Mosul. As the Iraqi army continues its march across the Nineveh Plain, many observers are focused on what this dramatic shift in control could mean for the KRG and its relations with Baghdad. But what about other ethnic minorities in the most diverse region of Iraq?
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Active within the Iraqi opposition for decades, these ethno-religious minorities— Assyrians, Yazidis, Turkmen and others—anticipated a more significant role in the country's reconstruction after the American invasion in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein. Many of them, however, were forced to confront not only violent persecution at the hands of extremist militias unleashed across Iraq during the U.S. occupation, but also a complex threat in the form of political marginalization. The three dominant communal actors in post-2003 Iraq, as enshrined in the power-sharing provisions of the Iraqi constitution and parliamentary allocations, were Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Other longstanding communities were deemed politically insignificant, and hence left out of the formula.
But in the absence of a functioning and legitimate state security apparatus, and without their own sectarian militias to protect them, these minorities were easy targets for extremists. Majority-Christian neighborhoods such as Baghdad's Dora district were ethnically cleansed between 2006 and 2008. Before the war, Dora was home to more than 100,000 Assyrians—an Aramaic-speaking, largely Christian people known also as Chaldeans or Syriacs, depending on denomination. By 2014, it had just 1,500 Assyrians.
While these minorities suffered, the Kurdistan Regional Government continued to gain political strength, as well as financial resources through its unchecked oil exports. The KRG presented itself as the “Other Iraq,” prosperous and peaceful, with its sophisticated lobbying operation in Washington.
Beyond Kirkuk, which had been disputed for decades, the empowered KRG sought to expand its jurisdiction into areas with high concentrations of minorities, particularly Yazidis and Assyrians. In the disputed territories, the KRG, pushed by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, invested heavily in controlling the political affairs and destiny of these communities, seeking to bring their lands and oil resources under its influence by both soft and coercive means.
The KRG's measures also included blocking the formation of local police forces, even though the Iraqi government had approved them in 2006. This proved to be devastating, since Kurdish peshmerga forces in 2014 withdrew from areas like Sinjar, as well as towns across the Nineveh Plain, in the face of advancing Islamic State militants who would inflict genocidal campaigns on Yazidis, Christians and other minorities. The Iraqi government stood idle, ignoring these communities just as its predecessors had for generations.
The costs of continuing to ignore and disregard the interests of northern Iraq's minority communities shouldn't be underestimated. These communities serve as a crucial thread linking Mosul, a majority Sunni Arab city, with the heavily Kurdish provinces farther north, through trade, cultural and political connections, and most importantly multilingualism. The ancient city of Alqosh, north of Mosul, was once the Vatican of the Middle East, as the centuries-long seat of the Church of the East, also called the Nestorian Church, and the resting place of the biblical Prophet Nahum. The city was an important trading center with a vibrant bazaar, still functioning, where merchants from the mountainous northern region would trade from small cave-like khans with Mosulites, exchanging goods in a multilingual space.
Decimated and displaced by the Islamic State, these communities are only now starting to rebuild. As the Iraqi army continues to reassert its control over Yazidi, Assyrian and other minority towns and villages in the Nineveh Plain, the central government's negotiations with the retreating KRG forces and politicians should be grounded in local interests. The patriotic rhetoric of Iraqi unity and pluralism recently articulated by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi should not forget these minorities. Including them in discussions about their areas is not only constitutional and just, but also serves the interests of Iraq. The steps taken by the central government will largely determine whether these communities elect to rebuild or to flee.
Negotiations between the central government and leaders of minority communities will focus on two priorities: local security and administration. In the security vacuum created by the Islamic State, Assyrians and Yazidis began forming their own militias, recalling strategies from their days in the Iraqi opposition during the Saddam era. Tensions could be reduced through the inclusion, and ultimate assimilation, of these new local security forces, which currently enjoy central government recognition and are active today within the Nineveh Plain and Sinjar.
This process should also entail sifting between forces such as the largely Assyrian Nineveh Plain Protection Units, which secured an internationally validated place in the Iraqi military's Nineveh Operations Command, as well as accreditation from Baghdad, and entities such as the Babylon Brigades, a Christian-led but mostly Shiite Arab militia active in Nineveh without local support and openly espousing a sectarian regional agenda. These measures would reassure locals and help to solidify central control. Last month, the Iraqi army began to implement this model in Sinjar, where local security was turned over to Yazidi security forces loyal to Baghdad after the Kurdish forces withdrew.
A second, pivotal demand will likely relate to the Iraqi parliament's decision in early 2014—before the Islamic State swept out of Syria and took Mosul—that agreed “in principle” to examine the precepts for the establishment of a Nineveh Plain Governorate, separate from Nineveh Governorate. Various models for such a process had been circulating since 2003, and gained particular momentum after the ratification of the Iraqi constitution in 2005. Local administration with access to a centrally allocated budget could be used for the purpose of rebuilding towns and villages. This would be unique, given that most financial resources flowing into the Nineveh Plain and Sinjar in the past decade have been politically motivated and coercive, intended to co-opt local groups. Investment in minority communities is crucial, as they constitute the elements of the pluralistic society connecting majority-Arab areas with majority-Kurdish ones in northern Iraq—the very thing the Islamic State was trying to destroy and that the Iraqi government, as well the KRG, should want to protect.
With the tables recently turned between Irbil and Baghdad, Iraq's central government has a rare opportunity to do right by its minorities, moving away from a century-old clientelist system that excluded those with little political clout. Abadi has been praised for his cautious and calculated moves, and for his calls for Iraqi unity to include various segments of Iraq, particularly Kurdish communities. Minorities—Assyrians, Yazidis and others—have a central role to play in maintaining the delicate balance of forces and interests in the region, if the government lets them.
Alda Benjamen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution's Cultural Rescue Initiative. She was a fellow at the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq. She recently completed her doctorate in modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Maryland, College Park, and holds a master's degree in Syriac studies from the University of Toronto.