The Islamic State (ISIS) has adopted a strategy of insurgency in areas previously under the militants' control during the height of its so-called Islamic Caliphate. The genocide perpetrated by ISIS against religious minorities has left these areas devastated. Issues of transitional justice and security remain critical.
Iraq's Nineveh Plains, traditionally home to most of Iraq's Christians, is not immune to these challenges. International Christian Concern's (ICC) Transitional Justice Report documents their impact on the Christian community of the Nineveh Plains.
Since ISIS was officially declared territorially defeated in the Middle East this past March, the militants have grown their insurgent activities in the Nineveh Plains. Iraq has increased its focus on how to provide justice on behalf of the militants' victims, without hearing their testimonies. Meanwhile, Christians are left wondering what future is left for them in Iraq.
Activities of ISIS
The surprise public reemergence of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, at the end of April addressed the group's territorial loses and was, in essence, a formal declaration of insurgency. Previously, there were many doubts about whether al-Baghdadi was still in control of ISIS, or even if he was alive. His rare appearance was intended as a message of ISIS's strength, cohesion, and determination to continue their genocidal policies.
Al-Baghdadi's reappearance took place in the days prior to the start of Ramadan, a time when extremist activity and Christian persecution generally increases within the Islamic world. It is unclear whether the ISIS activities which followed in the Nineveh Plains were more heavily influenced by al-Baghdadi's reappearance or the timing of Ramadan.
Most confirmed ISIS activity within the Nineveh Plains occurred in Mosul. Some estimates say that prior to ISIS, nearly 60,000 Christians lived in Mosul. None have permanently returned; however, many Christians in the Nineveh Plains are forced to frequently travel to Mosul as it is the administrative capitol of the governorate.
A lack of security in Mosul remains the primary concern of these Christians. "Half of the civilians in Mosul joined ISIS," a Mosuli priest told ICC. "Christians saw many movies on social media of how civilians welcomed ISIS in June 2014. How can they trust those people anymore?"
Iraqi Security Forces killed 27 alleged ISIS militants in Mosul during the month of May. This includes at least one senior leader and multiple suicide bombers. In a refugee camp near Mosul, Iraqi Intelligence Officers arrested three men accused of affiliating with ISIS.
A mass grave was discovered by Iraqi Security Forces in western Mosul. Most of the 37 bodies were women. Local officials believe that they were executed when the militants seized Mosul in 2014. A forensic medical department in Mosul is currently identifying the remains. Most mass graves discovered thus far in Iraq hold the victims of religious minorities.
Prosecution of alleged ISIS militants occurs within Iraq's counterterrorism courts. These courts have faced heavy criticism for violating due process throughout the prosecution process. However, the counterterrorism courts in the Nineveh Governorate have made significant improvements during recent months, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The court with the highest number of ISIS suspects in Iraq is located in Nineveh's town of Telkeif. It is estimated that 9,000 cases were opened last year. Approximately 15 Christian families have returned to Telkeif following their displacement. Prior to ISIS, Telkeif was a predominantly Christian town. Security is again cited as a significant concern, preventing many from returning home.
HRW reports that Telkeif and other courts in Nineveh have taken positive steps forward in recent months which improve the judicial process. Courts now require a higher evidentiary standard, reducing their reliance on confessions and unsubstantiated allegations. This has increased the number of cases dismissed against individuals facing charges of ISIS affiliation. However, an estimated 50,000 arrest warrants are pending after their issuance from the court in Telkeif based on documentation captured from ISIS.
Despite these positive changes in the judicial process, courts fail to engage victims in the trials. This is a consequence of ISIS crimes being tried in counterterrorism courts and not under any penal law.
"I am a Christian. The whole rule (of Iraq) is not justice," a believer shared with ICC while speaking more broadly of the absence of law applied on behalf of Christians.
The repatriation of ISIS militants to Iraq from Syria poses a serious question of how and where to house their accompanying families. Iraq is seeking the repatriation of 30,000 citizens, mostly women and children, who lived under ISIS in Syria. Officials recommended hosting these citizens in a refugee camp in Tal Afar, a city located directly between the two groups most heavily victimized by ISIS: Yazidis and Christians. The proposal appeared to have stalled last month because of humanitarian objections.
Meanwhile, Iranian-backed militias continue to take advantage of the lack of governance in the Nineveh Plains. These militias treat Christians in a second-class manner compared to their treatment of Shia Muslims, further fueling community polarization. In May, two Christian women were attacked in Bartella by Shia Muslims believed to be receiving support from the militias. Other local Christians report continued extortion and harassment from these militias.
Mysterious fires targeting agricultural fields are becoming increasingly common in Iraq and are usually claimed by ISIS. In the Nineveh Plains, the situation is blurred. Fires impacting local agriculture ignited in the Christian cities of Karamles and Qeraqosh in late May. It is unclear whether the fires were intentionally started. Some locals believe that fires in the Nineveh Plains were started by Iranian-backed militias attempting to ensure Iraqi reliance on Iran. Others believe the fires were started because of ISIS or tension between local community groups.
"The problem is that there are still some accidents caused by ISIS, and some accidents caused by some groups existing in the Nineveh Plains (like Shabak) who are supported by militias and the Shia parties and also by Iran," a local priest told ICC.