The New Year opened with an unexpected airstrike in Baghdad that substantially changed the tenor throughout Iraq, thrusting the Nineveh Governorate into a fresh state of uncertainty that many expect will continue for months, if not years. A rapidly deteriorating security environment has prompted new reports of immigration, and impacted the ability for aid to reach communities devastated by the Islamic State. Counter-terrorism activities against ISIS were impacted, yet a high-profile arrest in Mosul showed the need for this type of engagement. The United Nations released a security report as well as their observations of the investigative process into ISIS.
Related: Timeline of ISIS in Iraq
Related: Attacks on Assyrians in Syria By ISIS and Other Muslim Groups
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which control substantial swaths of the Nineveh Governorate, were dwelt a significant blow on January 2 when the US conducted a drone strike in Baghdad which killed Iranian Qud's General Qassem Soleimani and Iraq's Paramilitary Chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. A significant escalation of US-Iranian tensions led the coalition against ISIS to cease joint activities for three weeks. Some countries even initiated withdrawal procedures. Although coalition activities have since resumed, US-Iranian tensions remain impactful as the coalition attempts to negotiate joint roles in the fight against ISIS. The Arab tribes in Nineveh released a statement supporting a US presence in the country.
Public statements regarding the arrests or deaths of alleged-ISIS militants dropped substantially, with only a few arrests reported in Mosul. This includes the high-profile arrest on January 16 by Nineveh SWAT of an ISIS Mufti, Shifa al-Nima. He had previously worked in the Nineveh Endowment Directorate, which is responsible for overseeing religious affairs in the governorate. He was a senior leader in the Islamic State.
In a statement to authorities, al-Nima said that he issued "the fatwa to expel Christians from Mosul, and I permitted the killing of Shi'ites and issued other fatwas in regard to allowing ISIS fighters to enslave Yazidi women and sell them, and killing the Yazidi men. I also issued fatwas to confiscate the houses of displaced people." He also admitted to issuing the fatwa which destroyed the tomb of Jonah. His current status is unclear.
Shortly after this arrest, the true identity of the new leader of ISIS was revealed as Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi. This information confirms a suspicion of many since the announcement. Al-Salbi was indeed born in Tal Afar, in Nineveh, the most religiously diverse province in Iraq. He is responsible for issuing religious rulings that directly targeted Yazidis and Christians during the height of ISIS's control over Nineveh.
Some media reports indicate from intelligence officials that he likely stayed in Nineveh following ISIS's defeat, preferring to stay in towns just west of Mosul. A UN Security Council report released this month noted that within Iraq, "payments continue to be made by the ISIL leadership to widows and orphans of deceased fighters. This helps to achieve the ISIL goal of ensuring loyalty and building support from the next generation."
Meanwhile, the PMF is making all coordinated attempts to demonstrate a show of strength in Iraq. Iranian-backed militias have increased their use of systematic targeted kidnappings and gunfire to intimidate peaceful protesters in the Central Government. Foreigners have been warned by Iran, and by these militias, to withdraw. Four humanitarian aid workers, three of whom are French, were kidnapped in Baghdad. These aid workers are affiliated with an organization that provides relief and development work for Christians in the Nineveh Plains. They were reportedly in Baghdad to renew their visa, a document which became required after the PMF took control of Nineveh.
Some warn that Iraq is quickly moving into a two-front shadow war: one against ISIS, the other between the US-Iran. Lines between the two can easily blur. According to the UN Security Council report, "In Iraq, Member States reported that one tactic employed by ISIL cells to raise money was mounting fake checkpoints disguised as Iraqi military or Popular Mobilization Forces checkpoints."
These two conflicts threaten to further polarize an already delicate environment in the Nineveh Governorate. "We don't want more of these wars in Iraq. These wars are not good for Christian areas," one local, Samir, shared with ICC.
Samir mirrors common perceptions within Nineveh that there is ultimately no difference between ISIS and the PMF militias. He explained, "Our areas were under the government's control until ISIS attacks. Later ISIS made their way to the Iranian militia to have the control. The excuse was setting the area free from extremist groups. Before that scene, Christians used to live peacefully without the need of militia existence, with guns everywhere. Especially those militias sanctioned by the US, how come those groups are the ones protecting Christian areas?"
Another local Christian warned that this new set of tensions has created a fresh wave of immigration. "We hope life goes back to normal as soon as possible, we hope Christians rebuild houses again. (But) the hesitation in the area is increasing. People are leaving more and more every day. We hope the international community moves and [does] something. We lost hope in our own government after the recent attacks by the US and Iran."
"We understand that Hashid (PMF) troops sacrificed and fought ISIS alongside the Iraqi army," added another. "But we refuse the Iranian influence. We refuse Iran making use of it politically."
Meanwhile, in Sinjar, this conflict takes an additional shape with the increasing presence of a third party: Turkey. Alleging that they are fighting a war of national security interests, Turkey conducts military operations in Sinjar. A Turkish airstrike on January 15 killed five people, prompting Yazidis to join in a large protest against Turkey's incursions. According to one protester quoted in local news, "We do not know why Baghdad and Erbil have chosen silence. If Baghdad and Erbil actually consider Sinjar as their area, why are they silent?"
Sinjar is also impacted by the conflict in neighboring Syria. The PMF reported that they had arrested, wounded, or killed members of a group of ISIS-affiliated women and children who had escaped Syria's al-Hol camp. They were smuggled over the border through Sinjar.
ISIS-affiliated women and children made frequent mention in two separate reports released this month by the United Nations. A Security Council report noted several ways that ISIS continues to raise money, including through "women transporting significant quantities of gold and gemstones in Iraq."
A separate report released by UNAMI and the UNHCR details investigative and trial hearings of alleged ISIS militants. Their team observed the cases of 217 defendants in Nineveh, showing a priority second to that of Baghdad. Only a handful of women were defendants in these cases, and only six children. The ratio is notably less than what was observed in other governorates of Iraq.
The cases observed by the UN represent only a handful of the thousands which are currently pending. The report observed a consistency in organized trial proceedings. However, in describing the process, it failed to mention that religious minorities have a legal barrier which prevent them from having any sort of formal role within these proceedings. Investigative and trial judges must be Muslim. The report nevertheless does recognize that restrictions on public hearings prevent the victims of ISIS, such as Christians and Yazidis, attending. This limits "the possibility for victims and their families, as well as the general public, to see the perpetrators being held to account, and failed to expose the full range of crimes committed."
Overall, the UN report concluded that basic fair trial standards continue to be ignored in the process of holding alleged-ISIS militants accountable. The ability for the courts, however, to rectify this problem is limited as they reflect problems with a broader legal and counter-terrorism framework.