February was marked with subtle tensions underlying several different aspects of the Nineveh Governorate as Iraq continues to wrestle with the consequences of a government in chaos. A rapidly changing militia landscape shows deepening cracks in Iraq's security environment. Militias continue to harass and extort Nineveh residents, and while some counterterrorism activities are visible, the consequences of these actions are not. The United Nations announced the first group of names identified through DNA of those massacred by ISIS, and another mass grave was discovered.
The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) continue the process of reorganizing themselves following a U.S. airstrike in January that eliminated the PMF's top leadership. Abu Fadak Al-Mohammedawi was appointed Deputy Commander, but few biographical details are known. Iran is relying upon Hezbollah to take a stronger leadership role in Iraq through this process. Hezbollah is recognized as more structured and disciplined than Iraqi militias, whom they already have a history of training. The militia landscape remained highly fluid throughout February, as different networks exerted their influence across the PMF.
A marker of this fluidity was a protest in Tel Adas, a village located in the Nineveh Plains between Mosul and Dohuk. The villagers specifically demonstrated against the PMF and demanded the militia's withdrawal. Fear of reprisals has kept most Nineveh residents from joining the nation's protests, making the Tel Adas demonstration a rare example of a unified public outcry against the PMF.
Meanwhile, the presence of ISIS in Nineveh remains a question mark. Only a few arrests were reported in the Mosul area. It is possible that counterterrorism priorities have shifted, as neighboring governorates reported high numbers of counter-ISIS activities. However, it is also possible that the uncertainty surrounding the PMF may be impacting these goals. In other governorates, the PMF has been excluded from participating in military operations targeting ISIS sleeper cells. Still, locals report that the PMF's anti-ISIS activities in Nineveh appear ongoing.
An Imam from a village near Mosul reported that "ISIS gangs come to four mosques from time to time to pray there. We can hear also jets flying, and they may be tracking them."
"There were attacks during the month between Hashid (PMF) forces and ISIS, but we couldn't see the results of it," adds another Muslim.
This tension is also felt amongst Nineveh's Christian community, although in a different way. "The risk of ISIS attacking Christian areas is still here. We can't believe that Hashid is able to protect the area; it is still insecure and unstable," says one.
"Hashid militia has a lot of invasions for human rights in the Nineveh Plains," adds another. "People consider them as bad as ISIS was, and maybe worse. Because the government recognized ISIS as terrorists. But the Iraqi government supports Hashid, and maybe Hashid is even stronger than the government."
The government has come under criticism following reports that three months ago, Baghdad began building a detention facility for the families of accused ISIS members in the Zummar area of Nineveh. This revelation has generated significant pushback from locals, especially as these members would be transferred to the detention facility from Syria's al-Hol camp.
The tribes have presented a unified front against this decision. They gathered in late February and blocked the entrance to the camp, citing security concerns should the government continue with this course of action. "In a joint decision by all of the [local] tribal leaders, we closed down the gate of the camp," said one tribal leader. "We assure the Iraqi government that we will not allow any of Da'esh women and children to be transferred here."
It is unclear how the government will respond to this pressure. Originally, it was anticipated that the transfer of these detainees would occur in early March. However, the government has a history of following tribal directives. The decision to host this kind of camp in Nineveh raises further alarm since it is the province that contains the highest percentage of Iraq's religious minorities. The decision of moving affiliated members of ISIS into the same area in which the militants targeted for genocide shows just how difficult it is for victims to rebuild their lives in safety.
Nineveh's new governor, Najm al-Jubouri, made an announcement that the province has made improvements that led 79 Christian families to return home. Some commented that this number remains low, especially given that several Christian villages in Nineveh remain nearly empty, although ISIS was officially declared defeated in 2017. Instead, reports of returnees again choosing to leave Nineveh remain commonplace, but the exact numbers are not known.
A local op-ed published by one Christian from Ba'ashiqah shows how many have decided that it is better to pursue life elsewhere given the challenges of their country:
"I would prefer emigrating today. I'm a university graduate, but I am making just $200 a month working in a juice shop. My ambition was to get a government position and to have a chance at a stable job. The future is unknown, and that does frighten me," he writes.
"The country is going through endless conflicts, and the power of militia and the influence of Iran rob Iraq of its sovereignty. We have been persecuted for our faith and will likely continue to be. But we remain attached to our faith at all costs and hope that peace will prevail in the end. I hope that future generations of Christians can fulfill their responsibility to build a stable Iraqi society, one in which Christians can play a significant role."
Yazidis have renewed a push for legislation called the Yazidi Female Survivors Law, which has been stalled in Iraq's parliament for the past year. The law would provide rehabilitation for those women who escaped ISIS sexual slavery. However, critics argue that this bill is polarizing because it only would help Yazidi survivors of ISIS. Parliament's debate over this legislation has stalled its progression, but Iraq's current state of chaotic government creates further doubts as to whether the country is capable of having a serious dialogue about how to help those who survived the genocide of ISIS.
A mass grave was found in Tal Afar that contained the remains of Yazidis and Turkmen. Dr. Ali al-Bayati, a member of High Commissioner for Human Rights, told Ezidi24 that "This graveyard contains 400 bodies belonging to the deceased from Shiite Turkmen, and also 600 bodies belong to the Yazidi component who were killed by ISIS, in addition to that a number of other bodies belong to various components... This graveyard is one of the most heinous crimes of ISIS, not only because they killed them and threw them in the graveyard, but rather they exploded this graveyard from time to time in order to expand the graveyard further."
It is worth noting that Tal Afar is the home town of the current leader of ISIS, al-Quraishi. It was previously discussed as a possible location for housing detained ISIS members. DNA processing on this mass grave is currently underway.
Meanwhile, Iraqi officials announced the first 62 names of Yazidis identified by DNA who were found in a mass grave in Kojo. Each of these names belongs to men who were murdered by ISIS. The identification and eventual return of these remains to their families is a positive step forward in otherwise dark circumstances. There are 80 mass graves found in Sinjar alone, and the discovery of new graves is a frequent occurrence. While the remains are often quickly extracted, the process of identification and family notification is painfully slow.