The Nineveh Governorate has come to a grinding halt because of COVID-19, impacting the ability of returnees to maintain whatever life they had developed post-ISIS. The militias are providing the structure used to enforce stay-at-home directives, possibly strengthening their role in the governorate post-ISIS. The Nineveh region has become a common subject of Iranian news publications as it relates to anti-ISIS activities, especially in response to the international coalition appearing to reprioritize its military goals in the area.
COVID-19 has led the international coalition against ISIS to suspend its training mission and prompted several troop repositions. This is the second time this year that the mission was paused. It comes as officials discuss whether their presence for the purpose of fighting ISIS is still relevant. The U.S. has pulled out of three bases, including the Qayyarah Airfield, which is located just 30 miles from Mosul. The Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Barker said in a news statement, "The Qayyarah base served as a strategic launching point for the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] and Coalition during the Battle of Mosul. In particular, the base serves as a hub for the Iraqi air force, who continue to deliver lethal strikes on Daesh bed-down locations."
However, Iranian media continue to challenge this statement. Iran alleges that the U.S. remains in Qayyarah and that preparations are underway against the Hashd al-Sha'abi (PMF) militia, which is supported by Iran and controls the Nineveh region. Iran has increased its media coverage of paramilitary activity in the Nineveh Plains, threatening an increase of tension, while also highlighting their own efforts against ISIS. The PMF has announced a "Spring of Victories Operation" in the Nineveh and Saladin Governorates against ISIS militants. In Nineveh, Iran announced this would involve Brigade 44 and 51 of the PMF.
The militias, including the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit, are enforcing curfew and shelter in place restrictions instituted by the Central Government to combat COVID-19. The first confirmed cases in Nineveh were reported on March 22, but the first suspected cases were tested in an IDP camp roughly 12 days prior. The Nineveh Governorate has taken an increase of organized steps to communicate the problem of COVID-19 to residents. The lack of infrastructure post-ISIS and the number of those who remain in IDP camps remain a significant concern. It is not possible to fully test for COVID-19 in Nineveh, as the results are sent to Baghdad for analysis.
This situation is further concerning, considering an IOM report published in March which detailed that Nineveh has the highest number of households re-displaced after they attempted to return. Displaced persons are considered highly vulnerable to COVID-19, as they often lack the resources needed for a sanitary and healthy living environment.
Many Nineveh residents do not understand the threat of COVID-19, but the impact of the pandemic on top of the already numerous challenges faced by residents is heavily felt. "I think I am ready to say with full confidence: I don't care," says one Christian farmer. "(First a) series of wars, then ISIS and displacement. Later a lack of jobs and investments, now and finally coronavirus. What miserable life I've had!! I can't remember staying happy for an entire month in my whole life."
The inability to attend houses of worship has stressed many residents, who were still able to find religious community even during the times of displacement. Suspicions abound as residents watch the militias adjust their organization to enforce the curfew. One Qeraqosh farmer shared his thoughts: "politicians always make use of any crisis. And not only in Iraq, it is everywhere."
"ISIS was a dark cloud passed over Iraq, but life pre and post-ISIS is very different from a political perspective. Can you believe that the Asaib Ahle Al-Haq militia got 14 seats at the parliament while they only have a couple thousands of followers, do you believe that?!"
"I am sure the militias and ISIS and every armed person will make use of this, and we will never know until the epidemic is over. They are planning and taking steps now while we are trying to survive," he adds.
The heavy restrictions on movement are worrying a number of local farmers. In neighboring governorates, reports have already surfaced that because movement related to the care of livestock is considered non-essential travel, animals are starving. Travel restrictions grant some limited movement for humanitarian aid, which is relied upon heavily in Nineveh. Yet even farmers in this governorate are beginning to feel the impact.
"I had just started a new round of chicks," says one chicken farmer in Qeraqosh. "We villagers cannot stop doing this (farm work). It is something that goes on in my veins."
"I am having difficulty getting the fodder. We all used to have one source of fodder and chicks, but now even the vet is importing fodder to maintain (its) availability. Also, the price right now is $520 per ton while it was $460 before coronavirus."
He adds, "you know it is a village, we know each other, also the police, army, and the NPU are not strangers. In coordination with Qeraqosh mayor, we formed a committee to help poor families."
Beyond the implications of COVID-19, the consequences of ISIS continue to haunt religious minorities. In Sinjar, a Yazidi was arrested by military intelligence when he attempted to renew his personal identification papers. His formal papers were left behind when the family fled Sinjar, and he argues that ISIS may have used these papers in a way that had them flagged on the government's terrorist wanted list. The situation speaks to the deeper issues which continue to divide and impact residents of Nineveh.
The investigation into the crimes of ISIS appears to have slowed substantially as the country slows down over COVID-19. The Martyrs Foundation announced on March 9th that two mass graves were opened in Nineveh: one in Sinjar, the other in the governorate's center. This brings the total nationally to 219 mass graves discovered in the post-ISIS investigation. Customarily, the remains are often transferred to Baghdad for investigation. But it is unclear whether any forensic evaluation regarding evidence collected as part of the investigation can be pursued since the country has halted most activities.
The United Nations Investigative Team (UNITAD) only significant announcement this month was that they facilitated an interfaith statement from Iraq's leading religious authorities regarding the crimes of ISIS. The statement opens with, "we, religious leaders from communities across Iraq, underline our common commitment to support survivors of crimes committed by Da'esh and ensure their effective reintegration into our respective communities, thereby strengthening the basis for healing and reconciliation in Iraq."