Crushing Iraq’s human mosaic

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Iraq’s minorities are suffering a persecution at times verging on genocide, a campaigning Iraqi MP has told the BBC News website.

Caught in a triangle of religious, ethnic and criminal violence, communities which once made up as much as 14% of the country’s population get little state protection, said Hunain Qaddo, chairman of the Iraqi Minorities Council, a Baghdad-based non-governmental organisation.

The marketplace bomb attack on a Shia Turkmen village near Kirkuk on 7 July marked a new spiral of horror, according to Dr Qaddo, who believes 210 civilians, mostly women and children, died and about 400 were injured. Police reported 130 deaths at the time.

He says that his own community, the Shabaks of the Nineveh Plains, face oblivion as a people, targeted physically by al-Qaeda militants because they are mainly Shia, and politically by Kurdish separatists with claims on their land.

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Dr Qaddo is in London as part of a campaign by the UK-based advocacy group Minority Rights Group International to raise awareness of the crisis gripping Iraq’s lesser-known peoples while the big three – the Shia and Sunni Arabs and the Kurds – pursue their own interests.

Iraq’s minorities range from large communities like Turkmens and Christians to small groups of Armenians, many of them descended from refugees from the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, and Palestinians given sanctuary by Saddam Hussein.

Between Arab and Kurd

The problems of the Shabaks, a community of up to 400,000 with their own language and cultural traditions, are rarely reported by foreign media, in contrast to those of Iraqi Christians, for example.

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“They have no communities in Western countries,” Dr Qaddo points out.

Some 1,000 Shabak civilians, he says, have been killed in the Mosul area since the 2003 invasion in terrifying attacks, including beheadings, by Sunni Arab militants.

A further 4,000 Shabaks have been driven out of their homes, adds the MP, whose own house was burnt down in the city.

And Shabaks, whom Saddam once attempted to “arabise”, are also under pressure from Kurdish political parties seeking to “kurdify” them in a drive to assert wider control over the ethnically divided north.

“They are really facing a genocide,” says Dr Qaddo.

It is hard to assess the scale of the problems facing the Shabaks and other ethnic minorities independently during the current conflict in Iraq, Charles Tripp of the London School of Oriental and African Studies points out.

Estimates for population size, he told the BBC News website, are often exaggerated in a country where parliamentary seats, resources and recognition are based on a community’s percentage of the population.

Prize targets

Nonetheless, the number of minority group members among the 2m refugees from Iraq is believed to be disproportionately high.

This Christian woman from Nineveh lost her son to militants

Mandaeans who fled to Syria told the BBC earlier this year harrowing stories of forced conversion, rape and murder by Islamists.

A Minority Rights Group International report published in February notes that Mandaeans, who follow a religion which pre-dates both Islam and Christianity, are also targeted by criminals because they traditionally work as goldsmiths and jewellers.

They have often been kidnapped for ransom in Baghdad and the south of Iraq, says Hunain Qaddo.

Christians have found themselves in a similar dilemma: targeted by Sunni extremists because of their religion and by kidnappers – who are often Shia Arab militants or rogue members of the security forces – because of their wealth.

The common problem of most of Iraq’s minorities, says Dr Qaddo, is that they lack any militias of their own to protect them.

Iraq’s loss

Iraqi police are too weak or corrupt to help, he adds, while the US-led coalition, fighting insurgents and seeking good relations with the main communities, offers no special protection for minorities.

We are going to lose the value and the culture of these people who have enriched our society through their hard work and their skill

Hunain al-Qaddo
chairman of the Iraqi Minorities Council NGO

The chairman of the Iraqi Minorities Council accepts that minorities always suffer during a civil conflict and he is not advocating safe havens for minorities or calling on other countries to take in more refugees.

Instead, he wants Western states involved in Iraq to do more to help train up the new Iraqi army so that it can restore the rule of law across the country, put pressure on the Kurds to respect minority rights, and back the creation of a defence force recruited from the minorities in the north.

“That would be the best solution for all Iraqis including the refugees, many of whom are willing to return if security is established,” he says.

“I feel very sad when I hear that Christians or other minorities are leaving Iraq because we are going to lose the value and the culture of these people who have enriched our society through their hard work and their skill.”

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