by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Phillip Smyth
Ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, media reports have typically drawn a contrast between the relatively prosperous the areas of Iraq under the jurisdiction of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the rest of the country.
For example, a recent piece in the Washington Post noted the construction boom in Irbil — the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan — as opposed to many parts of the nearby city of Mosul (outside KRG jurisdiction) that still remain derelict and in ruins after years of bomb attacks by al Qaeda, which even today extorts around $150 a month from most businesses in the city.
None of this comes as a surprise when one takes into account the fact that the KRG has a more liberalized market economy, whereas Baghdad still maintains a centralized command system inherited from the rule of Saddam Hussein. The Soviet-model bureaucracy remains a significant barrier to reconstruction, and it is unlikely to be dismantled anytime soon. Reliance on growing oil revenues allows Baghdad not to diversify the economy.
However, in view of this economic contrast, it is often assumed that the KRG is distinguished by a policy of tolerance towards minorities. This assumption is apparent in a recent report by the New York Times entitled “Exodus from North Signals Iraqi Christians’ Decline.”
Besides noting riots by Kurdish Islamists last year that resulted in damage to Christian and Yezidi property in the town of Zakho, the report rightly draws attention to ongoing threats from Islamist militants to Christians even in the KRG areas, which have seen much less insurgent activity than elsewhere in the country.
Nonetheless, this article, as with many about the KRG, depicts minority dispersion as wholly the fault of militants. Overviews of the KRG’s policies toward Christians — especially internally displaced migrants from the central and southern parts of Iraq — can only be described as a whitewash.
Specifically, the Times report takes note of KRG claims that “the Kurdish government has offered land, free fuel and other assistance to Christians as they have arrived from Baghdad, and it has opened its universities to students from Mosul.” What goes unmentioned is that the land and housing offered by the KRG to internally displaced Christian migrants are generally of poor quality and situated in very remote locations.
According to Juliana Taimoorazy, president of the Iraqi Christian Relief organization, “Once in the north the Christians have to join the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) to be able to live modestly. However, many refuse to do so and are experiencing poverty [and] lack of education”.
In a similar vein, a 2007 report by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom pointed out:
KRG officials were also reported to have used public works projects to divert water and other vital resources from Chaldo-Assyrian to Kurdish communitiesâ€¦ leading to mass exodus, which was later followed by the seizure and conversion of abandoned Chaldo-Assyrian property by the local Kurdish population.
Nor was there any mention in the Times report of confiscations of Assyrian Christian lands at the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga militiamen since Iraqi Kurdistan gained autonomy in 1991. In October 2002, the KRG passed a resolution legalizing these seizures of land.
Similarly, the report claimed the following: “Christians do not lack a political voice. They sit on local and provincial councils throughout the north, and hold seats in Parliament in Kurdistan and Baghdad.” These remarks minimize the manner in which the KRG has tried to marginalize many Christian groups, including the preeminent Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM). The ADM aims to establish an autonomous province for Christians in the Nineveh plains — which would carve-out a strategically placed landmass from KRG territory. In the 2005 general elections, many Kurdish officials attempted to block supporters of the ADM from voting by not delivering ballot boxes to Assyrian districts, while election workers for the ADM were attacked and killed by Kurdish security forces.
The population of the Nineveh Plains is mainly composed of Christians and Yezidis, the latter of whom belong to an esoteric religious group and do not identify as Kurds. Nonetheless, Yezidis are not recognized as a distinct ethnic group by the KRG.
In a leaked 2006 cable provided by Wikileaks, Yezidi Movement for Progress and Reform leader Waad Hamad Matto accused the Kurds of hindering Yezidi leaders’ security, disrupting water shipments to Yezidi villages, and of sending armed forces to assert control over Yezidi areas.
Christians and Yezidis are not alone. The Shabak form another unique Iraqi ethno-religious group and speak their own language. This hasn’t stopped the Kurds from attempting to control that group. In 2005, Dr. Hunain Al-Qaddo, leader of Democratic Shabak Assembly, stated, “Kurdish militias have assumed control of the Shabak areas and are attempting to Kurdify the peopleâ€¦ their armed militia roams the towns and villages terrorizing the people.”
Even though Iraqi Kurdistan is economically vibrant, generally stable, and is itself run by a minority, it does not follow that the KRG is truly minority friendly. While more visible cases of Iraqi minority discrimination continue to draw Western press attention, KRG covert and institutional discrimination against Christians and others continues.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. Phillip Smyth is a journalist and researcher specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. He travels regularly to the region.