Iraq fears for its future once Isis falls

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The liberation of Mosul will still leave a region mired in complex tensions
by: Erika Solomon in Nineveh province
Before Isis militants assaulted his northern Iraqi village in 2014, an old friend called Abu

Hassan and urged him to flee. But it wasn’t a friendly tip-off, he says. It was a threat. “He called to mock me,” says the 30-year-old shepherd. “He said, ‘Forget your sheep. Forget your chickens. Forget your home’.”High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our T&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email to buy additional rights.

Today, Abu Hassan, who asked that his real name not be used, still cannot understand how the friend he grew up with could support the jihadi group that killed thousands and branded his own minority sect infidels worthy of slaughter. “After something like this, how do people live together again?” he asks. As the battle against Isis in Mosul enters its final stages, it is a question many are grappling with in the diverse province of Nineveh, some 300km from Baghdad and with a population of more than 3m. Over the centuries, Nineveh has hosted Christian sects, Jews who have long since fled, Arabs of the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects, Kurds as well as smaller minorities like the Turkmen, Yazidis and Abu Hassan’s Shabak people. There have been periods of conflict, but few as catastrophic as June 2014, when Isis militants seized Mosul and swept across northern Iraq and Syria. Advancing Iraqi forces, backed by a US-led international coalition, opened a fresh assault last week on the last districts of Mosul, Nineveh’s provincial capital, where several hundred Isis militants are bracing for a fight to the death. The presumed government victory over the coming weeks is seen as critical to delivering a final death knell to Isis’s territorial control in Iraq, where it has only a few remaining footholds.


Civilians are evacuated on May 5 from al-Haramat neighbourhood, north of Mosul, as Iraqi army forces try to dislodge Isis fighters © AFP Washington and its allies are likely to support Iraqi security operations even after Isis is driven out. But that alone will not solve the puzzle of how Nineveh, and perhaps all of Iraq, heals the scars left by the Islamists. If the country cannot foster coexistence, Baghdad’s allies may find it mired in conflict yet again. “Of course this isn’t over?.?.?.?it will become sect versus sect, party against party, neighbour versus neighbour,” says one Nineveh council official, who asked not to be named. “The killing is easy, because we have not imposed governance here. There is no order.” Nineveh, Iraq’s second-largest province, is rich in oil and fertile land. But its complex ethnic make-up means conflicts, many of which predate Isis, are hard to resolve and relatively easy to reignite. When, almost a century ago, British officer TE Lawrence made a map exploring colonial partition of the Middle East based on ethnicities, he put two question marks over Nineveh, which seem to linger to this day.


Iraqi Yazidis celebrate their new year at Lalish temple in northern Iraq last month © Reuters Iraq is often framed as a country divided between its Shia Arab majority, its Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who have a semi-autonomous region in the north. The reality is far more complex and Nineveh’s diversity is a case in point. Whether it can regain stability is an important test case for all Iraq. “The situation after Isis will be more dangerous than when Isis itself was here,” says Idris Merza, head of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a Christian party. “If each [political force] in Iraq wants to protect only its interest and the interests of its supporters, then we will lose and we will never regain a safe environment here.” *** Abu Hassan’s story shows how communities struggle to reconcile. A member of the Shabak ethnic minority, which has Shia and Sunni practitioners, he is Shia. The friend who betrayed him, Sunni. After fleeing his home, Abu Hassan joined the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a mostly Shia paramilitary group known in Arabic as the Hashd al-Shaabi. Most are backed by Iran and feared by the Sunni, but their insistence on a presence in sensitive places like Nineveh has exacerbated sectarian tensions. This isn’t over?.?.?.?it will become sect versus sect, party against party, neighbour versus neighbour Nineveh council official Driving back to his base after visiting his recaptured village — now looted and torched — Abu Hassan says he never asks about the fate of his old friend: “I don’t care or need to know whether he’s dead or alive.” Yet he feels obliged to mention how that friend suffered sectarian abuse at the hands of the security forces, recalling how together they once bribed a police officer to secure the release of the man’s brother from prison. Mosul became home to a Sunni insurgency after the 2003 US invasion, which toppled the regime under Saddam Hussein that had given the Sunni an upper hand. Many residents faced harsh treatment and arrest by Shia-dominated forces. “To be honest, even though I’m Shia, what they say is true: the army in Mosul was sectarian. They humiliated people at checkpoints and arrested them without reason. They demanded bribes,” says Abu Hassan. “I think we have to acknowledge this played a role in the fall of Mosul: it pushed people toward Isis.” The Sunni say they had no choice. In the summer of 2014, both Iraqi security forces and Kurdistan’s peshmerga units fled the Isis onslaught. As the militants swept through Nineveh, they blew up ancient ruins and historic shrines. They slaughtered Shia Muslims and enslaved Yazidi women. Sunni “apostates” who defied them were executed in a brutal campaign that shook the region. Kurdish and Iraqi government forces have clawed back most Iraqi territory — Isis now holds only 7 per cent. But attempts to restore order are undermined by longstanding rivalries — particularly between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, which are bitterly divided over disputed territories, including parts of Nineveh. The jockeying has intensified a dizzying set of communal struggles. In March, Kurdish forces backed by the KRG attacked a Yazidi force in Nineveh’s north-western Sinjar region, which was itself supported by a rival Kurdish faction backed by Baghdad. Thousands of Yazidis — already displaced by Isis — had to flee yet again. Such incidents make foreign powers wary of getting involved. Michael Knights, an Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute, says the complicated, localised nature of these struggles make it difficult to create broader solutions. A hospital destroyed during the Iraqi government forces’ battle against Isis for control of Mosul © Reuters “If the international community gets involved there [Sinjar] or elsewhere, there are a fair number of losers,” he says. “Umpiring is what minorities want, and it would take a big mental shift to go back to the days of foreign umpiring.” Yet these struggles are dividing communities some of whom, like the Turkmen, were already struggling with internal sectarian strife even before the Islamist group arrived. “It reached a point where one brother killed another, or killed his own father,” says Lukman al-Rashidiya, a Turkmen member of the Nineveh administrative council. “That was before Isis. What happens now?” *** Sunni Arabs, too, face a collective reckoning. Along the Tigris river winding through Mosul and its southern countryside, where the Sunni are the majority, bloated corpses are collected each week from the riverbanks, having been mutilated by unknown assailants. Most Iraqi officials say the bulk of local Isis members came from this impoverished countryside, and now they suspect security forces and disgruntled members of the Sunni community are quietly exacting revenge. . Some also accuse the KRG of banning the return of Sunni Arabs in areas they have recaptured. A member of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, a small Christian militia, with the group’s flag, outside Qaraqosh © AFP “No one is ashamed or afraid?.?.?.?because no one is watching,” says the provincial council member who asked not to be identified. His biggest concern is that thousands of people related to Isis members will be expelled. “Where do they go? Who accepts them? We’re just pushing this question down the road,” he says. “No area will want them.” Others warn that those who remained under Isis will be harder to govern after years of trauma and adapting to survival without Baghdad. “They are different people now, in terms of the way they think. A lot of traditions changed, trade routes changed, administrative methods changed,” says Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Nineveh, who has become a source of controversy. He fled Isis, but is accused by Baghdad of complicity with the group, which he denies. A training camp for Hashd al-Shaabi fighters at the end of last year © Reuters Under Isis, locals in Mosul rigged neighbourhood generators. They dug their own wells for water, often sharing it free of charge with neighbours. Trade was rerouted to Syria as the rest of Iraq was closed off. They are now being asked to rejoin a country where the government is grappling with corruption, political infighting and an economic crisis caused both by the costly war against Isis and falling oil prices in a country with the world’s second-largest reserves. Even basic services, like rubbish collection, are lacking — making the broken relationship with Baghdad harder to repair. “The Nineveh government, myself included, is weak,” Mr Rashidiya says. “If the administration stays like this, we won’t be able to run this province.” Even though I’m Shia, what they say is true: the army in Mosul was sectarian .. We have to acknowledge this played a role in the fall of Mosul Abu Hassan Reconciliation programmes, promoted by some humanitarian and aid agencies, are dismissed by many Iraqis. One official in Baghdad privately says several reconciliation committees were established with disappointing results. In one deal involving the central town of Yathrib, he says, one committee paid millions of Iraqi dinars to Shia tribes to allow Sunni related to Isis members to return, only to see them driven out a few months later. Mr Rashidiya says some politicians derail such deals to protect their own interests. “Some Shia and Sunni leaders, in their minds, if there is reconciliation, they lose influence,” he says. *** There is near-universal agreement among locals that Nineveh must be restructured — but no consensus on how to do it. Some officials want to split the region into smaller districts, linked either to Baghdad or Erbil, to allow the various groups to administer themselves. Others want to form a federal region like the KRG. Yazidis flee the Isis advance in Sinjar in 2014 © Reuters Among the staunchest advocates of a federal option is Christian politician Romeo Hakkari, of the Bet al-Nahrain Democratic party. Even before reaching the post-2003 rise of a jihadi insurgency and the exodus of Christians, he recounts a string of grievances with neighbouring communities going back to the Ottoman Empire. “Being Iraqi doesn’t mean anything to me,” he says, identifying more with his Assyrian Christian ethnicity. “People call me Iraqi, I have an Iraqi passport, but I’m not happy that I’m Iraqi.” FT Comment The exodus of Christians is a loss for all in the Middle East Attacks on minorities force them into the arms of dictators and strongmen Then there are disputes over how many administrative districts there should be? Some say four, five, or even nine — depending on which areas they believe should have self-administration. Should Mosul stand alone, or be merged with the mostly Sunni southern countryside? Izzat Aziz, a greying Christian engineer in his sixties, traces his family roots in Mosul back centuries. Yet when Isis attacked, his family only needed a few minutes to flee: they had become so used to facing sectarian attacks over the previous decade that they kept their suitcases packed and ready to go just in case. The Aziz family now lives in a small apartment in the city of Dohuk, 70km north of Mosul, waiting for the day they can return. “It’s not easy to give it up and leave,” he says. “This was the home of our ancestors, we grew up there.” For others, that history has become a burden. “If we come back and rebuild, then what?” asks Christian militia fighter Muthana Sakkariya as he inspects his bullet-scarred house in the town of Qaraqosh, where melted ceiling fans droop like wilted flowers. “A hundred years ago, it was the Kurds [who attacked the Christians]. This time, the Sunni. And next time — who knows?” Nineveh — a region in flux Nineveh is one of Iraq’s most diverse governorates. Sunni Arabs are the most populous group due to their majority presence in the provincial capital, Mosul. Shia practitioners from several ethnic groups are one of the largest religious minorities. Some of the main ethnic minorities in Nineveh are: Turkmen The third-largest ethnic group in Iraq, they speak a Turkic language and are found largely in the north of the country. Turkmen have both Sunni and Shia practitioners. Turkey has fostered strong ties with some Turkmen parties. Kurds Iraq’s Kurdish minority have a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq and the peshmerga army. The Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad are often at odds over oil revenue and territory. The KRG often hints at moving towards independence but has yet to do so. Shabak This tiny ethnic minority is found mostly around Nineveh. They speak a dialect of Kurdish and are made up of both Sunni and Shia Muslims. Christians There has been a major flight of Christians since the US invasion in 2003, and those who remain are struggling to convince their co-religionists to stay after Isis attacks forced more than 100,000 to flee to the neighbouring KRG. Yazidis Followers of an ancient monotheistic religion, the Yazidi have been persecuted for centuries. They speak a Kurdish dialect and the KRG claims them as fellow Kurds. Isis massacred thousands of Yazidi men and enslaved over 5,000 women, while more than 200,000 fled their homes.