Iraqi Christians could be caught in crossfire as ISIS makes resurgence

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Rubble in front of a building in northern Iraq. (Open Doors USA)
The government of Iraq is dealing with a deadlier threat than Covid-19. The resurgence of the ousted Islamic State has stepped up its hostilities in the disputed areas of Iraq. As reported in the local news these areas are home to a concentration of the Christians remaining in the country.

This not a repeat of 2014, when thousands of Sunni Muslims under the black ISIS flag burst across Syria and northern Iraq in a murderous wave. Instead, attacks have been isolated, and so far directed mainly at Iraqi security forces and its international coalition of allies in the country. But the pace has picked up since mid-March, when the government of the city of Kirkuk imposed movement restrictions in an effort to hold down the spread of the coronavirus. 

Kirkuk, the largest city in Iraq’s oil-rich north, has been the object of a tug-of-war between the national government in Baghdad, and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. It’s also southern neighbour to some of Iraq’s most concentrated communities of Christians, many of whom fled the 2014 onslaught to the relative safety of Kurdistan and especially its capital, Erbil.

ISIS forces were stripped of all territory by December 2017 and its founding leader killed in 2019, but pockets of insurgency remain. In a report released in February, the US Department of Defense said that, by late 2019, ISIS was exploiting “seams” where neither Iraqi nor Kurdish Peshmerga forces were in control. The standoff between Baghdad and Erbil “has created a vacuum in which neither government wants to conduct operations against ISIS in areas of the seam, either due to a lack of political will or due to a fear that doing so could instigate conflict between the two governments,” the report said. The drawdown of American forces, accelerated by Covid-19 concerns, has narrowed US monitoring of the wider region, creating even more space for ISIS to move.

The political vacuum has become something of an actual vacuum, now that the Covid-19 lockdown has pushed much of the population off the streets. The Israel-based Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African studies said 27 April that ISIS remains deadly active in Syria and Iraq. The 2019 Turkish incursion of northern Syria, as well as Iraq’s continuing political instability, “adds to the list of external factors that could potentially provide ISIS with the space to resurge,” Dayan Center researcher Adam Hoffman said.

The reports of spiking ISIS hostility do not contain evidence that Christians are being targeted specifically. But if the attacks on security forces continue or widen, there is the possibility the Christian communities of northern Iraq will increasingly be in the crossfire. And of course, memories of 2014, when ISIS uprooted hundreds of thousands of Christians at the point of a gun, remain fresh.

“Such a resurgence would affect the whole population, especially religious minorities such as Christians,” said Henriette Kats, Persecution analyst at World Watch Research. “Since the territorial defeat of IS, the main source of pressure on Iraqi Christians has been from Shiite Iran-backed militias. If IS did return to strength, that pressure would most likely increase, with Christians finding themselves caught in the crossfire. That could then be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and cause the remaining Christians in Iraq to up and leave.”