Iraq’s Indigenous Peoples Can’t Face Another Conflict

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Despite the Islamic State’s retreat, Assyrians fear for their security in the Nineveh Plains. They need stronger support from Washington and Baghdad.
By R.S. Zaya
A boy herds sheep in the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq on Nov. 11, 2016. Martyn Aim/Corbis via Getty Images
Elishwa never thought she would return to Bartella. She fled the village in northern Iraq four hours before an Islamic State attack in August 2014, and she never thought she would see its sand-washed masonry again. But after three and a half years in exile, she returned in January 2018 from Duhok in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. She does not regret coming back but considers the future of her community to be precarious. “We fear a conflict is coming,” Elishwa, who requested the use of a pseudonym out of safety concerns, told Foreign Policy in May, referring to the presence of Iran-backed militias.

Elishwa, like most of Bartella’s population before the 2014 Islamic State offensive, is Assyrian—part of an ethnic community indigenous to northern Iraq that is predominantly Christian and the last Aramaic-speaking group in the world. Over the last two decades, punctuated by the Iraq War and rise of the Islamic State, the population of Assyrians in Iraq has declined by a staggering 90 percent: from an estimated 1.5 million in 2003 to just over 150,000 today.

The U.S. government’s current focus on the coronavirus pandemic and reports of troop withdrawals could augur an era of disengagement with Iraq. Yet this drawdown could not come at a more critical juncture for Assyrians, who face increasing persecution from both Iran-backed militias and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) security forces seeking control of the last region in Iraq where Assyrians are a plurality: the Nineveh Plains.

The Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq have been the linchpin of Assyrian life for centuries. While it has always been a diverse area—many Yazidis live in the region—it was the last major concentration of Assyrians in Iraq before 2014. In the period immediately following the defeat of the Islamic State, Iraq’s central government could have prioritized the return of its Indigenous peoples. Instead, it returned to the same security arrangement that led to an Assyrian exodus from the plains in 2014: a U.S.-supported balance of Arab and Kurdish forces claiming the plains as their own.

Iran’s territorial influence extends to part of the western and southern Nineveh Plains.

Iran’s territorial influence extends to part of the western and southern Nineveh Plains.
Two Iran-backed paramilitaries are actively obstructing the return of Assyrians: the 30th Brigade, a militia comprising primarily members of the Shabak ethnoreligious group, and the 50th Brigade, a nominally Christian but predominantly Shiite Arab militia. Both are closely associated with the Badr Organization, an Iran-backed Shiite faction, and Iran. The brigades’ leaders were sanctioned by the United States last year for corruption and human rights violations.


Iran’s militias have adopted a strategy utilized by the Iraqi state since the 1930s: forced demographic change through the settlement of Shabaks from outside villages, leading to a surge in their population in the Nineveh Plains. “All we know is that they are building housing complexes in which they bring in people from outside the region,” Elishwa said. This policy appears to be enshrined in law. On June 3, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces Commission—which oversees Iran-backed militias—issued a statement containing a purposefully ambiguous yet dangerous provision that would possibly lead to housing militia members in combat areas where they served, potentially exacerbating the demographic shift in the plains.

Over the last year, Assyrians living under these militias in the Nineveh Plains have experienced significant intimidation and violence, from a priest having a pistol pointed to his head to two elderly women being stabbed by Shabaks with unknown affiliations in May 2019. Last fall, the Iran-backed militias even imposed a curfew on Christians on a Shiite holiday.

Admond, an Assyrian from Bartella, which is primarily controlled by the 30th Brigade, said the Assyrian community feels increasingly threatened and he thinks the curfews will become more frequent. “You feel [the fear] through their behavior,” he said of the 30th Brigade. “They force you to feel that they are the masters of the area now, or they remind you that they are the ones that liberated the region, when, in fact, the anti-terrorism forces liberated it,” he added, referring to a division of the Iraqi Army. (Admond also requested the use of a pseudonym out of safety concerns.)

While Iran seeks to carve out a Shiite buffer zone and facilitate arms exports to Syria, the KDP’s presence in the plains serves as pretext for its eventual annexation of the territory into the Kurdistan Region. The role the KDP has played in destabilizing the Nineveh Plains has largely evaded censure from its Western allies. It can be traced to 2006, when, in its draft constitution, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) suddenly claimed the plains as one of many “disputed territories,” meaning it should be administered by Erbil. From the KRG’s perspective, the status of the plains as part of the Kurdistan Region was a fait accompli. In the decade leading up to the Islamic State invasion, the KRG created the appearance of security in the plains through the harassment of locals and a system of political and financial patronage.

Throughout 2017 and 2018, the mayor of Alqosh, Faiz Jahwareh, was detained, beaten, and harassed by Kurdish security forces in politically motivated attacks. He was removed from office on spurious corruption charges twice dismissed by an Iraqi federal court and was barred from returning to office by the KDP. Kurdish officials replaced him with an Assyrian member of the KDP, Lara Yousif Zara. Alqosh residents who protested Zara’s installation were threatened with their lives by Kurdish security forces. Last year, Zara was dispatched as an emissary to Washington to burnish the KRG’s reputation, meeting with State Department officials, including Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, to discuss religious freedom in Iraq.

Iraq’s Indigenous Peoples Can’t Face Another Conflict