Minorities In Iraq Face ‘Catastrophe’, Human Rights Watch Warns

By Nishant Dahiya

Iraq’s minorities — including Yazidis, Shabaks, Turkoman and Assyrian Christians — face a “full-blown human rights catastrophe” as the long-festering territorial dispute between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad “threatens to erupt again,” Human Rights Watch reports.

The group warns that the minorities are being targeted by both insurgents and by the KRG as it aims to increase its hold on the disputed areas just south of their semi-autonomous region.

Though these minorities live in disputed land that stretches from Sinjar near the Syrian border to Khanaqin near the Iranian border, the HRW report concentrates on the northern province of Nineveh, Iraq’s second most-populous. There, according to HRW, the minorities have been targeted by Sunni insurgents who regard them as “crusaders” and “infidels.” Bombings in Nineveh have killed hundreds of minorities since 2007. In late 2008, “a systematic and orchestrated campaign of targeted killings and violence by insurgents left 40 Chaldo-Assyrians dead and more than 12,000 displaced from their homes in Mosul (the capital of Nineveh and regarded as the last urban strong-hold of al-Qaida in Iraq).”

The violence against the minorities is continuing. Since the June 2009 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq’s cities, “attacks in Nineveh, particularly against minority groups, increased dramatically, and… show no sign of abating,” HRW says. In six weeks after the withdrawal of U.S. forces, according to HRW, attacks “in four different locations killed more than 137 and injured almost 500 from the Yazidi, Shabak and Turkmen communities.”

The territories where the minorities reside are at the heart of the dispute between the Arabs and Kurds. During previous Iraqi governments, thousands of Kurds were removed and Arabs settled there in a process of “Arabization.” Since 2003, the Kurds, in control of the region, re-settled Kurds there, and displaced many Arabs. The Kurds assert that all the disputed land has historically belonged to them, and claim it. Iraq’s Arabs appear equally determined not to let that happen.

The Kurds, in order to further their aims, “have offered minorities inducements while simultaneously wielding repression in order to keep them in tow,” HRW says. Kurdish forces, according to HRW, “have mostly relied on intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests, and detentions to coerce the support of minority communities.” According to HRW, “in some extreme cases, they resorted to violence, including torture.” The KRG denies all such allegations.

As the Kurds and Arabs struggle over the territories, they are being squeezed from both sides. As NPR’s Quil Lawrence recently reported, Iraq’s minorities “have survived over the years mostly by leaning toward the winning side. But there is no clear favorite at the moment, and a huge risk of being labeled a traitor if the wrong side prevails.” And as NPR’s Peter Kenyon has reported, Iraq’s Christians have begun forming their own militias amidst increasing insecurity.

Human Rights Watch is recommending that the Kurdish Regional Government carry out investigations “of individuals, including Kurdish security forces” who may have been involved in the alleged “killings, beatings and torture against minorities.” Among other recommendations, it also urging the KRG to “cease funding private militias;” “allow municipalities to hire police officers from their own communities;” and “invite the U.N.” to “provide an impartial assessment of the situation.” The report also calls on the Iraqi government to “protect minorities,” and carry out its own investigations into the killings of the 40 Chaldo-Assyrian Christians in 2008.

(NPR’s Nishant Dahiya is on assignment in Baghdad.)