Who are the Assyrians and what are the Nineveh Plains?

Ramy Jajo
The Nineveh Plains are rich in natural resources and sit to the north-west of Baghdad; the largest city there is Mosul. Nevertheless, the area has long been caught in a conflict between the central government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.’
The Iraq conflict is covered by most of the world’s media and the Assyrians are mentioned frequently alongside the Kurds and Arabs. Whilst they are neither Kurd nor Arab, the Assyrians are nevertheless a crucial part of Iraq’s history as a distinct ethnic group in their own right.

A largely Christian people with their own language, culture and flag, these ancient Semites trace their roots to the Assyrians and Babylonians of antiquity, making them indigenous to the land we now know as Iraq, but which used to be called Mesopotamia.

During the 20th century, the Assyrians began to consider the concept of nationalism, a notion introduced by the British; they were promised a state of their own although this never materialised, leaving the Assyrians defenceless and stateless. Over time, they were subject to unjust treatment by successive and repressive Iraqi governments which deprived them of their Assyrian identity.

Much has been reported about the Assyrians and their desire for a province within a federal Iraq. The constitution guarantee’s Iraq’s minorities the right to administer their own province where they make up a majority. Today’s Assyrian Chaldean people are a majority in the Assyrian heartland of the Nineveh Plains. There is no doubt that the area is historically, Biblically and geographically Assyrian. Earlier in the year, the Iraqi Council of Ministers under the then Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki approved a plan to establish and formally recognise the Nineveh Plains as a self-governing province. This would ensure that the Nineveh Plains and its governing body would benefit from the Iraqi federal budget; the current conflict brought the plan to a standstill.

Overall, Arabs represent 78 per cent of Iraq’s population; Kurds and Yezidis make up 16 per cent, but the Assyrian Chaldean people have dwindled to a staggeringly low 6 per cent. Most of the Assyrians have migrated due to centuries of persecution and inaction by Iraq’s federal government. Since the 2003 US-led invasion, being subject to official oppression has become the Christian way of life. The Assyrian population inhabiting their ancestral homeland have suffered from unjust treatment whereby rape, murder and illegal land seizures are the norm.

In July the terrorists of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) marched across Iraq’s borders into Mosul and the Nineveh Plains, unleashing a “holy war” against the Assyrian Chaldean community and other citizens such as the Yezidis. The world watched in agony as innocent civilians, men, woman and children, were murdered systematically in large numbers, had their homes seized and their woman sold as slaves in the Mosul market, saw their places of worship burnt to the ground and were told either to convert to Islam, pay a tax, leave the city or die. It is a modern day holocaust which the international community recognises as genocide.

As the Iraqi and Kurdish forces launch an offensive towards the ISIS militants, Assyrian leaders have started to forge a union amongst their political parties in the diaspora to lobby international support for an autonomous Nineveh Plains region. Meanwhile, two of the most prominent Assyrian political parties in Iraq, the Assyrian Democratic Movement and Assyrian Patriotic Party, have established an army which has been deployed to work alongside the Kurdish Pashmerga militia in a move supported by Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani.

Support for the Assyrians has been seen as far away as Australia. “Let me say this very, very clearly,” said Chris Bowen, an MP in the Australian Federal Government, “the Islamic State is seeking to commit genocide. And I ask the House to send the strongest possible message that we will not stand for it. Even more importantly, it is important that the House says that once the scourge of ISIS has been dealt with, once the scourge of the Islamic State has been expelled from Iraq, let us not miss that opportunity to ensure ongoing protection for the Christians of Iraq–real protection for the Christians of Iraq–and let us move to ensure that the Christians of Iraq have a safe haven where they can live in peace and prosperity and they can live with reassurance. This has been agreed to by the former Iraqi government in principle, but we must keep moving forward.”

The Nineveh Plains are rich in natural resources and sit to the north-west of Baghdad; the largest city there is Mosul. Nevertheless, the area has long been caught in a conflict between the central government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. The Assyrians have waited a long time to administer their own affairs and report directly to Baghdad, but the Kurdistan Regional Government has claims on historic Assyrian territory and is looking to absorb it into its own zone.

Just this month, Iraq’s parliament approved a new government setting the stage for expanded US military support to fight ISIS. The new cabinet was sworn in along with new Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. In a statement he vowed to work “with all communities in Iraq.” However, Assyrian leaders were left dissatisfied, claiming that they are under-represented with only one ministerial seat allocated to a communist party member. Yonadam Kanna, head of the Al-Rafidain Christian bloc within the parliament has demanded that the prime minister should “not make the same mistakes as the previous government.” Kanna added that his people resent the way that the Christians have been marginalised in Al-Abadi’s government.

Throughout history, the Assyrians have navigated through darkness, oppression and sacrifice, all whilst keeping an unwavering eye out for a beacon of hope. Now is the time for Iraq and the international community to voice their support and provide full assistance to the Assyrians as they seek to emerge from the darkness and find comfort in the land that they have called home for over 4,500 years. Now is the time to create the autonomous region of Nineveh in the new Iraq.

The author is an Australian journalist who resides in Sydney. He was born in Baghdad and is of Chaldean/Assyrian background