Nineveh Plains Transitional Justice Report: September
By Claire Evans
09/30/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – There have been some notable positive developments in the Nineveh Governorate, despite the instability and uncertainty brought by COVID-19. The pandemic is still having a substantial impact on Iraq and has added some new dynamics to Nineveh. Both Turkey and Iran included their own national commentary on the governorate, with Turkey especially posturing itself to take a leadership position regarding Nineveh’s future. A reshuffle of PMF leadership also raises new questions about Nineveh’s security situation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that there had been 9,840 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nineveh Governorate by the end of September, with 1,606 still active and 274 fatalities. Compared to the previous month, there is a slight decrease in the number of active cases but an almost 62% increase of fatalities. A French medical association, Médecins Sans Frontières, warns, “The COVID-19 pandemic in Iraq has reached alarming levels, with an average of nearly 4,000 new cases reported every day and around 500 deaths per week.”
Pandemic-related restrictions vary depending on location. Bashiqa reported a new curfew, but in Telskuf some churches reopened for the first time. In Qeraqosh, daily life is generally more open. But these variances are unpredictable, inserting new uncertainty and challenges into an environment that was already unstable pre-pandemic.
Much of that pre-existing instability is driven by the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs), which came under renewed scrutiny this month. A stern warning from the US regarding PMF attacks against foreign missions and bases prompted the Iraqi government to replace some PMF leadership. Waad Qaddo, the 30th Brigade founder for the Shabak in Nineveh, was replaced by his assistant Zain al-Abedin Kheder. Last year, the US had sanctioned Qaddo for gross human rights violations in Nineveh.
His belated removal from the 30th Brigade was met with some reservations by locals, as the leadership change did not include structural transformation. Explains one resident, “The Shabak militias, as represented by the 30th Brigade, took ISIS’s existence in the Nineveh Plains as an excuse for their armed people, but I think the real reason is to take over Christian areas step by step. The 30th Brigade has a direct connection with Iran.”
This month, Iran did pursue national commentary on the Nineveh Plains, particularly by promoting PMF achievements on security issues. September is also the anniversary month of the Iran-Iraq War; thus, such commentary did fit within the Iranian government’s broader narrative.
Meanwhile, Turkey strongly inserted itself into this commentary. Turkish press resented the Assyrian-Christian heritage of Nineveh and promoted the expansion of Turkish interests within the governorate. For example, the Daily Sabah said, “Mosul is facing a catastrophe under the rule of the militias. The Iraqi state threatens to utterly remove even her name from public consciousness. Iraqi official media is increasingly referring to the city by the name Nineveh. This is a societal epidemic that spreads through contact.”
The article continued by saying that Mosul needs help and “the only country that has the interest and ability to fulfill this role… is, after all, Turkey.” Shortly afterwards, a railway project between Mosul and Turkey was announced.
Locals have conflicting opinions about the role of outside organizations and governments in rebuilding local infrastructure. For example, one argues that it is the Iraq government that should be visibly taking the lead. He said, “It has been almost four years since ISIS was defeated in Qeraqosh and Mosul, but still the majority of communities (including non-Christians) are not there yet. I think this is a responsibility of what we call ‘government’ in Iraq. The refugees that either live in the KRG or Baghdad, the others who left the country, have done so mainly because they lost the trust that the government can change something to better.”
“I think for Christians to go back to their lands requires the (Iraqi) government to maintain certain conditions that guarantee their lives,” adds another.
Another countered, “Organizations have worked over the past years, but the efforts were not enough to cover the rebuilding of damaged infrastructure. I also believe that the international community and the United Nations need to support the new generation. These are the ones who will build the country; they could be real hope.”
Tensions boiled in Sinjar regarding the YBS militia. In this incident, four YBS members were detained for murdering two men belonging to the Arab al-Shammari tribe. Some Yazidi activists were quick to condemn the murders, saying that it was an attempt to exacerbate sectarian tensions. “It was a politically provocative move, designed to incite hatred between Yazidis and their Arab neighbors,” said Ibrahim Khudida Kasso in a video statement issued by the Yazidi House organization. He continued, “Yazidis have always had good relations with the al-Shammari tribe, who confronted IS terrorists and made sacrifices.” The government responded by sending special anti-terrorism forces to Sinjar.
There were some positive attempts made at deescalating institutionalized sectarianism. The Central Government ordered the removal of all sectarian labels for government employees. Some practical barriers remain, however, which are inherently discriminatory. Even though Christians represent a large demographic within Nineveh, they are excluded from certain positions even if the sectarian label is not applied. For example, non-Muslim judges are not possible wherever judges are required to swear an Islamic oath. This kind of tension becomes even more important as the investigation into the crimes of ISIS progresses.
The Minister of Immigration and Displacement made a special visit to Kocho, where a plan to rebuild the judiciary was initiated. Sinjar is the most unstable region within Nineveh and remains the most destroyed post-genocide. It is hoped that rebuilding the judiciary will bring stability, increasing the confidence of those who remain displaced but hesitant about returning home. Even with a rebuilt judiciary, the question of whether Iraq can apply the law remains unanswered.
The United Nations unanimously voted to extend the mandate of the Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh (UNITAD) until September 18, 2021. The extension was made at the request of Iraq’s government. UNITAD’s work, especially those portions related to forensic investigation, has experienced significant delays because of the pandemic.
UNITAD did announce a positive outcome after a Yazidi woman, Hadiya Hussein, won a three-year legal battle for her two siblings in a Turkish court. The children were smuggled into Turkey by ISIS, and the parents are believed massacred. The children were finally reunited with their sister this month. At an event held earlier this month, UNITAD warned that “returning children were confronted with physical and psychosocial problems, language barriers, and barriers to reintegrating with their families and communities. Missed educational opportunities set back their development by years.”