Christian militias have been trained by the Peshmerga to participate in the Mosul liberation; and to defend their territories and people. Photo: Rudaw video
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—As the Iraqi army and its coalition and Peshmerga allies prepare for an offensive to drive the Islamic State (ISIS) out of its Mosul stronghold, minority groups such as Christians, Yezidis and Shabaks want guarantees that Baghdad will grant them self-governance and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has promised to give Nineveh full provincial powers as stipulated by the constitution.
“The minorities’ demand for self-rule in the Nineveh plain won’t lead to the division of Iraq, and those who consider this a threat, we ensure them that we do not want to divide Iraq,” Joseph Slewa, a Christian MP in the Iraqi parliament told Rudaw. “It’s a constitutional right to govern our area.”
Slewa believes that Iraqi political factions will consent to the idea of giving Nineveh self-governance powers once they know that it is not a threat to the country’s territorial integrity.
He adds however that nothing could be done at this stage and that the proposals have to wait until after the liberation of Mosul from ISIS.
“The people of Mosul have self-determination right, but until Mosul has been liberated people cannot decide about this,” said Slewa. “We want to have self-administration and for this we want to coordinate with Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region.”
Apart from self-governance for the people of Nineveh, there recently have been some ideas for carving out a new province altogether for Christians in the Nineveh plains.
According to Slewa, the proposal was initiated by some US congressmen and EU MPs.
Slewa said that some solid guarantees of protection are imperative for Christians to return to their areas after ISIS.
“Establishing self-administration in the Nineveh plains is our main condition for returning home post liberation, and if there is no international protection we have no trust in others, those who were neighbors of ours in Mosul abused and committed crimes against us.”
When ISIS militants overran the city of Mosul and its surrounding towns in 2014, the majority of the area’s Christian, Yezidi and Shabaks fled and sought shelter in the Kurdistan Region. Most of these areas have since been retaken from the extremist group, but their politicians are seeking a better and more secure future once the group has been completely routed. They see that in establishing for themselves a new province, separate from Mosul.
“We have a project to establish a province in the Nineveh plain for all minorities in the area and this province is to be annexed to the Kurdistan Region,” said Salim Shabaki, a representative of the Shabaks in the Iraqi parliament. “We have all signed the project as minorities of Nineveh, and this is constitutional according to Article 125.”
Shabaki believes that as long as the minorities get their own province, they will be able to live in harmony and understanding.
“And for the province, we have no issues whether a Yazidi, Kakai, Turkmen or Christian becomes governor, we will agree among ourselves,” he argued.
Shabaki explained that his people insist on having self-governance due to the mistrust and suspicion that has emerged between them and local Arabs who have been accused of assisting ISIS.
For some others from Nineveh, the answer to the minorities’ concerns lies in defeating ISIS and bringing peace to Nineveh.
“The main thing and priority now is the liberation of Mosul, and then the return of peace and stability to the province,” says Haneed Kado, a member of the Iraqi National Alliance bloc in parliament.
“We do not support any project on an ethnic and sectarian basis,” he added. “The project should be based on the need of the people there, then such a project needs legislation in parliament and government approval.”
Kado agrees that the ISIS invasion changed things in the area, such as planting the seed of distrust between members of different communities, but he argues “we need to work on building trust between the people of Mosul.”
“Establishing a province won’t be useful if there is no peace in the area,” he added.
Iraqi PM Abadi said in a speech last month that his government has decided to give all Iraqi provinces full administrational powers, including Nineveh, as entrenched in the Iraqi constitution.
Kado agrees that that is the best way forward.
“More authority to the highest degree should be given to the Nineveh province on strategic projects and public services,” he explained. “We as minorities have been neglected by both the government in Baghdad and local authorities of Nineveh.”
Minority concerns and government promises aside, the future of Nineveh looks more complicated than it is now due to an intense competition between different forces for power and influence in the post-ISIS era.
“Decentralisation in Nineveh is even trickier than it already is elsewhere in Iraq: with so many clashing, or at least competing, interests at play and with trust and good faith in such short supply, all relevant actors are jockeying for maximum position in post-ISIS Mosul,” said Dr. Fanar Haddad, Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute and the National University of Singapore.
Haddad says that the issue of Mosul has gone beyond Iraq’s borders and become a regional and international game.
“Far from paving the way for meaningful decentralization we are seeing a wide array of forces seeking to maximize their ability to exert influence on post-ISIS Mosul,” he said. “Nor is this just about Arabs and Kurds or Sunnis and Shias: it spans Iraqi, regional and international interests just as it involves both inter and intra ethnic and sectarian competition.”
Haddad predicts “significant opposition” to the attempt to break up Nineveh and believes that many questions surround the project of creating a new region.
“Reactions to the emergence of a new region will be based on self-interest. Are the political patrons of a new region friends or foes? At whose expense and to whose credit will a region's formation come about?” he asked. “It is these calculations, rather than matters of principle or communal solidarity, that will dictate political positions.”
Brendan O'Leary, Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and former constitutional advisor to the UN, EU and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) says that the Shiite government has a very poor record of respecting the rights of governorates and that “It has almost no credibility.”
“The simple questions are whether it would accept a request from Nineveh governorate as a whole to become a region with the same powers as Kurdistan? And would Baghdad deliver on such commitments?” he said.
O'Leary believes that “Given the conduct of ISIS and its precursors in the Mosul neighborhood all the minorities in Nineveh governorate (including the Kurds) have good grounds for being suspicious of being dominated by a Sunni Arab majority in future,” adding that not all Sunnis should be treated as if they were ISIS supporters or collaborators.
He says the minorities have two solutions: “Bargain for better rights within Nineveh, or bargain for inclusion for districts and sub-districts in which they are majorities within the Kurdistan Region under Article 140. They need to ask themselves which place has a better record of minority-rights protection.”
O'Leary thinks that suggestions for a Christian-dominated province in the Nineveh plains are a project “largely driven by diaspora fantasists, not by those with any genuine sense of recent local realities, including demographic realities.”
“The Christians in the Nineveh Plains – where I have been – have only three feasible choices for the sources of their security: Baghdad, Mosul or Erbil,” he explained. “If I was a Christian I know where I would want to get my security. Under the KRG – or an independent South Kurdistan – there are many possibilities for feasible cultural and autonomy for Christians, and for arrangements which would link all major Christian villages and municipalities.”
“It’s long past time for Christians in the diaspora to get real: the Christian alliance with Baathism was a disaster, and the only one of the three major communities (Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds) with a decent recent track-record in protecting Christians is the Kurds of the KRG,” O’Leary argued.
Jerusalem-based commentator and Middle East political analyst, Seth J Frantzman believes that any pledges from Baghdad for more powers and authority to Mosul are only temporary and are being made to assuage Sunni and the international community’s concerns about the rights of minorities after ISIS.
“However, judging by the treatment of Sunni Arabs under the previous Shia dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, it would seem that when ISIS is defeated, an empowered central government will treat Sunnis largely the same way they were treated before 2014,” Frantzman told Rudaw. “Haider al-Abadi has similar political roots as Maliki, in the Islamic Dawa and State of Law coalition.”
“It seems doubtful there will be devolution of autonomy or authorities to Sunni areas,” he added. “If the government is smart and doesn't want a re-emergence of another form of ISIS extremism, then it will provide more empowerment to Sunni areas such as Mosul. But this seems unlikely.”
Frantzman believes that not only the central government, but minority groups in the Nineveh plains also have the Sunnis, who strive to take back their former glory, to contend with when seeking a separate province of their own.
“Before 2014 the Sunni Arab leaders of Nineveh expressed little interest in minority rights, even though Assyrian Christians and other groups wanted more autonomy,” he explained. “The Sunni Arabs of Mosul region see themselves as the rightful rulers of Iraq, a formerly powerful group, angry over the erosion of their power.”