IRAQ: British Ambassador to Iraq visits Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian town of Alqosh in Nineveh Plains

ALQOSH, Iraq — The British Ambassador to Iraq, Stephen Hickey, visited the Syriac Chaldean town of Alqosh in Nineveh Plains to speak with Syriac Chaldean Mayor Lara Yousef Zarra and to see firsthand the living conditions in the town. During the visit, the situation in the area was discussed and both sides exchanged views on the economy, tourism, and security concerns.

Ambassador Hickey and his delegation also visited the seventh century Rabban Hormizd Monastery in the mountains outside the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian town. Hickey met with Father Raphaël Bidawid, head of Monastery of Our Lady, and Father Danha al-Rahib who gave the ambassador a tour of the tomb of the Prophet Nahum.

“Disputed area”

The town of Alqosh and the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian Nineveh Plain are considered “disputed” by the KDP-led Kurdish Region in Iraq and the central government in Baghdad. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has Peshmerga forces mobilized and set up strategic roadblocks to strengthen their claim on the area. The central government is present with its security forces and Popular Mobilization Units – semi-independent militias many of them backed by Iran.

To protect their people, the Chaldeans-Syriac-Assyrians have set up their own PMU-force called Nineveh Plain Protection Units which is affiliated with the Shiite PMUs and Brigade 30. The NPU, unfortunately, is relatively small and needs international backing to be able to operate independent and execute the desired self-defense role in the security of the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian Nineveh Plain.

Both the KRG and the PMUs try to bring the “disputed” Nineveh Plain under their control. With regards to the PMUs, the 2019 Religious Freedom Report of the U.S. State Department states;

“Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS, including at checkpoints and in and around PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians said the PMF controlled the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain, forcing merchants to pay bribes, and controlled real estate in Christian areas. Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but local authorities sometimes verbally harassed them.”

With regards to the KRG and its claim, the 2017 Religious Freedom Report of the U.S. State Department states that “Some Yezidis, Christian leaders, and NGOs reported occurrences of harassment and abuses by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga and Asayish (internal security) forces, including Asayish-imposed requirements for security permits, which impeded the movement of Yezidis between Dohuk Province and the Sinjar area.” And “Media and government officials continued to state Peshmerga and the PMF prevented displaced Sunni Arabs, Yezidis, Turkmen, and others from returning to their homes in some areas liberated from ISIS.”

The nomination of Syriac Chaldean Mayor Lara Yousef Zarra in 2017 has also been highly criticized. The 2017 Religious Freedom Report states that “In July Christian civil society organizations reported the Assyrian Christian mayors in Al Qosh and Tel Kayf were replaced, reportedly due to corruption, with KDP members who also were Christian. At the direction of the mayor, security forces in Al Qosh arrested and threatened a group who publicly protested this decision. Christian groups stated this was part of a “Kurdization” of their towns.”

Stuck in the middle, highly fragmented Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian political

Regime change in 2003, the consequent violence, Iranian influence, proxy-militias, a weak and unstable government, ISIS, Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian displacement from the Nineveh Plain, demographic change, Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian emigration to the West, etc. etc… all make the prospects for the Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians to survive as an indigenous people in Iraq very dire. Where past criticism focused mostly on the Barzani’s and the Kurdistan Kurds, Iran-backed Shia PMUs have increased their influence at the cost of the Kurds and taken over control of the Nineveh Plain. The Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people are stuck in the middle.

Post-ISIS demographic change in the Nineveh Plain is ongoing. The longer it takes for Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian IDPs to safely return to their homes in the Nineveh Plain, the less likely it is they will ever return at all. So far, only an estimate 35%-40% of the pre-ISIS occupation Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians of the Nineveh Plain have returned. The longer this situation endures the more the Chaldean–Syriac–Assyrian and Christian character of the Nineveh Plain comes under threat.

The failure of Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian parties to come to inter-party dialogue and real constructive and joint initiatives makes the whole situation even more dire. External powers do and will continue to do all they can to sabotage Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian inter-party dialogue, and similarly inter-church dialogue.

Internal discord, blaming one and other, and pointing fingers does not help in times of deep existential crisis. If Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian political parties in Iraq can not come to a memorandum of understanding that sets joint goals and direction for the future of the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people in Iraq, then the future of the Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians as a proud people in their ancient homeland is very much impaired.

The large but scattered Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian diaspora has a great responsibility and important task in this. It is imperative that the diaspora does not get caught up into this internal discord and blame gaming. That it resists external divide-and-conquer strategies and actively supports and points the way for our political parties and churches to come to formal understanding of common goals an direction.