By Claire Evans ICC’s Regional Manager for the Middle East
11/02/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Security related issues significantly defined much of the Nineveh Governorate throughout the reporting period. An attempt by the Central Government to control the militias was unwelcomed by the PMF, and threats were subsequently issued by Brigade 30. Locals have varying opinions about how to resolve these underlying security issues, as seen in their response to the announced Sinjar Deal and Covenant of Honour. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues impacting daily life, although the exhumations of mass graves have finally resumed.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that there had been 14,543 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nineveh Governorate by the end of October, with 1,934 still active and 340 fatalities. Compared to the previous month, this was a slight increase in both active cases and fatalities. No curfews are currently in place across the country and travel is permitted between governorates, although with some difficulty. The United Nations reported that Nineveh remains a difficult access point for humanitarian aid, although the situation has improved since their last analysis.
“My personal notice about COVID is that the recoveries are more than infections, but the virus has become part of our day,” said one resident.
Another further explained, “COVID had a big impact on our lives. We can’t go to church, and I’ve been attending church on a regular basis for more than twenty years! Also, corona has impacted our economy’s life. All of my family members have lost their simple jobs.”
As Nineveh continued grappling with the consequences of the pandemic, the governorate also significantly struggled with the implications of increased militia hostilities. At the end of September, the US issued a stern warning regarding the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) which resulted in new leadership of the 30th Brigade. This caused much tension during the month of October after 6 rockets were launched from the border of Bartella towards the Erbil International Airport in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
“Targeting the KRG from Bartella is the first incident of this kind. It is mostly done by Brigade 30 who gets direct commands from Iran,” one individual told ICC.
Another added, “It is sad that the Nineveh Plains has become a place to launch missiles towards innocents. Bartella used to be a sign of love and uniqueness. We refuse terrorism invading our area. That will drive Christians out of the area and Bartella will lose its original people. Also, this attack explains Iran’s approach toward Christian areas by turning it into a Shia community.”
The 30th Brigade denied their involvement, saying that it occurred 1,300 meters away from their checkpoint in an area not under their control. The Nineveh Operations Command issued a statement saying “We express our regret and surprise over some of the hasty reactions regarding the rocket attack that targeted the city of Erbil. The area from which the rockets were launched towards Erbil is considered an uninhabited area located in a triangle surrounded by the army, the PMF and the Peshmerga (Kurdistan Regional Guard).”
“An investigation has been opened into the accident and surveillance cameras will be monitored to find out from where the missile-loaded vehicle came,” the statement continued. “The Popular Mobilization Forces are working to identify the parties responsible for the rocket attack.”
However, the PMF were subsequently ordered to withdraw 5 kilometers south in what was perceived as a disciplinary action for their role in the incident. The brother of Brigade 30’s former leader is a government figure, and he responded by issuing a veiled threat that this kind of disciplinary action against the PMF would cause further displacements in Nineveh.
As this situation developed, concerns were raised regarding an incident in northwestern Nineveh, between al-Qosh and Sinjar. A Yazidi businessman, Bashir Hussein Gorya, was murdered as he drove from the funeral of Baba Sheikh. One of his relatives who was in the car at the time told Rudaw, “A red vehicle was stationary ahead of us. We neared them, and once he [the assailant] saw us, he got out of the car and started to shoot at us with a pistol. As he fired at us, I jumped out of the car. Had I not jumped out of the way, he would have killed me too.”
Because this occurred during a time of heightened militia tension, this incident validated much fear that is already felt amongst the local community. As Yazidi activist Nadia Murad said just days prior to this incident, “it pains me greatly that once again I feel compelled to convey the state of the Yazidi people because the situation remains virtually unchanged… Sinjar was destroyed by ISIS— without a dedicated effort to build a stable local government and local security forces committed to equal protection for all citizens, Yazidis cannot return safely.”
A deal between the Iraq Central Government (ICG) and the KRG regarding Sinjar was released, but not necessarily warmly received by all of Nineveh’s residents. A protest was held on the basis that Yazidis were not consulted as part of this deal, even though it impacts them directly. However, others stated that this deal addresses the underlying security issues that lead to militia tensions because of the territory’s disputed status.
“I am a Yezidi, and criticize all the previous regimes for the security shortness,” said one resident. “I also appreciate all who contributed to liberate our lands, including Hashid (PMF), the Central Army, and Peshmerga, but that is not enough to go back. We are suffering because of the PKK, as Turkey is chasing the PKK members in our area. I think the agreement between the Central Government and KRG is good… but all militias and other armed groups should get out of Sinjar.”
Another disagreed, saying, “I live in Sinjar and didn’t witness any discrimination from Hashid or any other armed group. Also, the economic situation is getting improved day after day. We lack for government and public services. We also need international companies to come and invest in our areas, that will maintain job opportunities. I am against the agreement between the Central Government and KRG because I can’t see any positive impact on Sinjar.”
Regardless of opinions, this deal has restarted fresh conversations about autonomy, security, and religious minorities living not only in Nineveh but also other governorates.
ISIS Response and Investigation
The Governor of Nineveh, in cooperation with the United Nations, hosted a conference which announced a Covenant of Honour that would “encourage more than 1,100 families perceived to be affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to return to their places of origin in the Muhalabiya sub-district (Mosul).” This is part of a three-year plan supported by the international governments of Denmark and Germany which works through Local Peace Committees to reintegrate perceived ISIS-affiliated families into their home communities. However, this announcement did not include any information regarding how these families were vetted and selected to participate in this program. Given the broken community trust experienced by victims of ISIS’ genocide, such information is important for repairing these relationships.
For example, a resident of Mosul responded to this announcement saying, “It is not supposed to be that ISIS members come back to Mosul! Their existence is considered dangerous, one way or another. How can I live in a house and the next house have an ideology of blood and violence to get to heaven?! I can’t be secure and comfortable with my family among them. The government should offer retreat, and the thing that is even more important is taking their kids into special shelters to save them from extremism.”
However, an activist from Nineveh responded, “I think we should classify the ones who joined ISIS at some point of their lives. Some of them did that to protect themselves and didn’t have the ability to leave, while there are others who believe in the ideology. The second ones are considered a threat on the area’s security and they need to be treated with caution.”
The opening of mass graves in Sinjar has resumed, according to the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State (UNITAD). The pandemic had paused these exhumations, a process which includes identifying the remains and notifying impacted families. As part of this resumption, Iraqi authorities are inviting locals to participate in DNA sampling. The International Committee for Missing Persons’ Iraq Program Deputy Head, Fawaz Abdulabbas, said, “These efforts are important, not only to the many families who suffer every day because relatives are missing, but to society as a whole. Accounting for the missing is an investment in peace and stability.”
Claire Evans is International Christian Concern’s Regional Manager for the Middle East