Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Iraq: Assyrians at risk as Kurds 'play with fire'


by Elizabeth Kendal

The Assyrians are a Christian nation and the indigenous people of Northern Iraq. Between June-August 2014, ISIS (and subsequently IS) drove more than 130,000 Assyrians from their homes in Mosul and the Assyrian heartland of the Nineveh Plains. Traumatised and destitute, most found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan; particularly in Dohuk (to the north) and in Erbil, the Kurdish capital (to the east). With the Iraqi Army in a state of collapse, the Kurds moved quickly to occupy and defend oil-rich Kirkuk (formerly under the control of Baghdad).

This year, a coalition led by the Iraqi Army and aided by Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs, mostly Iranian-led Shi’ite militias formed to fight ISIS in June 2014 in the wake of the Iraqi Army’s collapse), along with US-backed Kurdish peshmerger forces and Assyrian units, has liberated Mosul and much of the Nineveh Plains. As Assyrians tentatively trickle back into their towns and villages, they do so with the hope that the Nineveh Plains might one day be an autonomous entity within the state of Iraq. The last thing they want is to fall victim to a Kurdish land grab, or to find themselves stuck in the middle of another war.

Assyrians return to Qaraqosh, Palm Sunday 2017.
Report and images by Open Doors
more images: al-arabiya, from Oct 2016

KURDISH REFERENDUM ON INDEPENDENCE

Absent a miracle, Iraqi Kurds will hold a referendum on independence on Monday 25 September. While the anticipated “YES” vote will not trigger an automatic declaration of independence, it is expected to lead to official negotiations.

Analysts suspect that Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani is focused less on Kurdish independence (which he knows in not feasible) and more on acquiring leverage to aid negotiations over revenue sharing (more money), further devolution of power (more power), and the demarcation of Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders (more land).
For more on this see: 
Kurdistan’s referendum won’t lead to independence – so why hold it?
The Conversation, 15 June 2017

If the referendum is little more than a ploy for leverage, then it remains to be seen if it will be worth the risk. Fresh talk of Kurdish independence has sent tensions soaring both inside Iraq and across the region. As Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi noted on 16 September, the Kurds are “playing with fire”. 

THE GREAT KURDISH LAND GRAB

Eager to expand its borders, the KRG aim to include “disputed territories” in the referendum; including the Nineveh Plains, Sinjar and oil-rich Kirkuk.

Nineveh Plains region (the Assyrian heartland) is marked with a Cross.

Despite pressure from Kurd and pro-Kurd authorities, virtually all Assyrians oppose the referendum and don’t want their lands included. As noted by Assyrian Democratic Movement deputy secretary-general Imad Yohanna, “Most of Iraq’s Christian community opposes a regional referendum. We reject this referendum; we don’t view it as beneficial to our people’s future. Holding a referendum in areas to which they [Assyrian Christians] have yet to return would be an injustice and an exploitation of internally displaced people.”

An Assyrian militia known as the Babylon Brigade released a statement accusing some Christian politicians of supporting the referendum for personal gain; and insisting that the referendum not be “imposed on Christians and other residents living in Nineveh Plains by means of collections of signatures obtained under intimidation”. With some 12,000 Kurdish peshmerger currently deployed across the Nineveh Plains, ostensibly to maintain order but also to reign in dissent, Assyrians have good reason to feel anxious.

Meanwhile, fearing Shi’ite power, Nineveh’s Sunni Arabs support Kurdish independence and do want to be included.

Outside of Nineveh Province, Iraq’s minority Sunnis are mostly opposed Kurdish independence, aware it would leave them more marginalised than ever.

EXPLOSIVE KIRKUK

In a move destined to destabilise the whole region, Dr. Najmaldin Karim – the Kurdish governor of oil-rich Kirkuk (which was controlled by Baghdad until Kurdish forces seized it in the chaos of August 2014) – has declared that Kirkuk will participate in the referendum.

On Tuesday 12 September, Iraq’s central government passed a resolution opposing the proposed referendum and authorising Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “take all measures” necessary to preserve the unity of Iraq.

On 14 September the Iraqi parliament voted to remove Karim from his post. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) responded by announcing it was ending its partnership with Baghdad. Karim, meanwhile, is ignoring the order to step down as governor.

Further to this, Hamdi Malik reports for Al-Monitor: “The Imam Ali Division, an armed Shiite faction in Iraq backed by Iran and very close to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, warned Sept. 3 that it will attack Kirkuk if the city is annexed to Kurdistan or to whatever independent state that might be established as a result of the referendum. The division’s spokesman, Ayoub Faleh (also known as Abu Azrael), hinted that Iran has given the unit the green light to attack Kirkuk if it decides to secede from Iraq. . .

“Hadi al-Amiri, secretary-general of the Badr Organization, an Iraqi political party close to Iran, said his group also will take up arms if Kurdish parties pursue their separatist projects. . .

“Iran,” explains Malik, “is fiercely opposed to Kurdistan’s independence projects, including the referendum, and is particularly against Kirkuk’s participation. . .

“Maysam Behravesh, an expert on international relations at Sweden’s University of Lund, told Al-Monitor by phone, ‘Given Iran’s troubled history with Kurds inside and outside of its territory, it will not tolerate a newborn Kurdish independent state, and one presumably close to its arch-foe Israel at that. . . I think if the Kurds either declare independence or take Kirkuk out of Iraqi hands, Iran will be unlikely to intervene directly to oppose or reverse these moves. Yet it will probably act by proxy and unleash its Shia paramilitary forces against the Kurdistan government.”

Kurds across region
Like Iran, Turkey also opposes the referendum on the grounds that it could embolden its own restive Kurdish minorities. In what can only be seen as a strong message to the KRG, the Turkish Armed Forces staged military exercises on 18 September, outside the town of Silopi, which sits less than 10 km from the intersection of Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq, close to the Habur border crossing with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Barin Kayaoglu surmised for Al-Monitor, that with approximately 100 tanks, armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artilleries participating in the drill, “The timing and venue of the exercises leave little doubt that Ankara is displeased with the Sept. 25 independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Turkish pro-government media has been spreading the unsubstantiated rumour (fake news) that Israel – the only state in the region to support Kurdish independence – plans to resettle some 200,000 Jewish Israelis of Kurdish origin into Iraqi Kurdistan should it become independent. The Israeli Embassy in Ankara had to be evacuated on Friday 15 September as supporters of an ultra-nationalist party demonstrated outside against the alleged Zionist plot to create a “second Israel” in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish US is opposed to the referendum on the grounds that it will weaken Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to the benefit of Iran ahead of the April 2018 general elections.

Many Kurds too are opposed to the referendum, primarily because they sense this is simply not the right time for such a provocative move.

While lamenting Iraq’s deep wounds, Juliana Taimoorazy, head of the Illinois-based Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC), echo that concern: “This is not the time for a referendum. Most of our [Assyrian] people in Iraq and in the Diaspora want Iraq to stay intact . . . We are worried, if this goes through, we will be subjected again to another war that will be by Turkey or Iran attacking the Kurds.’

HEAVY DIPLOMACY

The seriousness of the situation is reflected in the frantic efforts underway to try and convince KRG President Massoud Barzani to cancel or indefinitely postpone the referendum. To that end, Barzani has received visits from Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT); Qasem Soleimani, chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force; and Brett McGurk, the US special anti-IS envoy, who was accompanied by US Ambassador Douglas Silliman.

Soleimani reportedly threatened senior Kurdish officials, saying: “Until now, we have held back the [Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)] from attacking, but I will not bother to do that anymore. Just look at Mandali and what happened there. That is the beginning."  Al-Monitor explains that Soleimani was referring to an incident on 11 September, in which a group of over a hundred Iranian-backed Iraqi militia fighters arrived in the disputed sub-district of Mandali in Diyala province, 100 km northeast of Baghdad, and forced the Kurdish head of the town’s council out of his job and announced that the town will not be included in the Kurdistan referendum.

However, it has all been to no avail. On Sunday 17 September, the KRG’s High Referendum Council, headed by Barzani, voted to reject the US-backed alternative and press ahead with the 25 September referendum on independence as planned.

ASSYRIAN LEADER APPEALS FOR COURAGEOUS DIALOGUE

Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako has issued an urgent appeal, calling on Erbil and Baghdad to “resume dialogue with courage”.

He laments that “some have already started playing the war drums,” noting, “If there were a new military conflict, the consequences would be disastrous for everyone, and minorities would always be the ones to pay a high price . . .

"Everyone,” he said, “should be aware of the seriousness of the situation and hurry to support national reconciliation and peace before it is too late.”


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Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com