With the fall of Raqqa in Syria four months after Mosul in Iraq, the Islamic State’s dream of a caliphate seems to have slipped through their fingers, leaving behind it a wake of smoking ruins. But is peace really on the cards for the Christians of the Nineveh Plains?
The Nineveh Plains are located to the northeast of the city of Mosul: 3000 Christian families have returned in the past few months, after the country was liberated from the yoke of Daesh. But the situation is anything but stable. A Shia minority, the Shabaks, who live in 35 of the region’s villages and who also suffered from the oppression of the Sunni caliphate, are now determined to expand their territory at the expense of the Christians.
These Shabaks can count on the support of the army of Bagdad, Iran, and the paramilitary Hachd al-Chaabi militias that are mostly Shia.
A Christian militia called the Babylon Brigades was formed in 2014, and up until now, they had fought with the Shia Hachd al-Chaabi group sagainst their common enemy, the Islamic State.
It did not take the Chaldean Catholic patriarch Louis-Raphaël Sako long to distance himself from the Babylon Brigades who pretended to protect the local Christian communities while partaking in an unnatural coalition with the Shia militia.
A few weeks ago, the referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan made the situation even more unstable. This question is a source of profound division in the Catholic community, explained Xavier Sarte on Vatican Radio on September 26, 2017. While some Christians have always lived in Kurdistan, others took refuge there after the Nineveh Plains were taken over in 2014 by the Islamists. The campaign for independence was supported by those who depend on the help and protection of the Kurd government.
In October of 2017, in the name of the newly declared independence, the Kurd Peshmerga arrested the head of the Babylon Brigades, Ryan, known as “the Chaldean,” who was strongly opposed to a division of the Nineveh Plains. The armed Christian groups reacted, with the support of Bagdad, by ordering the Kurd militias to abandon all zones in the Plains under their control. This order met with a flat refusal at first.
But the situation has evolved since the Iraqi troops regained control of the province of Kirkuk, the Yazidi mountain of Sinjar, and even Makhmur, that had been “Kurd since 1991”, as Jeremy André reported in the columns of La Croix. The Peshmerga retreated before they arrived.
Why this sudden about-face? The struggles for influence among the Kurd leaders. But their retreat is likely to be only temporary, until one leader wins out and rallies all the Peshmerga to him.
Although they have only just returned home, the Christians who left the Mosul region fear seeing the Nineveh Plains once again transformed into a battlefield between the Babylon Brigades, and the other “units of popular mobilization” (Hachd al-Chaabi), most of whom are Shia and who all participated in the military operations against the Islamic State jihadists. The noose around this region seems determined not to loosen!