A longstanding territorial conflict in northern Iraq between the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, mostly invisible to the outside world, threatens to erupt again. It risks creating another full-blown human rights catastrophe for the small minority communities who have lived there throughout the ages.
At issue is the status of the disputed territories immediately south of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) region. Previous Iraqi governments “arabized” this large area of northern Iraq, expelling hundreds of thousands of Kurds and other minorities from their homes and replacing them with ethnic Arabs. After more than three decades of forced expulsions, and in the aftermath of the overthrow of the government of Saddam Hussein, an emboldened KRG leadership insists it is entitled to claim this land as part of the territory that Kurds have historically lived in, which stretches from the western villages of Sinjar near the Syrian border all the way to Khanaqin near the Iranian border in the east.
While Kurds and Arabs alike have claimed these contested lands, the reality on the ground differs from the ethnically exclusive narratives portrayed by their leaders. The disputed territories are historically one of the most ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse regions of Iraq, and have for centuries been inhabited by Turkmens, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, and other minorities, as well as Kurds and Arabs.
Iraq’s Kurds deserve redress for the crimes committed against them by successive Iraqi governments, including genocide and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. The victims of Saddam Hussein’s arabization campaign deserve to be able to return to, and rebuild, their historic communities. But the issue of redress for past wrongs should be separate from the current struggle for political control over the disputed territories, and does not justify exclusive control of the region by one ethnic group. The competing efforts to resolve deep disputes over the future of northern Iraq have left the minority communities who live there in a precarious position, bearing the brunt of the conflict and coming under intense pressure to declare their loyalty to one side or the other, or face the consequences. They have been victimized by Kurdish authorities’ heavy handed tactics, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, and intimidation, directed at anyone resistant to Kurdish expansionist plans. The Kurdish push into the area has created an opening for Sunni Arab extremists, who continue their campaign of killing minorities, especially religious minorities.
Conflict in the North
After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kurdish authorities, close allies of the US-led coalition forces, seized, with the blessing of the United States, effective control of much of the disputed area south of the Green Line—the de facto boundary that had separated the Kurdistan region from the rest of Iraq after 1991. As Kurdish forces (known as peshmerga) moved south in tandem with US and coalition troops, thousands of Arab beneficiaries of the “arabization” campaign, many of whom had lived in the area for up to three decades, quickly fled northern Iraq. Many of them remain displaced.
By 2006, a vicious conflict between Shia and Sunni Arabs engulfed central and southern Iraq. While violent sectarianism raged, the Kurdish leadership quietly consolidated its military and political hold on the disputed territories in northern Iraq, moving its security forces into the area while building Kurdish political and administrative structures to control it. In 2009 the sectarian conflict has quieted, and Arab politicians of both sects have woken up to the reality that while they fought each other, the Kurdish leadership had established itself in control over much of the disputed territories. Fears that the KRG will annex these lands now unite Sunni and Shia Arabs in the central government against this perceived common threat.
The six-year US-led occupation of Iraq failed to resolve the tensions over the disputed territories in northern Iraq, or to provide redress for the victims of the arabization policies. The US-led coalition paid scant attention to the tensions there, and a drawn-out UN mediation effort has done little to bridge the gap between Arabs and Kurds. Many of the impoverished, mostly Kurdish, victims of the arabization policies have not been able to return to their historic homes, providing a powerful rallying cry for Kurdish grievances. With a full US withdrawal from Iraq accelerating under the Obama administration, tensions long ignored by the United States threaten to blow up into full-scale conflict, destabilizing Iraq once again.
For its part, the KRG is adamantly demanding implementation of a constitutionally-mandated referendum on the future of the disputed territories—a referendum that Kurdish officials, with their political and security presence in the area, will make every effort to ensure goes their way. The stakes are considerable: Iraq’s central government stands to lose to the KRG direct control of about 10 per cent of the entire territory of Iraq, and this would close to double the territorial size of semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. What lies under these lands also makes them lucrative: more than half of Iraq’s large oil reserves are located in northern Iraq, much of them in this disputed area, and they contain the highest-quality oil in the country. The establishment of an enlarged autonomous Kurdistan with access to oil fields worries neighboring Turkey, Syria, and Iran, themselves home to large Kurdish populations with nationalist aspirations.
The Battle for Nineveh
While most of the international attention over the conflict between Kurds and Arabs in the disputed territories has focused on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, one of the main battlefronts in this conflict is Nineveh, Iraq’s second most populous province with a unique concentration of historic minority groups. Although Nineveh is constitutionally under the jurisdiction of Iraq’s central government, Kurdish authorities have been reshaping the reality in Nineveh province, whose ethnically mixed communities lie mainly just north and east of the provincial capital, Mosul, in an area known as the Nineveh Plains. A drive in the vicinity of Mosul through the Nineveh Plains reveals how pervasive the Kurdish military and political presence has become: Security offices and checkpoints manned by well-armed Kurdish peshmerga have proliferated across the landscape, securing village after village; the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two main parties of the Kurdish semiautonomous government, has offices in even the smallest towns (and many towns and villages also have offices of the second Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). The Kurdish flag flutters in the wind from rooftops, while the flag of the central Iraqi state is nowhere to be seen.
Kurdish authorities in Nineveh have faced stiff resistance from local Sunni Arabs and minority communities nervous about the new hegemony from the north. Accustomed to positions of privilege and power under previous governments, many Sunni Arabs chose not to engage in the political process after the fall of Saddam Hussein, opting instead to join or back the insurgency, or to remain on the sidelines. By default, Kurds dominated Nineveh’s provincial assembly after elections in 2005, giving them almost exclusive political as well as military dominance in this province in which they are a minority. These Kurdish gains further alienated Sunni Arabs, turning Mosul into a hotbed of the Iraqi insurgency.
Extremist elements among the insurgents have viciously attacked the Chaldo-Assyrian, Yazidi, and Shabak communities, labeling them crusaders, devil-worshipers, and infidels, respectively. Simultaneous truck bombings in Nineveh in August 2007, presumably by armed Islamists, killed more than 300 Yazidis and wounded more than 700 in the single worst attack against civilians since the start of the war. In late 2008 a systematic and orchestrated campaign of targeted killings and violence by insurgents left 40 Chaldo-Assyrians dead and more than 12,000 displaced from their homes in Mosul.
The January 2009 provincial elections shook up power arrangements in the province again, with a nationalist Sunni party, al-Hadba, routing the Kurdish coalition (Nineveh Fraternal List) after campaigning on an anti-KRG platform. Since the elections, the Fraternal List has boycotted Nineveh’s provincial council after al-Hadba froze the Kurdish coalition out of all senior positions in the new administration.
Nineveh’s Embattled Minorities
None of these developments bode well for members of the minority communities who find themselves caught between two larger ethnic rivals with decades of animosity between them. Many of these minorities—weary after generations of subjugation at the hands of Arabs—now fear being subjugated by the Kurds, who ironically share a common history of oppression by previous Iraqi governments.
To consolidate their grip on Nineveh and to facilitate its incorporation into the Kurdistan Region, Kurdish authorities have embarked on a two-pronged strategy: they have offered minorities inducements while simultaneously wielding repression in order to keep them in tow. The goal of these tactics is to push Shabak and Yazidi communities to identify as ethnic Kurds, and for Christians to abide by the Kurdish government’s plan of securing a Kurdish victory in any referendum concerning the future of the disputed territories. Kurdish authorities have tried to win favor with the minority communities by spending millions of Iraqi dinars to build a pro-Kurdish system of patronage in minority communities, financing alternative civil society organizations to compete with, undermine, and challenge the authority of established groups, many of which oppose Kurdish rule. The KRG also funds private militias created ostensibly to protect minority communities from outside violence, but which in reality serve to entrench Kurdish influence. Finally, the Kurdish leadership has enriched the coffers of some minority religious leaders, and paid for expensive new places of worship in order to win over minority religious establishments.
This policy exacerbated rifts within each community. Many have welcomed the cash influx—the disputed territories of Nineveh comprise one of Iraq’s poorest, most ignored, and most undeveloped areas, lacking many basic services and job prospects; for many impoverished families in northern Iraq, Kurdish patronage is often the only support available to families.
At the same time, Kurdish authorities have resorted to harsh tactics in response to dissidents in these minority communities who challenge KRG control. Kurdish forces have mostly relied on intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests, and detentions to coerce the support of minority communities for the KRG plan regarding the disputed territories. In some extreme cases, Human Rights Watch found, they resorted to violence, including torture. These threats, coupled with the financial support, have so far kept many minorities compliant, according to minority community members who spoke with Human Rights Watch. KRG officials, for their part, have adamantly denied allegations that they have been responsible for acts of intimidation and violence, blaming the problem entirely on Sunni Arab extremist groups.
Some minority representatives and Arab officials have also claimed Kurdish authorities were directly involved or complicit in the mass bombing attacks against Nineveh’s minorities and the 2008 campaign that saw about 40 Christians killed during a roughly three-week period. Human Rights Watch did not find any evidence linking Kurdish authorities to these spectacular and brutal attacks. The perpetrators may instead have been Sunni Arab extremist groups, which appear to have escalated their attacks in August 2009 with renewed bombings against Shabaks and Yazidis.
The situation in Nineveh and other disputed territories over control of land hovers at the edge of open conflict. Kurdish officials demand the incorporation of these lands into the semiautonomous Kurdish region through a referendum, while Sunni Arabs and Iraq’s central government insist that Kurdish security forces withdraw from what they consider Iraqi lands. Most Kurdish and Arabic politicians refuse to even consider the idea of sharing power in Nineveh. But the disputed Nineveh Plains are neither fully Kurdish nor fully Arab: they are richly multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious, and any solution to the future of this territory should recognize that diversity and the right of individuals to live in security and dignity, including choosing their identity and which language, religion, and culture they will choose to practice.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Kurdistan Regional Government to initiate independent and impartial investigations of individuals, including Kurdish security forces, alleged to be responsible for carrying out killings, beatings, and torture against minorities. The KRG should also immediately cease arbitrarily detaining minority activists and cease repression of political and civil society organizations that oppose Kurdish policies in the disputed territories. The Iraqi government at all levels, including regional and local administrations, should protect minorities, and the central government should also create an independent inquiry to determine responsibility for the orchestrated campaign of targeted killings that left 40 Chaldo-Assyrian Christians dead and another 12,000 displaced. The United States should press the KRG and government of Iraq to investigate allegations of human rights abuses of minorities by Kurdish and Arab officials.
The report is based on a three-week fact-finding mission in the northern Iraqi cities of Arbil, Sulaymaniyah, and the towns or villages of Qaraqosh, Tal Usquf, al-Qosh, Bashiqa, and Bartalah in February and March 2009 to investigate abuses against minority groups in the disputed territories of the Nineveh Plains. For security reasons Human Rights Watch did not visit the cities of Mosul or Sinjar.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 57 men and women of the Chaldo-Assyrian, Yazidi, and Shabak communities, both privately and in group settings. Interviews were conducted mainly in Arabic, with a translator, persons having been identified for interview largely with the assistance of Iraqi and international nongovernmental organizations serving minority groups. In addition, Human Rights Watch conducted follow-up telephone interviews and consulted official documents provided by minority representatives. All of these interviewees were informed of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and the ways in which the data would be collected and used, and verbally consented to be interviewed. The names and other identifying information of many of them have been withheld in the interests of their personal security.
The report also draws on meetings in Arbil with senior Kurdish officials, including Khasro Goran, the former deputy governor of Nineveh; Karim Sinjari, KRG minister of interior; Adnan Mufti, speaker of the KRG parliament; Yusif Muhammad Aziz, KRG minister for human rights; Muhammad Ihsan, the KRG minister for extra-regional affairs and representative of Kurdistan region in the Article 140 Implementation Committee; and Sadi Ahmed Pire, head of public relations for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Those meetings provided the opportunity for the Kurdistan Regional Government to respond to Human Rights Watch’s preliminary findings, and their views are reflected in this report. Human Rights Watch also interviewed Nineveh Provincial Council elected representatives Qusay Abbass and Khudeda Khalef Edoo, who in the 2009 provincial elections won the Shabak and Yazidi minority quota seats, respectively.
Map: Disputed Territories Claimed by the Kurdistan Regional Government