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Iraqi Christians take up arms to regain lost land

Iraq’s Christians are taking up arms to reclaim land now controlled by the Islamic State, but some worry their efforts could worsen the sectarian divide and further complicate the struggle against the terror group.
An Iraqi Christian fighter, a member of Babylon Christian Battalion, stands guard near the site of car bomb attack in Baghdad, May 5, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

BAGHDAD — Christians formed armed units to regain land lost when the Ninevah Plains were invaded by the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014. Though the Yazidi and Christian minorities of the plains distrust the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), this step was still unexpected of a peaceful group. However, the Christians' actions fit in with the prevailing atmosphere: Everyone in Iraq is now armed.

Since early this year, Christians who were displaced from Ninevah to the Kurdish areas have formed militias in affiliation with the KRG's Ministry of Peshmerga, while other Christian groups from different Iraqi areas are under the management of the state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Units.

Christians are no longer following a policy of noninvolvement in ethnic conflicts and armed clashes. They now are considering various options without excluding the idea of cooperation with the federal government and the KRG.

The Christians are well-aware that others, whether Arabs or Kurds, have goals for the lands that are not necessarily aligned with their interests.

Iraqi Christian Zafer Nouh, editor of Al-Fikr al-Masihi magazine, told Al-Monitor, “Our regions in the Ninevah Plains are considered part of the disputed lands between the federal government and the KRG. The Kurds see them as Kurdish regions that have to be annexed onto the KRG map, while the federal government believes they are under its administrative control, even if they are practically under Kurdish influence.”

By forming armed groups, Christians could be seeking to create a special status and participate in the conflict raging between the two major groups over the division of Iraq.

In this regard, Yaacoub Korkees, an Assyrian member of the Iraqi Parliament, said in May, “If they want to divide this country into Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite states, then we will call for a fourth state, that is a Christian state.”

Forming these forces could pave the way for hundreds of Assyrian Christians from abroad to join their brethren fighting in Iraq for the Ninevah Plains. Christians in the diaspora might also consider creating a Christians-only region in the plains, an idea that Christian organizations abroad support.

In this context, Christian armed units have several options. They may form:

  • under the peshmerga to fight for certain regions that would then be under KRG control,
  • under the federal government’s control for the same purpose and establish their own governorate in the Ninevah Plains, or
  • push for their region’s independence under international management or with guarantees by the international community to protect their independent status.

All those avenues would be difficult to pursue, which explains the deep-rooted internal conflict between Christian political movements and Christian religious leaders in Iraq.

“The Iraqi Christians have the absolute right to self-defense,” Patriarch Louis Sako, head of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, told Al-Monitor. “However, protection should be provided by the state that is responsible for protecting and defending all its citizens. As for establishing militias based on ethnic and religious affiliations, this would destroy the country.”

Sako’s fears seem justified. Forming militias could deepen sectarianism and escalate the conflict in the absence of the state. The conflict then would become a powerful card in the hands of terrorist Islamic groups that want to revive the Crusades.

The patriarch’s statements came in response to the KRG’s support for arming Christian volunteers in special fighting units under the Ministry of Peshmerga’s control and for forming Christian forces under the management of the Popular Mobilization Units.

The Ministry Peshmerga began supporting the formation of the Christian Ninevah Plain Force after the Bet-Nahrain National Union and Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party announced Jan. 6 that the militia would be aligned with concerned KRG authorities.

Another Christian movement in Iraq called the Babylon Brigades confirmed July 3 that dozens of Christian volunteers were training under the supervision of the Popular Mobilization Units to regain lands in the Ninevah Plains and the city of Mosul from IS control.

Today, the Babylon Brigades is considered one of the Popular Mobilization Units. The brigade includes 500 fighters and represents the military wing of the general Christian movement in Iraq. Rayan al-Kaldani, the Babylon Brigades' secretary-general, said in June, “The main reason for forming our forces is to liberate Mosul. However, we have participated in operations to liberate Tikrit, and in other operations in Beiji in Salahuddin province.”

It is difficult to unite these forces to operate under one banner, independent from the political movements’ exploitation of the Kurdish and Arab groups, especially with IS in the region. They are paving the way for future internal Christian conflicts by the absence of a unified leadership for these forces, their lack of an agreement over objectives, the nature of the forces and the work that would be needed if they regain the Ninevah Plains from IS control as well as the resulting struggle with other Iraqi interests for influence over the disputed lands.

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