Vulnerable Iraqi Minorities Making Gains with USIP Help

Published: 
December 26, 2012
By: 
Thomas Omestad

Long marginalized by the country’s political leaders, Iraq’s small religious and ethnic minorities have made historic gains during 2012 with some critical assistance from the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP).

Long marginalized by the country’s political leaders, Iraq’s small religious and ethnic minorities have made historic gains during 2012 with some critical assistance from the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP).

In recent months, the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities (AIM), a civil society organization founded in 2010 after USIP and the Institute for International Law and Human Rights (IILHR) brought together political and civic leaders from four relatively small Iraqi minority groups, has played a pivotal role in two quite different achievements: the explicit recognition of the minority groups as indigenous Iraqis in school textbooks and a shift in infrastructure budgeting that is benefitting underdeveloped minority areas.

For the first time in Iraq’s history, school children will be able to read about their non-Arab, non-Kurd countrymen and women. And in a reversal of the neglect shown toward generally impoverished, minority-heavy areas in one Iraqi province, needed hospitals and other medical facilities will soon be built—with the prospect of other infrastructure gaps being filled over time.

“These are direct impacts. This is tangible,” said Jason Gluck, a senior program officer in USIP’s Rule of Law Center. “These sorts of projects increase the sense of belonging to the broader Iraqi nation, reduce grievances and improve the quality of life. All Iraqis benefit.”

Both in the creation of AIM and in the specific efforts that have led to the two breakthroughs, USIP has been focused on helping vulnerable minority groups in Iraq to organize themselves so they can advocate for their rights and interests with unprecedented success. “USIP played a main role in supporting the formation of the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities,” says AIM General Coordinator Raad Jabar. “USIP financial and technical support contributed to what the Alliance has achieved so far.”

USIP’s work with minorities involves four groups with deep roots in present-day Iraq. Three are religious minorities: Christians, Yazidis and Sabean-Mandeans. One is an ethnic minority that is Muslim: Shebaks. Taken together, the four groups represent less than five percent of Iraq’s population of 31 million, and their numbers have been declining. Across the whole of Iraq, 75 percent or more of people are Arabs and at least 15 percent are Kurds.

Most of the four minority groups represented in AIM are concentrated in Nineveh (map), a province of northern Iraq with a rich, multiethnic history that includes a period as the center of the ancient Assyrian Empire. In contemporary times, those minorities have been routinely neglected by Iraqi and Nineveh political figures. There was no particular tradition of cooperation among themselves, and they have faced both internal political disputes and discrimination in employment and education.


AIM steering committee meeting with Nineveh officials.

Amid Iraq’s instability and violence since 2003, they and their places of worship have also been targeted for attacks by militants. Emigration and internal displacement have put their religious and ethnic identities within Iraq at heightened risk.

The development of AIM into a strong voice and organizing hub for the country’s small minorities is beginning to reverse that marginalization. “These experiences are repositioning minorities as key players for change and development in Iraq,” said Nahla Arif, a USIP field officer based in Baghdad who has been deeply involved in the initiative. “AIM, through its projects, managed to unify the efforts of minorities to address common challenges and to open up to others to familiarize them with their existence and national identity. They have established a culture of dialogue among minority communities and other stakeholders as a means of resolving conflict, and in the process they have increased their confidence in their own abilities to improve the welfare of their communities.”

AIM has emerged “as an active civil society organization that is able to influence the making of decisions, particularly where minorities live,” said Jabar, who is a Sabean-Mandean businessman from Baghdad.

The two initial reform priorities—textbook revisions and infrastructure projects—were identified early as the minority groups were forming AIM and consulting among themselves and with USIP.

Reforming School Textbooks

Iraqi minorities typically have been ignored by Iraq’s educational system, with texts referring to the Iraqi ethnic mosaic as one of “Arabs, Kurds, and others.” The minority communities represented in AIM quickly locked on to the need to reform school curriculum to recognize and describe their cultures and contributions to Iraqi society. The minority groups also saw an opportunity to dispel some of the stereotypes and falsehoods about them still prevalent among Iraqis. If Iraqi youth were better educated about the country’s diversity, AIM representatives believed, inter-communal trust and the overall standing of these minority groups within Iraq would both improve.

Under Saddam Hussein, only Iraq’s Arabic and Islamic identities were portrayed as mainstream. After his regime was toppled in 2003, the scant representation of minorities in Iraq’s post-Saddam parliament meant that guarantees of political, cultural and educational rights were further weakened.

In late 2010, the minorities, working through AIM, approached Iraq’s Ministry of Education about the issue. AIM and USIP agreed on a two-phase project intended to produce changes to textbooks in grades five through nine in four subjects: history, geography, civics and Arabic language. The Education Ministry embraced the concept.

In the first phase, which ran from October 2011 to January 2012, AIM and outside consultants assessed the existing curricula in those subjects and presented findings and specific text-change recommendations to education officials. In the next phase, over several months, Ministry of Education curriculum writers worked with AIM to formulate the revisions. At an April 2012 workshop that included officials from the Education and Human Rights Ministries, as well as a lawmaker from the country’s parliament—the Council of Representatives—the recommendations were accepted.

In September, new textbooks were distributed that reflected many, though not all, of the revisions and additions accepted. This year’s changes expressly recognized the minorities as part of Iraq’s heritage. The Education Ministry says the rest of the changes will appear in 2013. “The changes next year will be deeper, and the efforts will continue,” said Arif. She said the AIM work with the Education Ministry revolves around the role of indigenous minorities “in building Iraqi civilization and shaping its history and that this should be reflected in school books as a step toward implanting tolerance and peaceful coexistence among future generations.” In the 2013 textbooks on Arabic language, for instance, AIM anticipates that Arabic usage will be taught not only through quotations from the Koran but also from the Bible, the Sabean holy text and sacred poems of the Yazidis and Faeli Kurds.

The Education Ministry’s collaboration with AIM will go on. “The Alliance,” said Mohammed Al Jawahiry, deputy director general of the Curriculum Department at the Education Ministry, “managed to identify the shortcomings in textbooks and supported the Ministry with rich resources about minority communities, their history, religions, and intellectual role in building the civilization of Iraq. I am expecting the cooperation will continue.”

AIM’s Jabar sees the collaboration as a hopeful sign amid Iraq’s current political tendencies. “Religious minority communities perceive the changes to school books as significant especially since they occurred at a time when Islamic religious parties are dominating the political sphere in Iraq,” he said.


Press conference AIM curriculum reform project.

Addressing Infrastructure Needs

With Nineveh home to most of Iraq’s Christian, Shebak and Yazidi communities, a change in the province’s approach to infrastructure spending in 2010 had the effect of disproportionately hurting minorities. A recently elected provincial council instituted a new way of apportioning regional development funds (which originated with the national government). That change had the effect of slashing spending for new infrastructure and services in minority-heavy areas around the province as most of those funds were redirected to the provincial capital, Mosul.

AIM members pointed to the budgeting problem as a top priority in 2011 and asked for advice from USIP on how AIM could move to correct the funding cuts and lack of basic public services. USIP decided to support the effort and arranged a meeting with the Parliamentary Minority Caucus. A new group of minority lawmakers, the Caucus was also born out of USIP’s and IILHR’s minority dialogues in 2010, and it has received ongoing technical, organizational and financial support from the Institute. AIM and the Caucus agreed to work together to seek an amendment to Iraq’s budget law to ensure a more equitable distribution of development funds throughout Nineveh, and elsewhere. They would also seek changes in laws that prevent the districts and sub-districts within Nineveh (where most minorities reside) to control financial allocations on their behalf.

The Caucus successfully lobbied other parliamentarians to require more equitable provincial spending, and the budget law was changed by Iraq’s parliament in February 2012.

The next step was for AIM, with USIP assistance, to work with Nineveh provincial officials to help realize the potential benefits of the new law. Starting in March, USIP brought together AIM members, local minority representatives and Nineveh officials to examine how those advocating for minorities could work within the Iraqi budget process to propose projects, identify infrastructure and service needs and effectively encourage national and Nineveh authorities to address those needs. USIP provided training for AIM members on Iraq’s budget process.

AIM activists visited minority-heavy areas of Nineveh to develop the priorities—the first time civil society groups had played such a role. The cooperation resulted in an agreed list of infrastructure priorities that conformed both with Nineveh and Iraqi federal requirements. Submitted to the Nineveh government in June, that list won favorable official review. The results include two 100-bed hospitals, a 50-bed hospital, a health center, an emergency medical unit, and a village water project, among other works. A health center planned for an area known as Bartilla is already under construction, and planning is proceeding on the other facilities.

The reforms are starting to overcome the perennially weak representation of minorities within the Nineveh provincial government and building their capacity to present and lobby for their unmet needs, said Arif.

The new approach to infrastructure budgeting in Nineveh is also building greater trust between minority groups, particularly between Shebak and Christians, who have been at odds as some Shebak have moved into traditionally Christian areas. Many Shebak have relocated because of the acute lack of services and poverty in their own rural areas. The prospect of greater development and public services coming to Shebak areas, however, is seen as a change that should reduce the pressures to move away over time. “The Alliance and its programs are playing a clear role in encouraging internal peace and improving security by promoting development in minority areas,” said Jabar. “The contribution of the Alliance to the stability of Nineveh Valley is obvious.”

Next year, AIM will focus on making direct minority participation a permanent part of the budget process and on attracting funds for road improvements and garbage disposal in rural areas. Nineveh officials have already created a Rural Development Unit and launched surveys in anticipation of the coming infrastructure work. AIM was asked by the Nineveh government to expand its efforts to non-minority areas, and the success of AIM’s role on the budget process suggests that such participation may well be applicable throughout Iraq. On the national level, AIM intends to monitor the development of the 2013 budget law—to ensure that the successful reforms of 2012 are carried forward.

USIP plans to continue supporting both AIM and the Parliamentary Minority Caucus. “By bringing minorities together and supporting them to cooperate on common and universal goals, USIP has empowered these communities to help themselves,” said Gluck. “It has helped create institutions that are self-sustaining and truly Iraqi-owned."

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