In the summer of 2014, the Islamic State group (ISIS) seized control of much of Iraq’s Nineveh province, including the provincial capital of Mosul. The militant group committed genocide against ethnic and religious minorities. Today, more than three years since the military defeat of ISIS in Iraq, ethnic and religious minority residents of three key districts of Nineveh say rampant unemployment, not ISIS, is their top security concern, according to data gathered by the United States Institute of Peace.
USIP established the Conflict and Stabilization Monitoring Framework (CSMF) in 2016 to gather data from Iraqis in conflict-affected areas in Nineveh. The CSMF looks at issues around governance, rule of law, safety and security, reconciliation and social cohesion and well-being. The framework’s goal is to “inform policymakers and programs, promote social cohesion and mitigate violent conflict,” said Mike Yaffe, vice president, Middle East and North Africa, at USIP. The “value-added” of the framework is that it draws on the perceptions of the local communities, added Osama Gharizi, senior program advisor on Iraq at USIP.
Discussing trends in data gathered in four rounds over the past three years — the last round was conducted in October and November of 2020 — Gharizi noted “a positive trend with regard to security” in Hamdaniya, Tal Afar and Sinjar districts in Nineveh in Iraq’s north. “In all three districts, the majority of residents have felt safer over the course of the last three years,” he said. “But that’s not to say that they still don’t have concerns about security.” Those concerns can be divided into four categories.
First, residents across the three districts worry about security arrangements that don’t necessarily reflect the composition of the communities they are supposed to protect. “In Sinjar, half of the Yazidis in the district would like to change the existing security configuration in order for them to feel safer,” said Gharizi. The situation in Sinjar is complicated by the presence of multiple security actors, which has residents worrying about clashes breaking out among these groups.
Second, there are concerns that the security actors in each of the three districts “are not working in the interests of all residents and that some are purposely targeting or marginalizing some communities,” said Gharizi.
Third, residents feel the security actors have too much influence over governance in their districts. These feelings are particularly true for the Christian community in Hamdaniya and the Turkmen community in Tal Afar.
And fourth, ISIS is no longer the main security concern. Instead, it is rampant unemployment that is at the top of people’s minds. “Across the three districts, unemployment is ranked as the biggest threat to safety by communities, more so than a resurgence of ISIS,” said Gharizi.
“The majority of residents in Sinjar and Tal Afar, and a near majority in Hamdaniya, believe residents in their communities join security actors because of economic need and necessity,” he added.
Gharizi participated in a virtual panel discussion hosted by USIP on June 17. He was joined in the discussion by Adad Youssef, chairman of the board of directors of the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities, and Negina Sawez, team lead for the Middle East and North Africa programs in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East Programs at USIP, moderated the discussion.
Sawez noted the commonalities in the issues cited by residents of Nineveh province surveyed for the CSMF and those facing residents in the rest of Iraq: unemployment, corruption and security.
Healing Old Wounds
Ethnic and religious divides in Iraq were exacerbated under ISIS, a Sunni jihadist group. In Sinjar, ISIS militants massacred thousands of Yazidi and Christian men, women and children in 2014, Yazidi girls and women were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes and forced to live in camps for the internally displaced in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, where many still remain. Similarly, in Tal Afar, ISIS militants massacred Shias, Turkmen and Yazidis, and kidnapped and raped thousands of women. UNITAD, the United Nations’ team that investigated ISIS atrocities in Iraq, found “clear and convincing evidence” of genocide against the Yazidis.
Today, communities acknowledge a need for reconciliation, but not all believe it is possible, said Gharizi. “The differences are largely related to the shifting demographics and power dynamics in the district,” he explained.
On October 9, 2020, the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government signed the Sinjar Agreement. The agreement focuses on reconciliation through administrative changes, security and reconstruction. Gharizi, however, described it as a “political” agreement that ignores the views of the community.
In March, Iraq’s parliament passed the landmark Yazidi Female Survivors Law, which recognized the atrocities committed by ISIS against the Yazidis. The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) described the passage of the law as a “watershed moment.”
Residents of all three districts ranked the crimes committed by ISIS as a top priority in discussions about reconciliation. However, a common challenge to reconciliation was identified: a lack of political will. There is a sense among ethnic and religious minority communities that their political representatives do not represent their interests and are instead beholden to larger political parties.
Hamasaeed said that while it is clear that progress has been made in the recovery of Iraq’s minority communities from the conflict with ISIS, “the work is not done.”
Noting that many Iraqis are still displaced; essential services, security and economic opportunities are lacking; and geopolitical competition within Iraq is intensifying, Hamasaeed said many of these challenges existed before ISIS took root in Iraq and have only worsened since its defeat.
The residents of Nineveh province, which abuts the border with Turkey, face another threat — Turkish airstrikes that ostensibly target Kurdish militants belonging to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Three people were killed in a Turkish airstrike on a camp housing Kurdish refugees earlier this month.
Protecting Minorities’ Rights
The Alliance of Iraqi Minorities, an alliance of civil society organizations established with support from USIP, seeks to strengthen the rights of all of Iraq’s minorities. Youssef said the alliance’s work is focused on three areas: ensuring the protection of minorities’ identity, equality and active participation, including political participation.
But these goals cannot be achieved without focusing on the broader Iraqi society, said Sawez. “If we continue to just focus in on the very small micro community level without connecting that back to these larger issues that are happening at the national level neither side will be able to succeed,” she said. “So, it’s always with the eye of being able to address both the immediate impact of what is happening to religious and ethnic components and also their place within the broader system,” she added, referring to religious and ethnic minorities.
The optimism within Iraq’s minority communities following the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime by U.S. forces in 2003 quickly gave way to the realization that their situation would remain largely unchanged. This resulted in an exodus of minorities, mainly Christians and Yazidis, from Iraq.
Youssef said it is important that the Iraqi government adopt policies that encourage minorities to remain in Iraq as part of a diverse community. He emphasized the need for quick action to close the refugee camps and return people to their homes.
Tal Afar was one of the last ISIS strongholds to be liberated. In August of 2020, civic, tribal and government leaders in Tal Afar, with support from USIP, signed a pact that paves the way for more than 60,000 displaced residents to return home to the northern city.
The international community can help by developing areas where minorities are present and putting pressure on the Iraqi government to pass laws that will protect minorities and prevent discrimination, said Youssef.
Sawez explained that the State Department’s work in Iraq is focused on two levels — that being done by U.S. diplomats, including their engagement with Iraqi officials, and channeling that effort into support for civil society organizations.
Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq in March helped focus the international community’s attention on the plight of the country’s minorities, especially its Christian community. In Mosul, the pope prayed among the remains of churches destroyed by ISIS.
A Lack of Faith in Elections
Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in Iraq on October 10. Data gathered by the CSMF finds a lack of faith in elections as a driver of positive change. Gharizi attributes this to the general dissatisfaction with political parties and leaders who are seen as having an undue and negative influence on local administrations, using sectarian narratives to mobilize political support and not working in the best interests of their communities.
As a consequence of this disenchantment, the “majority of residents in the districts cite international backing, financial resources and an armed group as the top three ways to advance their political interests,” said Gharizi, describing this mindset as “disconcerting.”
In November of 2020, Iraqi President Barham Saleh ratified a new election law that seeks to give independents a better shot at winning. But Youssef does not believe it will ensure fair representation of minorities in parliament. His alliance tried to have the law amended — to no avail. He said the next government should amend the election law to give minorities the exclusive right to choose their representatives.
The State Department is focused on getting out the vote and establishing the credibility of the elections. “Elections are only as good and only as credible as the people who participate in them,” Sawez said. After the elections is when the real work begins, she said. “That’s where you hold the former candidates, now elected officials, to their word,” she added, emphasizing the need for accountability in the governance process.