A proposal calling for the creation of new settlements in the Nineveh Plain has alarmed members of the local Assyrian community who fear demographic change in the region. Plans for the “new cities” were put forward by the Nineveh Governorate General Directorate of Urban Planning and include the seizure of agricultural lands belonging to Assyrians in Hamdaniya District to be utilized for the creation of hundreds of new residential units.
Historically, Hamdaniya District has been dominated by three mid-sized Assyrian towns—Bakhdida (Qaraqosh), Bartella, and Karamlesh—surrounded by smaller Shabak villages. However, recent decades have seen the local demographics shifting, owing to Saddam’s Arabization campaigns, post-2003 interventions from U.S. forces, and more recently, the instability post-ISIS.
The Nineveh Plain was emptied as a result of the ISIS onslaught in 2014. Various actors have attempted to use the post-ISIS instability to seize a greater claim over territory in the Nineveh Plain. Nearly fifty percent of its previous Assyrian population has returned since its liberation, but post-2014 shifts signal ongoing demographic change in the area.
The areas outlined in the proposal are currently controlled by Popular Mobilization Units Brigade 30, a Shabak-majority force that operates under the command of the Iran-backed Badr Organization.
The December 2018 proposal is ostensibly aimed at advancing the repopulation of Hamdaniya District and making use of abandoned properties, but locals are frustrated by the government’s apparent prioritization of the construction of new settlements over creating the conditions that would enable the safe and dignified return of its displaced Assyrian population.
In this sense, the proposal is representative of an overarching problem: Iraq remains unconcerned with the fate of its Assyrian population.
Plans for the new city reportedly specify that a proportion of the new homes will be reserved for Christian populations, but community leaders feel the Directorate’s proposal has been engineered to advance demographic change and are advocating against its approval.
Article 23 of the Iraqi Constitution prohibits the distribution of property "for the purposes of population change." Further, a July 2013 ruling issued by the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq set the precedent that would designate the distribution of lands in the Nineveh Plain as demographic change.
Speaking to the Assyrian Policy Institute by phone, an Assyrian resident of Bakhdida stated, “The proposed new villages are not meant for our community. If that was their motivation, they would simply focus on rebuilding our villages.”
Assyrians have long called for the establishment of a self-governed province in the Nineveh Plain under federal jurisdiction in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution. In January 2014, the Iraqi Council of Ministers authorized the creation of a Nineveh Plain Province, but following the onslaught of ISIS, it has not materialized. The Nineveh Plain is the only remaining region in Iraq where the largest demographic group is Assyrian.