Iraqi Prime Minister Orders Changes to Security in the Nineveh Plain


Soldiers from the Babylon Brigades (PMU Brigade 50). Photo: Rian Chaldean

On August 2, 2018, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the full integration of specified units of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), commonly referred to as the Hashd al-Shaabi, into the Iraqi Army.


The statement, issued by PMU Deputy Chairman, reads:


“Local PMU forces including Brigade 30 of Shabaks [Liwa al-Shabak], Brigade 50 of Christians [Babylon Brigades], Brigade 53 of Turkmen [Liwa al-Hussein], and the Yazidi Brigade will be absorbed into the Nineveh Command (Iraqi Army), administratively and operationally, with sufficient reserves remaining temporarily [during the transition]. The Directorate of Administration and Finance must immediately transfer all names under the Leadership of Nineveh Operations, administratively and financially.” Read the full order here.


These units have developed a presence in the Nineveh Plain since its liberation in 2017.


The Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), a force comprised exclusively of local Assyrians, remains active as it has been formally authorized under Iraqi Security Forces (Nineveh Liberation Operations Command) since March 2016. The NPU will continue to operate in the southern Nineveh Plain, managing security in towns like Bakhdida (Qaraqosh), Karamlesh, and Bartella. Although the NPU was nominally established through the PMU, it has consistently operated independently of PMU leadership. The NPU fought alongside U.S.-led coalition forces in the liberation of the Nineveh Plain, but has since transitioned into a local security force working alongside Iraqi Police with bases in Bakhdida and Alqosh.


The Prime Minister’s decision to disband the various militias operating in the Nineveh Plain and unify them as part of the Iraqi Army is welcomed by local residents who returned post-ISIS but continue to express concerns about the unstable security situation. Despite the liberation of the Nineveh Plain from ISIS in the early months of 2017, which the PMU was an integral part of, local residents have yet to feel at ease with the security situation. Assyrian representatives feel this is a positive step towards stabilizing the security situation and restoring public trust in the Iraqi Army.


The Babylon Brigades, although presented ostensibly as a Christian force, is comprised of nonlocal Shia Arabs and Shabaks and is supported by the Iran-backed Badr Organization. The Babylon Brigades entered the Nineveh Plain after its liberation and operated in Tel Keppe and Bashiqa (the latter following the 2017 Kirkuk Operation). The presence of the Babylon Brigades in Tel Keppe has prevented the return of its Assyrian inhabitants.


Another force of particular concern was the Shabak Brigade 30 [Liwa al-Shabak], comprised of both local and nonlocal individuals with ties to Iran. Brigade 30 is also affiliated with the Badr Organization which had begun to develop a presence in parts of the southern Nineveh Plain. The rapidly expanding force asserted its control over Assyrian-majority towns over the past year. Residents complained about new Islamic symbols and constant harassment from Brigade 30 soldiers who were reported to be pressuring locals to convert to Islam. Assyrian women frequently reported incidents of sexual harassment particularly at checkpoints controlled by Brigade 30. Their growing presence in the towns prevented many Assyrian families from returning home.


The Nineveh Plain Defense Fund (NPDF), a US-based nonprofit affiliated with the NPU, issued a statement on August 12, 2018 in response to the Prime Minister's order:


“Throughout the operation to liberate Nineveh from the Islamic State and now into this post-conflict and restablization period, the NPU has been and remains the only Assyrian security force authorized to operate in the Nineveh Plain. Our continued presence in the Nineveh Plain is a testament to the trust of both local residents and federal authorities.”

A soldier from the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) on patrol. Photo: Nineveh Plain Protection Units

According to the NPDF website, the NPU was established to “ensure the long-term safety of these Assyrian lands for resettlement and repatriation of Assyrians to the Nineveh Plain.”

Local residents are hopeful that the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) party-political militia, the Peshmerga, will also be transitioned out of the Nineveh Plain and that the KRG will return to its constitutional borders. Prior to the advent of ISIS, the Peshmerga and its affiliated forces controlled security in the Nineveh Plain. Between July and August 2014, the Peshmerga systematically disarmed the local populations, threatening consequences for those who failed to turn over their weapons. As the threat of ISIS loomed, the Peshmerga gave assurances to local leaders and residents that they would defend the Nineveh Plain. However, as ISIS approached, the Peshmerga withdrew, acting on official orders, without notifying the local population. This effectively abandoned these vulnerable communities to genocide.


After participating in its liberation, the Peshmerga and Asayish, the Kurdish political police, continue to operate in the northern parts of the Nineveh Plain in Assyrian towns with no Kurdish demographic like Alqosh and Tesqopa (Teleskof). Over the course of the past year, KRG security forces have increased restrictions on the Assyrian community in the areas in which they maintain a presence, particularly on their rights to free speech and assembly. Residents have also reported scores of arbitrary detentions of Assyrian residents. KRG security forces have also blocked independent NGOs, both Assyrian and American, from accessing towns under their control.


The continued Asayish presence in Alqosh has prevented the return of the town’s mayor, Faiez Abed Jahwareh, who was formally reinstated in April 2018 after being ousted by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in July 2017. Last month, Jahwareh was detained and beaten by the KDP Asayish.


Local residents continue to stress a desire for Assyrian-led security. A resident of Alqosh interviewed by the API said, “How can we trust the Peshmerga after they abandoned us to [ISIS]? We want our own people to protect our towns. Why is that so much to ask for, after everything that has happened to us? We don’t want Kurdish forces or Arab forces. Neither of them care about whether or not we survive.”


The NPU’s long-term goal is to provide security for the creation of a Nineveh Plain Province separate of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and equal to other Iraqi provinces administered by the Federal Government. According to the NPU, “We believe that only through a separate Nineveh Plain Province independent of the KRG may Assyrians realize their potential as free and equal citizens of Iraq.”


The Nineveh Plain is a region in Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate located northeast of the city of Mosul. The area is considered the ancient Assyrian heartland. It borders the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and is officially, though not entirely in practice, under the administration of the Federal Government in Baghdad. It is the only region in Iraq where the largest demographic group is Christian. Before the Islamic State (ISIS), invaded Nineveh, Assyrians made up 40% of its population. Since 2003, the Nineveh Plain has been the area in which an effort to form an administrative entity has become concentrated.


Assyrians have long called for the establishment of a self-governed province in the Nineveh Plain under federal jurisdiction—administered and secured by local residents. In January 2014, the Iraqi Council of Ministers authorized the creation of such a province, but after the onslaught of ISIS, it has not materialized.

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