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Letter Signed by 59 Iraqi MPs Alarms Assyrians in the Nineveh Plain

Christmas mass held at Mar Giwargis Church in Bartella, Iraq.

The Assyrian Policy Institute has obtained a letter dated December 22, 2018 signed by Shabak MP Qusay Abbas Mohammed which calls for the distribution of public lands in Hamdaniya District in the Nineveh Plain to Shabak families. The letter was signed by an additional 58 members of parliament and has alarmed members of the local Assyrian community who fear demographic change in the region.

The Shabak people are an ethno-religious minority group primarily concentrated in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. Most Shabaks regard themselves as Shia Muslims and speak Shabaki, a northwestern Iranian language. Shabaks in Iraq were victims to many incidents of large-scale violence post-2003, and like other minority groups in the country, suffered from the ISIS advance into Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in 2014.

MP Abbas Mohammed won the single seat reserved for the Shabak minority in the Iraqi Parliament as part of a Badr Organization affiliate in the May 2018 elections. The Iranian-backed Badr Organization also successfully mobilized tens of thousands of Muslim voters to influence the results of the elections for Christian representatives—read our new report on the May 2018 elections here.

Hamdaniya District includes important Assyrian cities like Bakhdida (Qaraqosh), Bartella, and Karamlesh. Local residents have long feared demographic change in the Nineveh Plain, an area that represents the last remaining Christian Assyrian stronghold in Iraq.

Abbas Mohammed’s letter states:

On behalf of the citizens of the Nineveh Plain (Al-Hamdaniya District and Bartella town and its surroundings), I demand that you do justice to the families of martyrs and employees who are covered by the land distribution in accordance with the law of the Ministry of Municipalities and distribute lands according to birthplace.

Since 2003 until this day, and among all Iraqis, the aforementioned segments have not been granted any lands under the pretext that the distribution of this land would lead to demographic changes in the region, despite the fact that those citizens were born in these administrative units.

We call upon this Honorable Council to discuss this important topic in its upcoming session to bring justice to this vulnerable group, and issue a binding directive to the Ministry of Municipalities to start distributing these lands or find alternative solutions; such as excluding the birthplace requirement or offering monetary compensation in lieu of the lands or other forms of compensation.

Article 128 of the Iraqi Constitution guarantees “compensation to the families of martyrs and those injured due to terrorist acts.” However, Assyrian leaders have rejected Abbas Mohammed’s demands, pointing to Article 23 which prohibits the distribution of property “for the purposes of population change.” A subsequent 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.

Abbas Mohammed also called for the distribution of lands in the Nineveh Plain to Shabak families in a previous letter dated November 5, 2018.

Former Iraqi Assyrian MP Imad Youkhanna, now adviser to Speaker Al-Halbousi, rejected the demands, writing, "While we support the rights of all components of the Iraqi people in all regions, this cannot come at the expense of the historical lands of our people, which have been confiscated by previous and current governments under the pretext of public use. We will stand against these measures until we find solutions satisfactory to all groups."

There has been an ongoing effort by Shabak groups for more than a decade advocating for the distribution of lands in the Nineveh Plain as a form of compensation, but it has consistently been blocked. Assyrian representatives have pushed for the establishment of sub-districts in Shabak-majority areas which they would have the rights to administer.

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 demographics shifting.

In the 1980s, as part of Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policy, Arab tribes and officers were given swathes of land in Hamdaniya District, and Shabaks in the area were encouraged to register as Arabs in exchange for plots of land.

Demographic changes in the Nineveh Plain continued after the fall of Saddam. In 2003, U.S. military forces assisted in resettling some 2,000 Shabak families from Mosul in and around Bartella. Between 2003 and 2009, there was a surge of Shabak community members purchasing land and homes in Assyrian cities in Hamdaniya District, particularly in Bartella and Bakhdida, which now have significant Shabak communities. Assyrian representatives and local residents suspect that these purchases were supported by Baghdad-based Shia groups driving demographic change in the region.

More recently, the Nineveh Plain was emptied as a result of the ISIS onslaught in 2014. While nearly fifty percent of its previous Assyrian population has since returned, post-2014 shifts signal ongoing demographic change in Hamdaniya District. Many local Assyrians fear that the Shabak community is using the post-ISIS instability to seize a greater claim over cities like Bakhdida and Bartella. The shifting demographics in Hamdaniya District have been a source of friction between Assyrians and Shabaks for more than a decade.

Prior to the ISIS attack, Bartella was predominantly an Assyrian-majority town with a population of roughly 20,000. Following the return of local populations since its liberation from the terrorist group, the number of ethnic Assyrians that have returned is less than 10,000 while the number of Shabak residents has increased. Many of the returnees are Bartella’s original Shabak population, but others are Shabak residents who previously lived in surrounding areas. Hamdania District has also seen a flood of Arab IDPs since its liberation.

An Assyrian activist from Bakhdida interviewed by the Assyrian Policy Institute stated, “Of course Shabaks have lived [in Bartella] before ISIS—but their population has increased significantly since then. We want to live peacefully alongside all Iraqis, but we fear demographic change, and the process of demographic change is already observable in Bartella.”

A man from Bartella said he has yet to start renovating his home in Bartella [which was destroyed by ISIS], choosing instead to rent a home in Bakhdida, which he says is safer for Assyrians. “I’m not going to spend everything I have left rebuilding my home only to finish and find that we [the Assyrians] are the minority [in Bartella].”

The new demographics in Bartella are illustrative of the current political and security dynamics of the Nineveh Plain. More than two years after its liberation, security in the Nineveh Plain remains divided between Iraqi security forces in the south and KRG forces in the north. Hamdaniya District is controlled by the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), a local Christian Assyrian security force formally recognized by the Iraqi Government.

However, the NPU’s authority in these towns is constrained by Shabak forces (operating primarily in Bartella), which are greater in number and organized under Brigade 30 of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), also known as al-Hashd al-Shabi. Brigade 30 is affiliated with the Shabak Democratic Assembly and operates under the leadership and command of the Badr Organization with the backing of powerful nonlocal PMU forces.

Brigade 30 has gained a reputation for perpetrating abuses and harassing local Assyrian populations. Speaking to the Assyrian Policy Institute by phone, local residents complained that they are frequently harassed at checkpoints controlled by Brigade 30 and often face religious discrimination. Multiple women interviewed reported that Assyrian women and young girls—generally when traveling without a male companion—are subjected to verbal harassment of a sexual nature and are pressured to wear hijabs.

Many residents fear that Brigade 30’s seizure of security responsibilities in the area signal an increase in power for the Badr Organization in the Nineveh Plain. There is also a widespread perception among local Assyrians that the Shabak community’s territorial expansion threatens their political interests.

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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