Safe Return

Iraq’s Assyrian Christians’ struggle to secure political rights

Interview with Yacoob Yaco, the deputy secretary general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement.

This is the first of a series of interviews we had with representatives of various minority communities in Ninewa that will be published in the following weeks.

In July, EPIC traveled to Iraq and visited Erbil and Ninewa provinces as part of our work on Safe Return, a USAID project designed to enable the safe and sustainable return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their homes in Ninewa. While in Erbil, we had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. Yacoob Yaco, the Deputy Secretary General of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) and a former member of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s parliament (2013-2018). We sat down with Yacoob at the ADM office in Ankawa, Erbil’s predominantly Christian district, to talk about the concerns and aspirations of his community. Here’s our conversation with him, edited for clarity and length.

The ADM Ankawa office, Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, on July 9, 2019.

EPIC: Tell us a little bit about the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM).

Yacoob Yaco: The ADM was founded in 1979. We are Iraq’s main Assyrian political party. Many party members were jailed and executed between 1983 and 1985 at Abu Ghraib prison. Others were killed in combat in the resistance. We didn’t kneel to Saddam, and we continue to apply political pressure now.

From your perspective, what are the main problems facing minority communities in Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI)?
From our perspective, all of Iraq’s components should have a voice in the political process. Right now, Iraq’s minorities face under-representation both here in Erbil and in Baghdad’s parliament. The larger ruling parties recruit members of minority groups but those recruits are not representing the interests of their group. Powerful parties [in Baghdad and Erbil] have also interfered in the election of minorities’ representatives to impose their own puppets, who represent them and not the minority community in question.

Iraq’s electoral system assigns a small number of protected parliamentary seats to minority communities to ensure their voices are heard on the political stage.

Can you elaborate on how this works?
The major parties do this by directing their members to vote for the candidate they select to take over the minority quota seats. In the KRG parliament, there are five seats set aside for Christians [out of a 111]. The KDP took four of those seats through the votes of Peshmerga and security forces. The KDP takes advantage of special voting, and can send two to three Peshmerga brigades to vote for a certain candidate to capture the quota seats.

The KRG Minister of Transport and Communications in the new cabinet is Ano Abdoka, a Christian who leads the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) branch office in Ankawa. We face the same problem in Baghdad. The Badr organization took over three seats using Rayan Kildani. Out of 33,000 votes for Rayan, only 3,000 came from Christians. The rest came from non-Christians.

Rayan al-Kildani is the leader of the Babylon Brigade (aka the 50th Brigade), a nominally Christian militia of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that is close to the Badr Organization. In late July of this year, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Rayan over human rights abuses and corruption.

Have you tried addressing this problem of representation?
Yes. Christians tried to change the election law so that only Christians could vote for Christian candidates running for the quota seats but that proposal was rejected. It was argued that it would limit the freedom of voters to choose their representatives.

How does the Assyrian community view these issues?
The Assyrian community has lost confidence in the government. Christian Assyrians in the KRI are a case in point. They keep leaving the country even though there’s no ISIS threat in Dohuk or Erbil.

Are people leaving purely because of politics?
No, it’s more than just politics. Since 1992, when Saddam withdrew from the KRI, there has been a feeling of injustice. There have been unsolved murders, including many cases of Kurds who killed Assyrians and nothing happened.

There has also been no solution for violations of Assyrian land in the KRI. In 1992, there were lands and properties of Assyrian Christians taken by Kurdish villagers. Despite court rulings in favor of the original owners, those rulings have yet to be enforced.

This is why there’s emigration.

It’s not just about politics and it’s not for economic reasons either. Most Christians have jobs. They are known in the public sector and as businessmen. The real reason people are leaving is out of a sense of injustice and discrimination.

Are you pessimistic?
We are in a ‘must wait and see’ situation and we hope for the possibility of something positive. There are issues that have been building up over decades, especially the last twenty years. The ADM has submitted its demands and stated its positions. New rounds of meetings and discussions with the KRG’s prime minister are just starting. If the results are positive for Assyrians it will allow us to build [a new positive relationship]. If the results of deliberations are negative, we will take the necessary stand and our position will be very clear.

Several towns in the Ninewa Plains where Iraqi Christians live were sacked by ISIS in the summer of 2014. Many were displaced. Have people returned home?
People have returned to some places like Bartella, Bashiqa, Bahzani, Karamlesh, and Qaraqosh. The most returns, about 6,500 families, happened in Qaraqosh. People are not returning to towns where the Babylon militia is in charge, like Batnaya and Tel Kaif. Only 20 families have returned to those areas.

Qaraqosh [or Baghdida/Bakhdida] used to be the largest Christian-majority town in Iraq with a population of more than 50,000. Much of the town remains in ruins and less than 40% of the population have returned.

The Church of Mar Behnām and Mart Sārah is a Syriac Catholic place of worship in Qaraqosh (Baghdédé). Build in 2005, the church was sacked and torched by ISIS. During our visit to the town, the church was undergoing extensive repairs.

What’s the security picture like now?
Security in the southern part of the Ninewa Plains (Hamdaniya) is run by local security forces (the Ninewa Protection Units, or NPU). To the north, Tel Eskouf and Alqosh are now under Peshmerga control. The NPU was formed by the locals in early 2015. The force is 600 strong and has its main camp in Qaraqosh. Five hundred soldiers are on the payroll of the Government of Iraq. The other hundred fighters in Regiment 74 are authorized and on active duty but our nation must pay for their salaries. In 2015, the ADM had contacted the U.S. for logistics and they provided support and training. Through [ADM secretary general] Yonadam Kanna, we asked Baghdad to place the force under the Ninewa Liberation Command in late 2015 and deployed part of the force to Khazir and Makhmour while another part was placed in Alqosh and Teleskouf. After liberation from ISIS, the force was tasked with holding ground.

There is a need for a new concept for security management. The Iraqi Army and Peshmerga did not fight [when ISIS first attacked in 2014] to protect minorities in Sinjar or the Ninewa Plains. They cannot convince the people to return under the same forces. We should have local security forces that operate under the government of Iraq inside the towns while the Army stays outside.

How would you describe the conditions for returnees?
In the past, budgets for development in Sinjar, Hamadaniya and Tel Kaif were mostly returned to the treasury. Baghdad used to say these areas were under KRG control [and therefore the KRG’s responsibility] and vice versa. Now this is happening again. Tens of thousands of Yazidi families can’t return home because of conflict between Baghdad and Erbil.

Based on our observations and conversations in the Ninewa Plains, it seemed evident that the limited reconstruction activity taking place was funded by INGOs and the locals themselves. There were little signs of recent investment by Iraqi authorities, whether federal or regional.

The US and the international community should pressure Baghdad and Erbil to give minorities a break and pull their armies back. We need political pressure before humanitarian aid. I don’t need tents and food but I need to secure my political rights and I need Baghdad and Erbil to take their conflict away from our areas.

Practically, what would that look like?
We would like to expand the local security forces [NPU] under the authority of the Government of Iraq and there should be pressure to unify the Ninewa Plains areas.

The security architecture in the Ninewa Plains is indeed highly fragmented, with several actors controlling different parts at close proximity. In the north, the problematic Babylon Brigade with its pro-Iran stance, farther north is the KRG Peshmerga. There is the federal government authorized NPU force in the southern Nineveh Plain district of Hamdaniyya. The center (Bashiqa and Bartella) is dominated by the rogue Shabak militia (another PMF faction whose leader is under U.S. Treasury sanctions), which recently ignored orders from the prime minister to withdraw from checkpoints.

In December 2014 there was approval in principle for the formation of new provinces in the Ninewa Plains and in Sinjar. People are at the end of their rope. Other minority political parties are happy to wear rose colored glasses to impress the international community and win the support of the ruling parties [in the KRI and Baghdad]. These ruling parties don’t want us as partners but as token representatives.

Is there support for a province in the Ninewa Plains among other communities, like Yazidis and Shabaks?
Those who left and stayed outside are against it, but those who returned are in favor.

What leverage does the U.S. and international community have?
It was the vacuum in 2003 that allowed the KRG to creep in and impose their will [in the Ninewa Plains], but the U.S. has leverage on Erbil, which is fragile without U.S. support. Think of the post-referendum setback for the KRG. That happened because the U.S. turned a blind eye and took its [protective] hand off of Kurdistan. If there’s political will, it should be easy to exercise leverage.

This interview is part of Safe Return, a project to support the safe and voluntary return of IDPs who have survived severe human rights abuses to their homes in Ninewa. Safe Return is made possible with the generous support of the American people through USAID in partnership with Heartland Alliance International.

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