Safe Return

Iraq’s Shabaks and the Search for Land Rights and Representation

Interview with Mr. Hussein al-Shabaki, member of the Free Shabak Movement
This is the third in a series of interviews we had with representatives of various minority communities in Ninewa. More interviews will be published in the coming weeks.

As part of EPIC’s 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, we recently had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. Hussein al-Shabaki, a prominent figure in Iraq’s Shabaki community, and a leading member of the Free Shabak Movement (Tayyar Ahrar al-Shabak). To many foreigners, and Iraqis for that matter, Shabaks are an obscure minority community. But today, the Shabaks find themselves in the middle of power struggles involving powerful local and foreign actors over the coveted, fertile and strategically located lands of the Ninewa plains. Hussein sat with us and shared his views on the problems facing his community, whose leaders, with their varied political backgrounds and affiliations, can find themselves at odds not only with overbearing external powers but often with each other as well. Finding purely objective voices can be elusive. Nonetheless, Hussein’s remarks offer valuable insight into the affairs of his community. Here’s our conversation with him, edited for clarity and length.

EPIC: Can you help us to understand the origins of Shabaki people?

Hussein al-Shbaki: Yes, I will try to be objective. This may or may not be accurate, but “Shabak” is the name of a region and not of a people. It is made up of several tribes that have deep roots within northern Iraq. These include the Bajellahn tribe, the Zarar tribe, which has a lot of presence in the Kurdistan region. There is also the tribes of Ishmaelihan and the Rojbayan.

The origins of the Shabaks go back to the days of Ottoman rule over Iraq, which lasted more than 400 years. Throughout those centuries, both Turkey and Iran worked with tribes from the region to fight each other. The wars between the Ottomans and Iran resulted in a lot of changes. For example, some tribal fighters, including those from the Bajellahn, the tribe I belong to, were recruited from the southern part of Turkey to fight in the border areas of Iraq and were rewarded with good land.

Things have changed a lot over history. Take, for example, the idea that all Arab tribes originated in the Arab Peninsula. After Islamic conquests, some Arab tribes established roots as far north as Azerbaijan. Mosul too saw a lot of changes. At the time of Nabi Yunis (aka the Prophet Jonah), the city was primarily Jewish and the villages surrounding it were Kurdish. As of the eighth century, there were records of travelers who said they didn’t find any Arabic speakers in Mosul. Linguistically, Shabaks speak a dialect that is a mix of Turkish, Kurdish, and Farsi. In terms of religion, Shabaks are generally Muslim: about 65% are Shi’a, and the other 35% are Sunni.

What region of Iraq do Shabaks live in?
Shabaks reside in the Ninewa Plains, from the northwestern outskirts of Mosul to the southeastern outskirts. The three main districts are Tel Kaif, Mosul City, and Qaraqosh [aka Hamdaniyah]. The subdistricts of Bashiqa, Bartella, and Nimrud are traditional places for Shabaks. Shabaks did not establish these districts, but they reside in these areas, especially the surrounding rural regions. However, the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein provided subsidized lands to military officers and government employees in and around urban areas where there were services. Shabaks were among the recipients, which is why some Shabaks, including myself, live in some of these districts and subdistricts today. I live in Bashiqa.

What is your role in the Shabak Movement? And what kind of relations does your party have with the ruling parties of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq?
I am the President of the Free Shabak Movement. The party was founded in accordance with the 2015 Iraqi political parties law. Previously, we competed as a list of candidates and not as a party. Then, in 2013, we won a seat in the Ninewa Provincial Council. In 2014, we won a seat in the Iraqi Parliament. We did not win a seat in 2018.

What was different about 2018?
There were armed forces that used excessive force and intimidation to channel votes in certain directions. Despite that, our party still won 7,000 votes even without having any offices in Ninewa Plains.

Can you give us an example of excessive force or intimidation?
We tried, as a party, to open an office in the region during the run-up to the 2018 elections, but the forces present in the area of the 30th Brigade of the Hashed [Popular Mobilization Forces] prevented us from carrying out our political activities. They imposed their will on the people, and anyone who opposed them was dealt with by excessive force. During the elections last year, four young Shabaks were arrested by the Hashed security force. They were arrested and held for several hours to prevent them from campaigning for the Free Shabak Movement.

In reality, there was a problem with the commander of the unit, not necessarily the unit as a whole. The Commander is also Shabak, but he belongs to a competing political party. We went to the Ninewa Operations Command and received an official letter authorizing the opening of an office, but the process was blocked by that commander, Waad Mahmoud al-Kadow. We filed a complaint and tried to get that commander removed, but he managed to avoid it by asking the Iranian ambassador to pressure the Iraqi government to keep him in his position.

I’m going to be open with you; as a party, we are aligned with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and these other forces regard any allies of the KDP as a threat.

So if your party did not win a seat in 2018, who won the quota seat allocated for the Shabaks?
Three parties competed for the seat: our party, the Democratic Shabak Assembly, and an individual named Qusai Abbas Mohammed, who competed on his own. Qusai won more than 14,000 votes, the Free Shabak Movement won 7,000 votes, and the Democratic Shabak Assembly won about 6,900 votes. Qusai, the person who won, was backed by Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr Organization, as well as by a cleric, named Hassan Sultan Fattah, who claims to be the representative of [Iranian supreme leader Ali] Khamenei in the area. The connections to Badr and the cleric helped Qusai win votes from many Shia Shabaks because they appealed to Shia religious sentiments.

How did the arrival of ISIS and subsequent war affect Iraq’s Shabak community?
Shabaks live in the Ninewa Plains – that’s their only home. But with the invasion of ISIS, many families sought refuge in Dohuk or Erbil, and some remain there. Very few Shabaks ended up in Sulaimaniya.

Overall, there are no accurate statistics on the number of Shabak refugees just as there are no statistics on the number of Shabaks as a whole. The last accurate census was in 1977. According to UN estimates, the population is between 300,000 and 350,000. An estimated 96% of Shabaks were displaced by the fighting.

In my estimates 60,000-70,000 Shabak IDPs live in the KRI. Some of those who returned to the Ninewa Plains experienced reverse migration and ended up in Erbil or Duhok due to the lack of economic opportunities.

How has security been in the Ninewa Plains since liberation from ISIS?
The security situation in the Ninewa area has been rather stable since ISIS collapsed. However, the population was disoriented and overwhelmed by all of these events, and there are concerns about how long the calm will last due to corruption and the availability of jobs. Issues like poor economic conditions and unemployment can give rise to armed groups and could destabilize security in Ninewa. My view is that people have acquiesced to the current situation because they suffered so much under ISIS, but I don’t think this tranquility will last.

Regarding our current security forces, us Shabaks have our own unit. It was formed within the Ministry of the Peshmerga and is called the First Shabaki Battalion. By operating within the Ministry of the Peshmerga, it is also a part of the Iraqi State security apparatus.

Since the personnel of this unit are Shabaks and hail from the community, they should be able to participate in the security of the region. There should be international pressure from the US or the EU to allow that — to create a balanced security apparatus in which one side does not dominate the other.

The First Shabaki Battalion is not the only security actor seeking to represent the Shabaks. Brigade 30, a unit that is part of the poplar mobilization forces operates in the Ninewa Plains, and is the force in charge in the Bashiqa/Bartella area and the eastern outskirts of Mosul city. The force and its commander, Waad Kadow, have been at the center of much controversy this year.

Do you support the establishment of a separate Ninewa Plains district?
This was a good idea when it was first presented before ISIS took Mosul, but now there are complications. One of the biggest issues is how to determine district and internal boundaries. The demographic mix of the proposed province would include primarily Christians, Shabaks, and Yazidis, as well as some Arab, Kurds, Kakai, and even Turkmen villages.

If it were possible for people to study this proposal, it would make sense to divide Ninewa into two provinces along the path of the Tigris. One province would be the eastern side of Mosul and the Ninewa Plains, and the other would be the western side of Mosul and all of the districts to the south. This would create more harmony within the region. Since these areas are covered by Article 140, there should be a referendum to determine whether this province would be independent, part of federal Iraq, or part of the Kurdistan Region. If I were to vote, I would vote for it to be independent and then it can go the way its people choose to go.

It would be an improvement if these provinces established a security force to protect the minorities listed above. Iraq’s Arab communities have the army, the Kurds have their own protection [the Peshmerga], but the minorities of the Ninewa Plains don’t have a security force of their own. As minority communities, we seek enforcement and protection of the law. That is the true guarantor for peaceful living in the Ninewa Plains.

What is the main economic activity for the Shabak community?
The Ninewa Plains is one of the most fertile parts of Iraq, so we grow a lot of wheat and barley. There is also a lot of cattle-ranching in many of the villages. Throughout the sanctions and the Oil for Food program in the 1990s, many Shabaks worked in transporting oil. There was a fleet of tankers that Shabaks operated between Iraq and Jordan.

The Fadhiliyah area (4-5 km north of Bashiqa), along the mountain side is also famous for olive planting and the production of olive oil and soaps.

A restored grain silo on the outskirts of Bashiqa–July 2019

There are also wealthier people who work in trade and other businesses but overall, it’s mostly agricultural.

Does the presence of competing security forces impact economic life in any way?
[As lands were retaken from ISIS, Ninewa’s territory and security were divided among Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and different militias.] We have seen [militia] checkpoints established to extract fees, which the Prime Minister and the KRG have ordered to be removed. The checkpoints have been forced underground, but there is still illegal trafficking and taxation in and out of Mosul. For example scrap metal was collected in Mosul and sold outside of the city. These collected fees and taxes didn’t go to the treasury of the state, but instead to the economic offices of militias and factions. Sectors were assigned to certain factions. For example, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq had the scrap metal market, others had different industries to dominate and exploit.

Have the Shabaks experienced land disputes, or problems with the other communities in the Ninewa Plains over representation?
Generally speaking there a have been no problems at all between Shabaks and Yazidis.

Before 2003, there were land disputes between Shabaks and some of the villages attached to the Sheikhan district. [Under the Arabization policies of Saddam Hussein], there were Arab families that had taken over many Kurdish villages. After Saddam’s regime fell in 2003, the previous Kurdish owners returned to reclaim their lands and villages in Shekhan, resulting in the displacement of Arab families out toward the Ninewa Plains. With government support, those families resettled in these new areas. Indeed, many Arab families now own land in the Ninewa Plains and the migration and resettlement of Arab families continued until about 2011-2012. [As with any migration, the change in demographics created some tensions between the new arrivals and the longer-term residents and traditional communities of the Ninewa Plains.]

In 2004, during the election of district council chiefs and administrators in Bashiqa, the votes were close between Shabaks and Yazidis. The Shabaks won more votes, so a Shabak won the district administration post and a Yazidi became the district council chief.

In Bartella, there was a tie between Christian and Shabak parties. However, the US general commanding the 101 Division intervened to create goodwill and preserve good relations. He broke the tie by voting for the Shabaks, so the district administration went to a Shabak and a Christian became the district council chief. This distribution is still in place today.

In Mosul, there was a wave of sectarian violence, murders and kidnappings. I lived through it. In 2006, when things were bad, many Shabaks, Christians, and Kurds moved out of Mosul. We moved to areas adjacent to the city that were under Peshmerga security. These were not small numbers; nearly 70,000 families moved, according to the district councils in Bashiqa and Bartella. These people lived in the urban center of Mosul so they sought refuge in other urban areas. This put a lot of pressure on Bashiqa, Bartella, and Qaraqosh. This new population pressure led to much land changing hands and the creation of new housing to absorb this additional population. This caused concern among Christians who were the original inhabitants of these areas; they feared demographic change.

Now, the demographic balance has changed. Christians comprise only 30% of district residents in Bartella, while Shabaks and others form the rest. Two main factors led to this imbalance. First, many Christians left the region. Many who had relatives outside Iraq decided to emigrate in fear of ISIS. Second, the Shabak population grows faster. Christians, in general, have one or two kids, but in Muslim communities, women have more children and men are not limited to a single wife.

Back to the question: are there conflicts of interest and power?
Yes there is. Not between Shabak and Christian moderates but between minority hardliner extremists on each side. Average Shabaks and Christians need one another; they trade with each other and their livelihoods would be destroyed without one another. I am part of an alliance with other moderate political actors in the Ninewa Plains that includes Christians, Yazidis, and Kakais. It’s an initiative that started a year and a half ago to resolve differences and misunderstandings. It was supported by Santa Guido, an Italian NGO that works on conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

Recently, we went to the council of Shabak elders and took them to meet with the Christian Bishops. It created good dialogue and seemed to break the ice between these religious and community leaders.

This is an ongoing development. Last month, the cabinet issued orders to establish a subdistrict in the town of Bazwaya just outside of Mosul. This town was a subdistrict until 1972 and then was demoted to a village by the former regime, and now it’s been given that status again. In principle this is good because it could give Shabaks a district of their own and could help reduce pressure on Christian communities in the Ninewa Plains. One problem is that some of the villages attached to this district were not chosen well. For example, a village near Qaraqosh was attached to Bazwaya, which infringes on the rights of the Christian community there. We don’t want this to become a source of conflict and hope the government will reconsider these geographic boundaries. Normally, this is a task for the provincial council, but we cannot rely on the council to do this job. This could be a task for professional land mapping consultants tasked by the KRG or the federal government. Or perhaps a third party could help to determine a logical path forward. That said, the preferred path is to establish a Ninewa Plains province instead of creating new subdistricts here and there. If Ninewa Plains becomes a province, than subdistricts like Bartella and Bashiqa will automatically become districts.

Did this new subdistrict proposal come from the provincial government?
It came from the central government, even though these are Article 140 districts. One of the chronic problems, even before 2014, in this region is the overlapping of authorities. In part, they are under the authority of the central government as well as the KRG, so these regions did not receive attention or development assistance from either.

Article 140 is the text in Iraq’s constitution dealing with the process for determining the end state of disputed territories claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil. The process comprises three key stages: normalization, census then referendum to decide the final status of administrative units.

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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