Minorities in north Iraq look to post-extremist future

Iraqi children from the Shabak community gather in a house in the village of Baz Gerkan, east of Mosul, on January 10, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 16 January 2018
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Minorities in north Iraq look to post-extremist future

BARTALLA, Iraq: A Christmas tree stands on a roundabout in Bartalla in northern Iraq, its base adorned by posters of Shabak martyrs killed in the fight against Daesh.
Now that victory has been declared against the extremists, Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities are taking the future into their own hands.
In Baz Gerkan village, where fighting damaged or destroyed most of the houses, Shabak residents have rebuilt their school themselves.
A few kilometers (miles) away, they have restored the shrine of Imam Rida, the eighth of Shiite Islam’s 12 imams, which was blown up by the extremists who consider Shiites to be heretics.
Shabaks, who number around 60,000 in Iraq, have their own language and say they first settled in the Arab country several centuries ago from northern Iran.
Their places of worship, such as those of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, were targeted by Daesh, and many fled their homes during the three years of extremists occupation.
There are now only 400,000 Christians in Iraq against more than one million before the US-led invasion of 2003, making up three percent of the country’s population along with Yazidis, Sabeans and Shabaks.
Today, several months after the entire northern province of Nineveh was retaken from the extremists, churches and monasteries have been restored.
And for the first time in four years last December, Christmas carols were heard.
The Kurdish-speaking Yazidi minority has also managed to rebuild 20 of 23 temples destroyed by the extremists in the Bashiqa area, east of Iraq’s second city Mosul.
“All this was done thanks to donations from Yazidis and other inhabitants of the region,” said Hilal Ali, who is in charge of the Yazidi sites of worship.
Mutassem Abed, 47, is a Shiite who joined the Hashed Al-Shaabi coalition of paramilitary units following a call to arms in 2004 by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric.
The Hashed was formed specifically to counter the rise of Daesh in the country, and played a key role in the extremists’ defeat in 2017.
Now that the fighting has ended, Abed is looking to his future.
“We must rebuild a sanctuary that is even more beautiful and even bigger, to say to IS (Daesh) that it did not win,” the Shabak fighter told AFP, wearing a parka over his uniform.
Life may slowly be returning to normal, but many checkpoints have been set up, usually manned by members of Hashed units from the Shabak, Turkmen, Christian or Yazidi minorities.
Iraq is relying on local forces to maintain security on the ground, after declaring in December that the war against Daesh had been won.
Such fighters know the local people, speak their languages and can easily spot any intruders, commanders say.
“Even before IS (Daesh), other terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda tried to chase out minorities,” said Zein Al-Abidine Jamil, a Shabak commander with the Hashed.
Another Bartalla Shabak, a policeman manning a checkpoint in the old part of Mosul, recalled the days when he could only enter the city under escort.
“Mosul? I went there on patrol. But never in a personal capacity. A lone Shiite? That would have been madness!” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Sunni Muslims are a minority in Iraq, but in Mosul they form the majority and also have a presence in villages around the city.
The Shabak minority has a small Sunni community within it. But, residents say, many of them joined Daesh and were killed. Others fled with their families, joining the ranks of the displaced.
Today, several months after Nineveh province was rid of Daesh, “we are directly responsible for the security of citizens,” said Jamil.
Because of their local knowledge, such fighters were a major asset to the armed forces in their fightback against Daesh.
But human rights groups have charged that some minorities targeted by the jihadists were themselves guilty of abuses.
In December, the New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Yazidi fighters of executing 52 civilians in apparent revenge killings after capturing territory from the extremists.
HRW said those killed included women and children, and came from eight families of the Sunni tribe Al-Bu Metewut who were fleeing clashes between IS and pro-government militias north of Mosul.


Turkey, Russia discussing Idlib airspace control: Sources

Updated 50 min 14 sec ago
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Turkey, Russia discussing Idlib airspace control: Sources

  • Turkey has set up observation posts in Idlib in a bid to prevent clashes between rebels and government forces
  • After a meeting on Sept. 17 between Putin and Erdogan, agreed to create a de-militarized zone in Idlib by Oct. 15

ANKARA: The partial transfer of control of the airspace over the de-escalation zone in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib from Moscow to Ankara is being discussed by the two sides, Russian sources said. 

The aim is to enable Turkey to conduct an aerial campaign against Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which Ankara recently designated a terrorist organization. 

A former Al-Qaeda affiliate, HTS is the strongest armed group in Idlib, the last stronghold of Syrian anti-government rebels. 

In February, HTS claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian warplane in Idlib using a surface-to-air missile.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are monitoring the de-escalation zone in the province as part of a trilateral agreement. 

Turkey has set up observation posts in Idlib in a bid to prevent clashes between rebels and government forces.

“Discussions are ongoing about the details of this transfer (of airspace control). I guess it will be limited to the buffer zone in Idlib for now,” Yury Barmin, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Arab News.

“If Russia is taking steps to allow Turkey to use Idlib’s airspace, it will give Turkey more room for maneuver in the region.”

But airstrikes by Ankara against HTS might create another refugee influx into Turkey, which already hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, Barmin said. 

Idlib is home to more than 1 million displaced Syrians, and its population exceeds 3 million. Turkey is concerned that the creation of a humanitarian crisis near its border would further swell its own refugee population. 

After a meeting on Sept. 17 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the two countries agreed to create a de-militarized zone in Idlib by Oct. 15.

The deal requires that all radical groups, including HTS, withdraw from the area and that all heavy weapons be removed.

Russian and Turkish troops will conduct coordinated patrols to ensure that all armed groups respect the deal.

Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, said a transfer of airspace control would mean that Ankara and Moscow are determined to implement their latest agreement regarding Idlib. 

“Until now, Idlib’s airspace has been fully controlled by Russia, which weakened Turkey’s hand in trying to convince rebel groups in the region to abandon their arms,” he told Arab News.

Transferring airspace control “would give Ankara additional diplomatic leverage in its dealings with HTS,” he said. 

“If Ankara fails to persuade HTS to comply with the Putin-Erdogan deal regarding Idlib, it’s almost certain that Russia and Syrian government forces will start a military operation in the region.”

So Turkey is sending a message to HTS that if carrots do not work, it has some sticks at its disposal, Ersen said.