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.


Sudan protesters plan march on parliament, more demos

Updated 19 January 2019
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Sudan protesters plan march on parliament, more demos

KHARTOUM: A group that is spearheading anti-government protests across Sudan on Saturday said it plans to launch more nationwide rallies over the next few days, including a march on parliament.
Protests have rocked Sudan since December 19, when the government raised the price of bread, and since then have escalated into rallies against President Omar Al-Bashir’s three-decade rule.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella group of trade unions, in a statement called for a march on parliament Sunday to submit to lawmakers a memorandum calling for Bashir to step aside.
“We are calling for a march to parliament in Omdurman on Sunday,” it said referring to Khartoum’s twin city where parliament is located.
“The protesters will submit to parliament a memorandum calling on President Bashir to step down,” added the association, which represents the unions of doctors, teachers and engineers.
Over the past month, protesters have staged several demonstrations in Omdurman, on the west bank of the Nile.
Officials say at least 26 people, including two security personnel, have died during a month of protests, while rights group Amnesty International last week put the death toll at more than 40.
The group spearheading the protests said there will also be rallies in Khartoum on Sunday, to be followed by night-time demonstrations on Tuesday in the capital and in Omdurman.
“And on Thursday there will be rallies across all towns and cities of Sudan,” the statement added.
On Friday, hundreds of mourners leaving the funeral of a protester had staged a spontaneous demonstration in the capital’s Burri district, while crowds of Muslim worshippers had launched another rally in a mosque in Omdurman, witnesses said.
Protesters chanting “freedom, peace, justice” have been confronted by riot police with tear gas at several rallies since the first protest erupted in the eastern town of Atbara on December 19 after the rise of bread price.
The government’s tough response has sparked international criticism, while Bashir has blamed the violence on unidentified “conspirators.”
Analysts say the protests have emerged as the biggest challenge to the veteran leader’s rule who swept to power in 1989 in an Islamist-backed coup.
The protests come as Sudan suffers from an economic crisis driven by an acute shortage of foreign currency and soaring inflation that has more than doubled the price of food and medicines.