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Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa
Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 90 / Middle East & North Africa

Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa

Violence in much of Iraq is at lower levels than in years past but, in Ninewa, the carnage continues.

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Executive Summary

Violence in much of Iraq is at lower levels than in years past but, in Ninewa, the carnage continues. In August and September 2009, large-scale, horrific attacks targeting minority communities took scores of lives. Arabs and Kurds are locked in a political deadlock. The bloodshed and institutional paralysis are symptoms of the country’s shifting battle lines: from an essentially Sunni versus Shiite sectarian struggle, mainly centred in the capital, to a predominantly Arab against Kurdish ethnic fight playing out along an extended axis of friction. It will be near-impossible to resolve the crisis without tackling outstanding nationwide political issues. But Ninewa cannot wait. Urgent interim steps are needed to achieve equitable local power sharing and joint security patrols between Arabs and Kurds in disputed districts, as well as to ensure better minority protection. All this requires a continued and active U.S. role. Washington might be on its way out, but its hands will be full even as it heads for the exit.

For Arabs and Kurds, the real prize remains Kirkuk, where emotions run highest and oil reserves are richest. But, precisely because of these stakes, Kirkuk also is where much national and international attention has turned and efforts undertaken to, if not resolve the conflict, at least freeze it. Not so in Ninewa, where local factors have brought the dispute to a head and which has become the focal point of the ethnic battle.

Ethnic relations in Ninewa have a chequered history. The struggle between Arab and Kurdish nationalisms has been especially acute, notably in the capital, Mosul, home to deeply rooted Arabist feelings. The Kurds have paid a heavy price. The state has made aggressive attempts to contain or suppress their national aspirations. The Baathist regime in particular engaged in forced displacement and discriminatory resource distribution. Kurds saw a chance for redress in 2003 and seized it, launching an offensive to rewind the clock and undo the effect of past practices. This too had a cost. Operating largely in an ad hoc manner, without due process and by dint of force, they took control of several districts, including many towns and villages, seeking to incorporate them into the Kurdistan region and, largely thanks to the Sunni Arab boycott of the 2005 provincial elections, they established political dominance in the governorate.

At the same time, Ninewa proved fertile ground for a Sunni-based insurgency, fuelled by the governorate’s strong Arabist, military and (Sunni) religious tradition and propelled by growing anti-Kurdish and anti-Shiite resentment. Groups taking up arms against U.S. troops and Kurdish fighters exploited the long, often unguarded Syrian border and a history of cross-border trade, while finding ready recruits among former officers, Baathists and an increasingly destitute youth to impose their rule over predominantly Sunni Arab areas. From 2003 to 2008, Ninewa appeared caught between Kurdish dominance and Sunni insurgents.

Gradually, the political landscape shifted. Insurgents – especially the more Islamist – overplayed their hand; U.S. and Iraqi forces re-energised efforts to stabilise Ninewa; and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought to push back Kurdish territorial advances. Perhaps most importantly, Sunni Arab leaders entered the political fray, coalescing around a resolutely nationalist, anti-Kurdish platform.

The 31 January 2009 provincial elections brought the new phase in the Arab-Kurdish tug-of-war to a head. Four years earlier, Sunni Arabs had boycotted the polls, viewing the entire political process as illegitimate. They were not about to repeat the mistake. United around the al-Hadbaa National List (Qaemat al-Hadbaa al-Wata­niya), they triumphed, waging a campaign focused on two key points: Ninewa’s Arab identity and the inviolability of the Baathist-era de facto boundary line that has separated the governorate from Kurdistan since October 1991. The elections were a demographic corrective. Kurdish parties won roughly a third of council seats under the banner of the Ninewa Brotherhood List (Qaemat Ninewa al-Mutaakhiya); this was as they had anticipated given their population share. But though they accepted their significant electoral decline, they feared al-Hadbaa’s virulently anti-Kurdish rhetoric, resented its efforts to diminish Kurdish military, administrative and cultural influence and insisted on sharing power. When al-Hadbaa rejected this demand, they boycotted the provincial council.

The resulting local government paralysis, coupled with al-Hadbaa’s decision to reassert provincial government rule over disputed territories heretofore under Kurdish control, has led to an alarming rise in tensions. Conflict chiefly has occurred where Arabs and Kurds vie for administrative control and where Iraq’s army and Kurdish peshmergas face off across an increasingly tense divide. On several occasions, these forces have come perilously close to head-on collision. Further contributing to the governorate’s growing instability and tinderbox quality is the vast array of official and unofficial armed groups: the national army and police; the Kurdistan regional government’s (KRG) security forces (peshmerga) and security police (asaesh); what remains of Sunni Arab insurgent groups; and tribal militias.

Caught between Arabs and Kurds are ethnic and religious minorities in whom the central government has evinced little interest. While Ninewa is majority Arab with a strong Kurdish minority, it also counts a number of smaller groups – Christians, Yazidis, Turkomans and Shabaks – that may comprise a mere 10 per cent of the population but are concentrated in disputed borderlands between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq. They have suffered a disproportionate share of the hardship caused by war, occupation and intercommunal violence and fight today for survival. At times co-opted, at others threatened by one of the camps, they have become vulnerable pawns in a contest that often sees them as little more than fodder. In August and September 2009, four bombings took over 100 lives and left many hundreds more wounded. For minorities, these have been among the deadliest of months.

There have been signs of late that the federal government and its Kurdish counterparts, with U.S. help and pressure, are seeking to address the problem. But dangers remain high, especially as U.S. military disengagement has begun, with unpredictable consequences on various actors’ calculations and the overall balance of forces. Although significantly diminished, insurgent groups also remain active. They could decide to focus on anti-Kurdish attacks or step up violence against minority groups in disputed territories in hopes of prompting greater unrest and encouraging Arab-Kurdish recrimination.

Any successful effort to defuse the crisis needs to be two-tracked. As Crisis Group has repeatedly argued, Iraq’s fundamental and festering problem concerns the allocation of power, land and resources. With national elections approaching in early 2010, it is hard to imagine the federal government, KRG or any domestic party engaging in politically costly compromise, however urgent the need. At the governorate level, however, steps could be more realistic. Arabs and Kurds should agree on an interim arrangement that gives the latter a legitimate share of power while allowing the former to govern; Kurdish military and police forces should be formally incorporated into federal army units and Ninewa’s security police, respectively, under joint command and with joint patrolling. Minority groups should be given far greater protection and subjected to far fewer attempts at manipulation. The idea, floated by some U.S. officials, of temporarily inserting American soldiers in joint army-peshmerga patrols is interesting and not only because it might produce immediate benefits. It would also send a message about Washington’s longer-term commitment that would be no less indispensable.

Mosul/Washington/Brussels, 28 September 2009

Barham Salih, Iraq's President meets with Nobel Peace Prize laureate,Yazidi activist Nadia Murad at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

A Way Forward for Sinjar

Sinjar, the Iraqi district that was the site of the Yazidi genocide in 2014, still carries the wounds of that horrible time. But today a confluence of national and international interests holds the promise to revitalise the area and deliver it to local governance.

Sinjar, on Iraq’s north-western border with Syria, is still recovering from the trauma of occupation by the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2014, the jihadists seized the district, targeting its Yazidi majority in a genocidal campaign of killing, rape, abduction and enslavement. Now an opportunity has arisen to steer the area toward a safer future.

Both Iraq and its autonomous Kurdish region have formed new governments that seem ready to resume talks about the status of Iraq’s disputed territories. These are fourteen administrative districts – of which Sinjar is one – nominally controlled by Baghdad but claimed by the Kurdish regional government in Erbil. A new UN special representative for Iraq has brought fresh momentum to the task of resolving the disputed territories’ status. Meanwhile, Nadia Murad, a UN Good-will Ambassador who survived the Yazidi genocide, has won the Nobel Peace Prize, attracting renewed international attention to Sinjar in particular. The new government and the UN should jump at this chance to work with Yazidi leaders to rebuild Sinjar as an example for all Iraq.

Crisis Group concluded that only the Iraqi state could stabilise Sinjar.

A Region Yet to Recover

Sinjar became the scene of atrocities in August 2014, when ISIS militants murdered and enslaved thousands of Yazidis, driving tens of thousands more to flee their homes in terror. ISIS is gone; Iraqi and Kurdish forces finished retaking the district in mid-2017. But many of the Yazidi displaced remain huddled in makeshift shelters in the nearby Dohuk province, unable to return due to insecurity and the stagnant economy. Since 2003 a succession of outsiders – first Iraqi Kurdistan’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), then ISIS, then factions affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), then the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (the militias that presently patrol Sinjar) – have controlled the district or parts thereof, pushing the population to take up arms and dividing local elites.

In a February 2018 report, Crisis Group concluded that only the Iraqi state could stabilise Sinjar. We called on Baghdad to mediate between factions and restore local governance, in order to allow the displaced to return, lay the groundwork for reconstruction and end foreign interference. We urged the federal government to merge competing militias into a unified police force and open administrative jobs to skilled locals regardless of which outsiders they had aligned themselves with before.

Ten months later, Sinjar is scarcely better off. Both the federal and Kurdish regional governments have been busy with elections in 2018, and neither has paid due attention to Sinjar’s challenges, which they may deem minor. In May, Baghdad tasked the National Reconciliation Committee, a government body with a mandate to facilitate inter-communal peace, with formulating a roadmap for reinstituting governance in Sinjar. The Committee’s thirteen-point plan includes, among other provisions, calls to restore security, as well as basic health care, education and agriculture, to enable the uprooted to return. In late October, Baghdad and Erbil tried to reach a deal on the return of Sinjar’s local councils to the district. As yet, however, there is no progress either in implementing the roadmap or in bringing back the local councils. Sinjar remains dominated by the Popular Mobilisation Units. 

It is tempting to surmise that the area can regain its footing only if Yazidi politicians and military leaders free themselves from dependency on Iraqi, regional and international patrons. Local supervision of governance and security would encourage the displaced to come back to their homes and lands.

Confluence of Interests

Yet Baghdad and Erbil still have a role to play – and so do Iraq’s international partners.

Baghdad’s stake in stabilising Sinjar stems from its newly appointed government’s interest in engagement with Erbil. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the new prime minister, has long enjoyed strong relations with the Kurdish regional government. Cooperation with the Kurds could allow him to counterbalance the growing influence of Shiite factions affiliated with the Popular Mobilisation Units. Barham Salih, the new president, likewise has expressed a desire to reaffirm Iraq’s commitment to accountability and reconciliation in the post-ISIS era, and in particular to address the disputed territories question as a way to strengthen his office. Sunni Arabs in Parliament belonging to the Islah bloc could profitably ally with the Kurds to press the Popular Mobilisation Units to withdraw from the disputed territories, home to their main constituencies. The yet-to-be-named defence minister, a post usually assigned to a Sunni Arab, might also back such an agreement, especially if he comes from Islah.

Key international players would like to support Erbil-Baghdad negotiations as a way of reinforcing Iraq’s unity.

For its part, Erbil wants to engage with Baghdad as a way to recoup its losses (in both autonomy and territory) after the September 2017 referendum on Kurdish independence. The KDP’s Masoud Barzani, the referendum’s architect, hopes to use senior party officials in ministerial positions in Baghdad to negotiate a settlement on outstanding issues, such as security and governance in the disputed territories, oil exports and revenue sharing. Competition between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) could block a settlement, however, as government formation unfolds in Erbil. The KDP’s ambition for hegemony in Iraqi Kurdistan could push the PUK closer to Iran as a way to consolidate its position in Baghdad. A further breach in the KDP-PUK relationship, following a decade of close cooperation in both the Kurdish region and Baghdad, would complicate efforts to settle the disputed territories issue. Yet the two parties still have common interests there. This suggests that as long as the KDP’s engagement with Baghdad endures, it has an interest in working with the PUK to move toward a deal with the federal government on the disputed territories, including Sinjar.

Key international players – the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, U.S. and EU – would like to support Erbil-Baghdad negotiations as a way of reinforcing Iraq’s unity, enhancing the prime minister’s power and ensuring the government’s stability. Sympathy with the Yazidis’ plight makes Sinjar a strong entry point for renewed international diplomatic engagement in Iraq.

Recommendations

To capitalise on this confluence of interests, Yazidi leaders in Baghdad, the Kurdish region and Sinjar district, including Nadia Murad with her moral authority, should advocate that Sinjar become a model for addressing the disputed territories’ status. The Sinjar councils should commit to honouring the thirteen-point roadmap presented by Iraq’s National Reconciliation Committee in May.

Yazidi leaders should take the following steps:

  • Agree on a new candidate for Sinjar district director (mayor), as a sign of Yazidi unity and Yazidi leaders’ commitment to help mediate political negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil;
  • Support the Yazidi members of the elected Sinjar district and sub-district councils until the next local elections. In the meantime, hammer out an agreement among all security actors deployed in Sinjar (Popular Mobilisation Units, Peshmerga and Yazidi militias) that would integrate their Yazidi fighters into the interior and defence ministries;
  • Support negotiation of a deal that would see the withdrawal of non-Yazidi militia commanders from civilian areas in Sinjar in exchange for the right (for now) to stay on the district’s border with Syria.

Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi should continue the work of his predecessor in tackling the Sinjar question through an agreement with Erbil, and step up efforts to reach a security arrangement in Sinjar that includes the Popular Mobilisation Units.

The Abdul-Mahdi government should take the following steps:

  • Agree on the new district director/mayor put forward by the Yazidis;
  • Negotiate an agreement to integrate members of all irregular security forces in Sinjar into Federal Police units in charge of protecting Sinjar district and sub-districts, to be placed on the interior ministry payroll;
  • Integrate local Yazidi fighters deployed on the Syria border into Iraqi army battalions also stationed there, and transfer them to the defence ministry payroll to reduce smuggling and their fealty to non-Yazidi commanders;
  • Negotiate with Kurdish leaders the return of the Sinjar district council and sub-district councils to Sinjar, and secure joint commitment to the National Reconciliation Committee’s thirteen-point roadmap. 

The president of Iraq should continue public commitment to addressing the case of Sinjar, including by seeing through completion of the National Reconciliation Committee’s roadmap by an agreed-upon deadline.

The Kurdistan Regional Government should take the following steps:

  • Agree on the new district director/mayor put forward by the Yazidis;
  • Continue negotiations with Baghdad on the return of the Sinjar council and sub-district councils to Sinjar in exchange for supporting the merger of KDP-affiliated Yazidi forces into local Federal Police units and deploying Peshmerga only up to the checkpoint before the shortest route home for Yazidis displaced in Dohuk;
  • Reopen the Dohuk-Sinjar road to allow Yazidi civilians free movement in and out of Sinjar and to enable the displaced to go home.
Failure to stabilise Sinjar would come at considerable risk for the federal government and its international partners.

Iran and Popular Mobilisation Unit officials should agree on merging the Units’ Yazidi fighters under the authority and on the payroll of the interior and defence ministries, and otherwise withdrawing from Sinjar, in exchange for allowing non-Yazidi commanders continued access to Sinjar’s border with Syria (with the proviso that, eventually, the Iraqi army will reacquire full control over the border).

The U.S., EU and UN Assistance Mission for Iraq should take the following steps:

  • Facilitate Baghdad-Erbil dialogue on a mutually acceptable security arrangement for Sinjar that would consist of merging Yazidi fighters belonging to various militias with federal forces;
  • Work with the Sinjar district council to start UN-sponsored and other reconstruction programs;
  • Assist the National Reconciliation Committee in carrying out its thirteen-point roadmap for Sinjar;
  • Prepare the ground for free local council elections in Sinjar, ensuring representation of all communities. 

The Sinjar District Council (once it has come back to the district) should facilitate the return of all displaced Sinjar residents, including non-Yazidis, to their homes. With the help of the Baghdad and Erbil governments, as well as the UN, it should establish a mechanism for reconciliation between Sinjar Arabs and Yazidis (as well as other minorities that suffered at the hands of ISIS).

The UN, working with the National Reconciliation Committee, should lead Sinjar’s reconstruction in a way that takes into account inter-communal tensions and the risks involved in favouring one community over another, or giving that perception.

Now’s the Time

Failure to stabilise Sinjar would come at considerable risk for the federal government and its international partners. The pain of ISIS depredations is etched in Yazidis’ collective memory, leaving survivors with feelings of victimhood and helplessness. Unable to obtain justice by institutional means, many feel an impulse for vengeance. But things need not go that way. The moment presents an opportunity for a concerted push by local leaders in Sinjar to make overdue administrative and security changes in the district with the help of both the federal and Kurdish regional governments. If they succeed, they could turn Sinjar into a model for addressing the wider disputed territories question that has long divided Baghdad and Erbil.

This possibility, combined with knowledge that the calculations in Baghdad and Erbil may change, should prompt rapid action. The time is now to chart a new way forward for Sinjar.