ISIS has brought terror to Iraq's Christian community. Now there's a military fightback – but could it make things even worse?
This month a Christian army in Iraq achieved a spectacular victory when it drove ISIS out of the northern village of Badanah. As is fitting for a war that is also being waged on social media, the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) announced the triumph of its “warriors” on Facebook.
Badanah was one of many formerly Assyrian Christian villages overrun by jihadis two summers ago. NPU commander Bahnam Abush said that the military success would restore Christian confidence in the region and increase the faithful’s hope that they will “stay in the land of their grandparents”.
Yet some Iraqi Church leaders are likely to play down the liberation of Badanah. From the beginning they have harboured deep reservations about the Christian militias, which they fear will leave the faithful vulnerable to sectarian reprisals in a post-ISIS Iraq.
Defeating ISIS may not be enough to secure Iraqi Christians’ future in the region. While most of the faithful now live in the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq, many Christians are suspicious of Kurdish designs on their ancestral homeland. They see themselves as the indigenous people of Iraq and trace their descent to the Assyrians of old. They do not want to be part of Kurdistan, which will almost inevitably gain independence from Iraq after ISIS is wiped out.
The battle of Badanah was the NPU’s first major military operation against ISIS, and the fight was intensely personal. The terror group is responsible for one of the worst anti-Christian atrocities in recent years: the 2010 Baghdad church massacre in which 52 Mass-goers were killed.
After ISIS seized the country’s second city, Mosul, in 2014, it stormed through the neighbouring Nineveh Plains, forcing more than 125,000 Christians to leave. ISIS fighters burned down churches and daubed Christian homes with the Arabic letter N for “Nazarene”. The faithful were forced to live as refugees, without homes or heat or food as they faced the country’s merciless winter. Many moved to Kurdish-controlled territory. Others joined the Western diaspora that began long ago with the 1915 genocide.
Yet out of this ordeal has come hope. The NPU, funded and aided by Assyrians in America, Australia and Europe, with the support of friends and sympathisers, has begun to make progress in destroying ISIS.
Assyrian Christians have a strong martial history. They fought alongside the British in two world wars, but in post-independence Iraq they have always played a peaceful role. When the NPU was first formed the men wore old uniforms and didn’t have enough guns to go round. Most were not experienced soldiers. The NPU now has 1,000 troops who are undergoing training.
Until 2014, the Nineveh region was the most heavily Christian part of Iraq. The faithful lived in relative peace alongside other groups, such Yazidis, Shabaks, Turkmens and Sunni Arabs. The patchwork of religions and ethnicities in the region makes the Balkans look simple.
The situation is further complicated because Iraqi Christians belong to six separate churches. And while some see themselves as belonging to distinct ethnic groups – such as the Assyrians or Chaldo-Assyrians – others, especially members of the Chaldean Catholic Church and those living in cities, regard themselves as Arab Christians.
Catholic leaders, in particular, have tried to distance themselves from the militias. Chaldean Archbishop Habib al-Naufaly of Basra has described the creation of distinct Christian forces as a “disaster”. Patriarch Louis Sako, the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, has branded the groups a “bad idea” and urged the United States not to support a “sectarian militia”. “There are no ‘Christian militias’,” he insisted, “but only politicised groups and simple people who are in desperate need of a salary.”
The Assyrian Confederation of Europe issued a stinging response to Patriarch Sako, pointing out that the NPU is supported by the Iraqi government. “Mar Sako’s urging of the United States to support the Peshmerga instead of Assyrian forces is a clear illustration of how utterly at odds his ideas are with the real needs of Assyrians in Iraq,” the group said. “Assyrian-led military participation is essential if displaced Assyrians are to return to Nineveh, as Patriarch Sako claims that he wishes them to.”
Yonadam Kanna, a veteran Iraqi politician who has survived nine assassination attempts as a representative for the minority Assyrian Democratic Movement, says he doesn’t like the use of the word “militia” to describe the NPU. “The NPU is not a militia,” he says, “They are officially registered forces, an official unit registered with the federal authorities.”
The distinction, he says, is that a militia acts on its own behalf and therefore is unaccountable. “Our people lost the hope and trust of other forces,” he explains. “That is why they are welcoming their local volunteers to take care of the security in the Christian towns and villages after liberation from ISIS.”
Nevertheless, Kanna underlines that the NPU is not engaged in a sectarian war. “ISIS is against all, not only against Christians,” he says. “That is why you can’t say it is a religious war.”
This explains why the NPU avoid using explicit Christian imagery. Many wear patches with the Iraqi flag and their leadership is mostly drawn from former army officers, many of whom saw action in the Iran-Iraq war.
Gathering support for the NPU in the West has required a difficult balancing act. Many Christians naturally feel sympathy on religious grounds and want to help them. An Evangelical pastor in New York, for example, recently gave $4,000 of his own money to buy the NPU some AK-47 assault rifles,grenades, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. No doubt the NPU was grateful for the support, but the last thing it wants is an influx of hotheads believing they are fighting the Tenth Crusade.
Another Iraqi Christian force, the Dwekh Nawsha (meaning “the ones who sacrifice” in Aramaic), is less cautious. It has attracted at least 26 foreign fighters, including four Britons.
Jeff Gardner of the Restore Nineveh Now Foundation, a US-based Assyrian diaspora group which finances the NPU, believes it is vital for the force to distance itself from Western volunteer fighters. “I get five or six emails a week from people who want to go and fight the Islamic State,” he says. “My advice to them is that it is illegal and don’t go.”
Gardner insists that the Dwekh Nawsha has made little impact on the battleground. “They have no funding. They are not an effective fighting force. The Kurdistan Regional Government has set them up for show and made no effort to fund them. They attract and then repel foreign fighters because they don’t do anything.”
Like many, he believes that Iraq will inevitably become some sort of federation, and he wants Assyrian Christians and Yazidis to be included in this, perhaps sharing a province. Meanwhile, a bill passing through the US Congress is explicitly calling for American support for “local security forces, including ethnic and religious minority groups, with a national security mission”. This could give the NPU further momentum.
But the plight of the armed Christian groups remains desperate. Right now Assyrian forces find themselves along the 600-mile line separating ISIS’s disintegrating caliphate from Kurdish-controlled territory. An all-out assault on ISIS territory (Mosul and the Nineveh Plains) is expected soon. The offensive will be a joint effort by Iraqi government forces and allied militias, forces from Iraqi Kurdistan and US ground troops. The region’s future will depend on which of these groups ultimately gains the upper hand.
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, says that’s unlikely to be the Christian soldiers. “These are raw recruits, not battle-hardened like the jihadists,” she says. “They lack the modern weapons and air cover required for winning another ISIS-style onslaught. There are no natural defences in the Plains. And there’s not enough of them – a few thousand.
“They won’t be able to defend Nineveh from attacks by sleeper cells in Mosul – Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city, is only 20 miles away.” Whoever defends Nineveh will rule it, says Shea.
Christian fighters may end up winning the war against ISIS, yet losing the battle for lasting peace and prosperity for Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority.
This article first appeared in the September 16 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.