In Iraq, where society has been rift by sectarian divisions, efforts have been made to ensure that military and police are drawn from a broad cross section of Iraqi people. Which is why the formation of a new regiment where the members were only drawn from among one ethnic group, the Shabaks, and one sect, Shiite Muslim, has caused such consternation in the state of Ninawa.
Ninawa has already seen its fair share of ethnic divisions. Conflict between Arab and Kurdish politicians had resulted in the Kurdish politicians refusing to participate in local government sessions. They only recently returned.
This new crisis began when a committee from the Ministry of the Interior in Baghdad recently arrived in Ninawa’s capital, Mosul, and began to select 500 personnel for a regiment that would be tasked with protecting inhabitants of the Hamadaniya district, east of Mosul. Many of the people living in that area are Shabak and all of the potential members of the force would be Shabak and Shiite.
Ninawa’s governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, was the first to complain, describing the selection process as a grave mistake. He even threatened to take the Interior Ministry to court saying that it was “violating the Iraqi Constitution by forming a regiment from one sect only and excluding other religions and ethnicities.”
Al-Nujaifi pointed out that there were all kinds of people living in these areas, including Sunni Muslim Shabaks, Christians, Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds.
Most Shabaks are Muslims and around 60 percent of them are Shiite Muslim. Shabaks have their own language – a mixture of Arabic, Persian, Syriac and Turkmen - and are descended from a mixture of Arab and Kurdish descendants. They all wear traditional Arab-style clothing and to the casual observer, it would be hard to differentiate between Shabak people and Arabs.
In Ninawa, the biggest difference lies in how the Shabaks identify themselves. Most of the Shiite Muslim Shabaks don’t consider themselves Arabs or Kurds – they insist that they have their own ethnic identity. Whereas the Sunni Muslim Shabaks mostly have an allegiance to their Kurdish forebears.
As a result of the potential formation of this new force, session 147 of the Ninawa provincial council saw some heated exchanges – and in particular between Qusay Abbas, who represents Shabak interests on the council, and Amin Fansh, governor al-Nujaifi’s deputy.
Fansh pointed out that the decision to form the regiment had been made by Baghdad some time ago but that there had been no mention that it would consist solely of one ethnic-religious group. Fansh accused Abbas of trying to get official approval to make the regiment up exclusively of Shiite Muslim Shabaks.
Abbas denied this and later during the break, a very angry Abbas told NIQASH that Ninawa’s politicians were making a mountain out of a molehill when it came to this regiment.
“The issue was discussed two years ago by Ninawa politicians and the Iraqi Cabinet [in Baghdad],” Abbas explained. “I explained the miserable situation of the people on the Ninawa plain and complained about repeated attacks there. I suggested that a new regiment be formed to take responsibility of this area – the Ninawa plain is a huge area and there is only one regiment there whereas other areas of Ninawa have two or more regiments.”
During the violent sectarian fighting the followed the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime, many Shabak families (regardless of which sect of Islam they belonged to) in the mostly Sunni Muslim city of Mosul were targeted; many fled the city and settled in villages north of Mosul. These villages and other newly formed Shabak communities now form an arc which extends eastwards. Nonetheless Shabaks have continued to be targeted by extremists.
Shabak politicians had already claimed that Christian towns in the area were well protected by mainly-Christian forces whereas the Shabaks were being ignored. They also criticized the local Ninawa authorities, saying that they had not taken any steps toward more protection for Shabaks or Shiites.
“So we continued to ask for justice for the Shabak and eventually al-Maliki gave orders for the creation of a regiment of 500 that could be composed of Shabaks – as long as all the officers were from Mosul city,” Abbas explains.
Shabak politician, Hanin Al-Qado, also an activist for Iraq’s minorities had already demanded that Christian and Kurdish military forces be expelled from the Ninawa plain. The presence of those militias seemed to be acceptable to local politicians yet they saw a Shabak force as a threat, he argued.
However other local politicians argue that the Shiite Muslim Shabak regiment encourages sectarianism. Christian politician, Saad Tanios, said any such regiment should be made up of members representing all the different sects and ethnicities in the region.
Another politician, Nadim Kajan, representing Kurdish interests, pointed out that Ninawa’s population is comprised of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Yazidis, Christians and Turkmen as well as Kurdish. “And we categorically reject the formation of battalions on a sectarian or ethnic basis,” she said.
Local independent politician and writer, Mohammed Salam Hikmat, observed that, although ethnic tensions had eased somewhat since the Kurdish politicians rejoined the local council after boycotting it for three years, there was still an ongoing game of sectarian tit-for-tat going on.
The formation of this regiment was simply the latest move in this game.
“There are plenty of sectarian-based problems in Mosul and at first glance it looks as though it’s the local people driving them,” Hikmat explains. “But the reality is that behind the scenes it is the major political parties pulling the ropes as they fight one another to control the country.”
Hikmat notes that the major opposition party in Baghdad, Iraqiya, has strong support in Ninawa and that the two al-Nujaifi brothers – Atheel is the governor of Ninawa and Osama is the speaker of Parliament in Baghdad – are leading members of Iraqiya. As relations between the opposition party and the ruling State of Law party, led by Prime Minister al-Maliki, soured, so did things in Ninawa, Hikmat says. Earlier in the year the Shabak-majority party in Baghdad had declared its allegiance to al-Maliki.
In fact, Hikmat concludes, he fears the worst – because he suspects that what is really going on is a preparation for further fierce sectarian conflict in Iraq. When it will really erupt, he says, nobody knows.