Every day, Safaa Elias Jajo travels between Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan and Alqosh, a town on the Ninawa Plain. Jajo is the head of a militia made up mostly of Iraqi Christians, who are fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, and Qosh is inside the only part of this area that didn't fall to the extremist group. From the front lines Jajo keeps a telescope trained on what is happening in the formerly Christian-majority areas that the Islamic State, or IS, group now controls.
“The war against the IS group is a difficult one and only an organized force, that is well trained and executes clever tactics can fight against them,” Jajo told NIQASH. “My troops have been trained and they have a legal, official status within the Ministry of Peshmerga,” he adds, referring to the official regional body that is in charge of the Iraqi Kurdish military, also known as the Peshmerga.
Jajo's militia, the Ninawa Plain Forces, are one of three different militias made up of Iraqi Christians who have taken up weapons to fight against the IS group – even though traditionally the country’s Christians have tended to keep out of military conflicts and, in fact, many of them have emigrated or want to. And some might understand Jajo's comment as something of a dig at the other ones.
Two other major militias are known as the Babylon Brigades and the Ninawa Plain Protection Units. While Jajo's Ninawa Plain Forces are associated with the Iraqi Kurdish authorities who run the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Babylon Brigades operate under the umbrella of the less official Iraqi militias, made up mostly of Shiite Muslim volunteers. And the Ninawa Plain Protection Units, also known as NPU, stand somewhere in the middle of the two latter militias, not affiliated with either Iraqi Kurdistan or the federal government in Baghdad – they are affiliated with the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a political party that represents the interests of the Assyrian Christians in Iraq's federal Parliament.
The three different militias, made up of Iraqi Christians who hope to return to the homes that the Islamic State group forced them to flee from one day, have met a few times but have not been able to agree on any united plan of action. In August 2014, shortly after the IS group took control of Mosul, the Christian parties met with a view to uniting. However they were unable to reach any kind of agreement – the only thing they could agree upon was to unite their Christian forces after the IS group has been pushed out of the Ninawa Plain area, an area typically populated by the country's Christians.
Even though all of the Christian militias are supposed to be working to free the Ninawa Plain area, they all have different ideas about how to do this.
For example, Rayan al-Kaldani, one of the senior leaders of the Babylon Brigades, told NIQASH that he thinks the Christian areas of the Ninawa Plain should be liberated with attacks going through the Kirkuk province rather than through the Iraqi Kurdish region.
“And we asked the Iraqi Kurdish government for help with this plan but they refused to help,” al-Kaldani says. “There are differences between the Christian militias,” al-Kaldani concedes, “but we do have our own independence within the volunteer militias.”
Part of the conflict between the Ninawa Plain Forces and the Babylon Brigades can be attributed to the bad relationship between the Iraqi Kurdish government in Erbil and the federal government in Baghdad.
Meanwhile the NPU say they don't want to get involved in that particular, mostly political, conflict. “Our troops are armed with the help of our citizens and we do not want to be part of either of the two other fronts,” Idris Mirza, a senior member of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which oversees the NPU, told NIQASH. Taking sides with either Erbil or Baghdad would harm the interests of Iraq's Christians in the long run, Mirza argues.
At the beginning of September, an office was opened in Erbil that is supposed to better coordinate the official Iraqi army and the Iraqi Kurdish military. But that coordination doesn't seem to have had much influence, if any, on the divided Christian militias.
“Anyway the Babylon Brigades were not just formed to liberate the Christian areas,” Karim Nouri, the spokesperson for the unofficial Shiite Muslim militias, explains. “It is a national force and it has also been fighting the IS group in areas where you won't find a single Christian church. The Iraqi Kurdish government wants this force to come under the control of their military. But this shouldn't happen now because Ninawa is not actually part of Iraqi Kurdistan.”
The government in Iraqi Kurdistan has been criticised by Baghdad for using the current security crisis to grab more territory and annex it to the semi-autonomous region. Some of the Christian areas in question are part of the country's disputed territories – that is, areas that the Kurdish say rightfully belongs to their region but which Baghdad says belong to Iraq proper. And, as some critics have noted, the Iraqi Kurdish government has done its best to try and motivate locals in those areas to fight with them, in the hope that it can bring them on side later on, when the disputed territories are once again being disputed.
“The Iraqi Kurdish military have allowed Christian militias associated with the Shiite volunteer militias to enter areas where they are stationed, near the borders of Mosul,” Jamal Mohammed, chief of staff of the Iraqi Kurdish military, the Peshmerga, told NIQASH. “And after the IS group is forced out, realistically those Christian forces should be under our authority – those areas are likely to remain under the Peshmerga's control.”
The different Christian militias have different opinions on this subject too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jajo, whose militia is funded and trained by the Iraqi Kurdish, believes that after the IS group is gone, the Ninawa Plain area should be under Kurdish control.
Mirza, whose associated militia wishes to remain independent of both Erbil and Baghdad, has the also-unsurprising opinion that Iraq's Christians should create their own, independent region after the IS group is driven out.
Whereas al-Kaldani, of the Babylon Brigades, refuses to talk about the future like this. “Different times will require different attitudes,” he says simply.