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The Fate of Iraq's Indigenous Communities
By Ramsen Shamon
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Remember who the US military first aided when American warplanes joined the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in 2014? It wasn't the Iraqi government. It was a religious minority known as the Yazidis, who were stranded and surrounded by the terrorist group on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. Now, the fight to wrest control of Mosul from IS has the world fixated on Iraq's second largest city--and the uncertain fate of its remaining inhabitants caught in the crossfire. But the city's indigenous minorities, including Yazidis, Assyrians and a variety of other small sects who consider the area their ancestral home, have already been kicked out for not submitting to the Islamic State's radical version of Islam. And they have been largely forgotten. Their only means of survival in the ethnic and sectarian cauldron that will likely remain for years to come may be the establishment of an autonomous region inside Nineveh Province, similar to what currently exists for the Kurds. "Since 2003, we have been struggling because of the conflict between the big [players] in Iraq. They are fighting for our lands in Nineveh, without even counting us as the original people of this area," says Athra Kado, an Assyrian teacher and soldier with the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit, a fighting unit safeguarding local communities against Islamic militants in northern Iraq. "Our people and other minorities are asking for a province, Nineveh Plains Province, and that is the first step for having our own autonomy--to have our own economic percentage as any other province in Iraq. And to have our own forces in the area." RELIGIOUS MINORITIES IN IRAQ Yazidis speak Kurdish and adhere to a religious order that incorporates elements of the various Abrahamic faiths. Many of their young women have been taken captive and sold as sex slaves by IS. The Assyrians, also sometimes referred to as Chaldeans or Syriacs, are divided between various Christian denominations. They are not Arab and speak dialects of Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Since 2003, the number of Iraqi Christians has dwindled considerably, from some 1.5 million to around 350,000 or less. The notion of creating an area within Iraq solely to safeguard these minorities is not new. In 2010, Jalal Talabani, then president of Iraq, and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki voiced support for an autonomous area for Christians. Indeed, Article 125 of the Iraqi constitution permits the creation of self-governing areas, stating: "This Constitution shall guarantee the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents, and this shall be regulated by law." But a measure to create such an autonomous region was recently struck down by the Iraqi government. Still, there remains hope that in the aftermath of the Mosul fight, the Iraqi government can be swayed to reconsider. In December 2016, US Representative Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska, introduced a resolution in Congress supporting the creation of such an autonomous region to protect groups like the Assyrians and Yazidis. The resolution states, in part, that Mosul and the wider region "have been the ancestral homeland of Assyrian Chaldean, Syriac Christians, Yazidis, Sunni and Shia Arabs, Kurds, Shabak, Turkmen, Kaka'i, Sabaean-Mandeans, and others where they lived for centuries in a spirit of general pluralism, stability, and communal cooperation despite periods of external violence and persecution, until the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant overran and occupied much of the region in 2014." The resolution adds: "The return of the displaced indigenous peoples of the Nineveh Plain, many of whom are displaced within Iraq, to their ancestral homeland should be a policy priority of United States and the international community." Even some of Iraq's influential security leaders agree. "I totally support self-governing provinces with federal Iraq. It would be easier for the central government to administrate, distribute resources equally [to] the people so that they restore the sense of loyalty to the nation," says Ismael Alsodani, a retired brigadier general of the Iraqi army and retired defense attach

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