Following the Peshmerga's mid-October pullout from Shingal and other parts of the disputed areas they controlled in Nineveh, the predominantly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary forces, including ones closely aligned with Iran's goals in the wider region, have gained a foothold in the area. What this means for the beleaguered minorities previously under Peshmerga protection there -- namely Christians and Yezidis --remains unclear.
One way the Hashd is consolidating its control in these areas is by taking over command of local armed groups.
"In the Nineveh Plains context, colonization is administrative, meaning that outsider political groups and militia leadership are taking over local security forces," Iraq analyst Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute, told Rudaw English.
"In Diyala, for instance, colonization is more literal, with the importation of mostly Shia families and the prevention of resettlement by some Sunnis," he added.
Knights thinks the situation in Nineveh is less likely to resemble the one in Diyala. Hashd groups loyal first and foremost to Iran covet that area for strategic purposes. Therefore, keeping communities pacified by taking control over their local armed groups, a classical colonial model for effectively controlling subject populations, makes more sense than actively and forcibly subduing them outright.
Kyle Orton, a Middle East researcher at the UK's Henry Jackson Society, argues that the infiltration of Iranian-backed Hashd groups into Nineveh "does not present an immediate threat to these minorities."
"This is because Tehran has chosen to instrumentalize them, using their fear of being swallowed into polities dominated by more cohesive, larger communities, specifically the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds," he told Rudaw English.
Part of the Iranian-backed effort to control these areas has been the supporting -- through the Badr Organization, which has remained closely aligned to Iran's goals in Iraq for decades -- the ostensibly Christian Babylon Brigade.
According to a recent report in The American Interest, the Babylon Brigade is 1,000-strong and "composed mostly of Shia Arabs and Shabak not native to the area."
The article also notes that: "Using its 'Christian' identity as a pretext, Iranian leaders have been able to use the Babylon Brigade to guarantee that they will have a say in Northern Iraq."
When it comes to the Yezidis, the Hashd have successfully recruited all-Yezidi forces, the Lalish and Kocho Battalions. One reason the Peshmerga Yezidi commander Qasim Shesho decided not to send his forces to resist the Hashd takeover of Shingal back in October was due to the presence of such battalions and the salient fact that Yezidis fighting under different banners killing each other was the last thing that tyrannized community needed.
Kataib Hizbollah, one of the Hashd groups closely aligned with Iran and designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, has also "worked closely with the Yezidis who have been recruited into the Kurdistan Workers Party's (PKK) formation in that area, the Sinjar Protection Units (YBS), which also receives funds from Baghdad under the Hashd program."
Orton believes this is part of an effort by Tehran to foster ties between its allies and proxies in Baghdad and the PKK in order "to counter balance the influence of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Turkey in Iraq's northwest."
For decades, especially since the Kurdish Civil War in the mid-1990s, Iran has sought to keep the Kurdistan Region divided and weak by lending its support to different factions and groups under certain circumstances to prevent them from unifying and creating a strong region. This makes these more recent developments simply the latest manifestation of this age-old strategy.
Even though these current goals are geopolitical, this Iranian project "in the long-term is clearly a threat to minorities."
Orton cites reports that Iranian proxies have already begun "forcibly altering the demographics in Christian areas of Nineveh, which is something Tehran has done in other areas it has come to control, from Damascus to Aleppo to Diyala."
He goes so far as to argue that Iran's goal of achieving hegemony in the northern parts of the Middle East -- part of which is to secure a land corridor to continually prop-up the regime in Syria, as well as support Hezbollah and other proxy groups in the wider Levant -- means "it is quite prepared to engage in ethnic cleansing and/or the importation of settlers to get what it wants."
If it comes to that it would essentially follow the model against Sunnis that Iranian proxies have already implemented in Diyala, which both Knights and Orton refer to. This could constitute yet another existential threat to Nineveh's minorities after their former persecutors, the tyrannical ISIS, have been largely destroyed in both Iraq and Syria.
Orton goes so far as to argue that the regime in Tehran "is ideologically hostile to these schismatic and esoteric groups," pointing to the wilayet al-faqih ideology promulgated by that regime since the 1979 revolution which "regards the Yezidis in the same way the Islamic State does, heretics marked for destruction."
This will likely prove the worst case scenario. After all, if the Hashd manage to keep these communities pacified and has a free hand to use their territories to pursue Iran's hegemonic goals in the region it wouldn't necessarily be in their immediate interests to divert additional resources to outright, and directly, subjugate them.
Nevertheless, Orton argues that the status of Christians in Iran itself is very telling. They "live as second-class citizens under theocratic rule and though in theory this provides them a measure of protection, in fact discrimination and outright persecution is common."
"In an environment like Iraq's, where chaos, violence, and sectarianism have become so much more prevalent, Iran's militias seem unlikely to be the answer to the problems of security for Nineveh's Christians," he concluded.