Frustration among victims of the Islamic State (ISIS) continues to mount as flames and militia harassment became the defining features of Iraq's Nineveh Governorate throughout the month of June. The mysterious fires hinder official investigation efforts into the crimes of ISIS, while destroying reconstruction efforts made by previously displaced persons. Militia harassment in the region further polarizes the community, and Christians who attempt to speak out about these challenges instead find themselves the target of aggressive hate speech. Meanwhile, ISIS continues to sow the seeds of violence throughout the governorate.
A rare attack conducted by ISIS occurred in Iraq's Sinjar region, the traditional home of Yazidis, on June 12. The extremists ambushed military units and detonated four car bombs, spiking concerns that ISIS remains highly organized and maintains its ability to disrupt regional security.
Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) clashed a number of times with ISIS militants throughout the past month. The ISF arrested four alleged militants and killed 24. Most of these causalities were the result of a US-led airstrike on one ISIS tunnel. In total, 18 tunnels used by ISIS to evade capture were discovered in the Nineveh Plains region. Part of ISIS's strategy involves the long-term destruction of the Nineveh Plains, and these tunnels have scarred the agricultural land which serves as the belt of food production for Iraq.
Mysterious wildfires also continue to damage the land. Nationally, the government estimates that 272 fires have occurred throughout the country, with only 84 started by ISIS. Local Nineveh Governorate officials, however, disagree with these estimates. They say that 180 fires have occurred between mid-May and mid-June. As of mid-June, these fires had destroyed 65,000 donums (land measurement) of wheat and barley.
Nineveh officials are blaming ISIS, as the destruction of food sources is a known insurgency tactic. Yazidis are concerned that an estimated 79 mass graves were damaged by these fires, thus destroying evidence of ISIS's genocidal activities against religious minorities. Christians are worried that these fires were started by militias seeking to solidify an Iranian-supported Islamic presence in Christian towns previously decimated by ISIS.
"It is a game, and we are the hostages in the middle of it. Not only Christians, but all Iraqi citizens are affected by the US--Iran conflict," one Christian shared with ICC. He continued, "Iran is setting fire on our agricultural fields to import either from Iran or through Iran. The only loser is the farmer who has been waiting all season to get some support."
Despite the differing theories and statistics, most agree that these fires are intentionally started in an organized capacity which targets the foundational needs of rebuilding the Nineveh Plains.
For Christians, these fires are a potent reminder of the community polarization generated by non-local militias that established a presence in the area as part of defeating ISIS. Hashid al-Shaabi, a leading militia under the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) umbrella, is a constant source of concern because of its extortion of displaced Christians rebuilding their lives.
A Qaraqosh farmer shared with ICC, "The militia of Hashid and their followers are destroying every way we find to live. They started with our homes post-liberation, then our jobs by making transportation from and to Qaraqosh very difficult. And now our agriculture. Surviving here became very difficult. I am not sure if we can survive for more than five years if the situation keeps like that."
Iraq's government lacks the infrastructure necessary to provide adequate accountability and oversight of the PMF, which maintains a close relationship with Iran. Even so, the parliament has declared June 13 as a "national occasion" which celebrates the formation of the PMF. This occasion was not welcomed by Christians. "Honoring Hashid by making a holiday under their name means that they are getting more formality, more influence on the government. They got seats at the parliament in 2018 and seems they will get more on the next election," one believer shared with ICC.
Hashid is a known supporter of the Shabak, a Shia ethnic group which, prior to ISIS, had a small presence outside of Christian villages in the Nineveh Plains. However, through the support of Hashid, the Shabak has gained control of the Christian village of Bartella and has also increased its influence in Qaraqosh.
The Archbishop of Mosul, Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf, is increasingly warning about Shabak influence in these two areas. He commented at an event in Dohuk, "The government is not considering us (Christians) because we are less. We can't form a militia to threaten others, and this is not our mentality, that's why they don't consider us. That is our real situation if we are Christians or Yazidis."
"We are under pressure in Qaraqosh and Bartella by a group who used to call themselves minorities, the Shabak. But they are not a minority. They have the support of Iran, and support of the central Government, and they have the militia," he continued.
His comments were widely attacked by Shabak social media and news outlets, which retaliated with derogatory comments toward Christians.
A failure of justice also furthers community polarization. The slavery system of religious minorities instituted by ISIS is not yet completely dismantled, and a failure of judicial process hinders victims from reuniting with their families. Ahlam, a 32-year-old Yazidi woman, is just one example. She was sexually enslaved by ISIS in 2014 and was kept in Mosul for six months before she was taken to Syria. Her niece was kept in Mosul where she was adopted into a Muslim family.
Ahlam told ICC how she is "sure that everyone (who) lives in Mosul is ISIS. I have a niece who was taken when she was two years old and now she is six. We claimed at the court, but the government is not helping us to get my niece back from the family living in Mosul."
The male relatives of many Yazidi women remain missing, and are mostly presumed dead. In June, the United Nations began using DNA testing to identify the remains of 141 bodies discovered in mass graves. It is estimated that the results will not be available until August. Yazidis feel that the investigative process is too slow. The head of the Yazidi Spiritual Council Office in a Yazidi village said, "We feel there is some neglect of the issue."
As ISIS lost territory in Iraq, they laid down mines to guard their escape. Identifying and removing these mines represents a significant barrier for the return of displaced persons. The UN and Iraqi government released new numbers indicating that 70% of known mines remain under rubble. How much of this amount is located in the Nineveh Plains was not revealed.
However, Mosul was the capital of ISIS in Iraq and the city remains largely destroyed. Iraqi parliamentarians are calling for an investigation on why it has taken so long to rebuild the city's infrastructure when it was recaptured from ISIS in 2017. There is also concern about investigating officials who may have contributed to the city's destruction.
Meanwhile, France has expressed interest in establishing an international court in Iraq which would try ISIS fighters. A lack of evidence makes prosecution challenging and foreign ISIS fighters have put their governments in a difficult position. Many are fearful that differing judicial standards would lead to ISIS militants being released upon their return home.