August marked the five-year anniversary of the Islamic State (ISIS) sweeping into the Nineveh Plains and engaging in a policy of genocide. Unfortunately, little progress was made this month relating to the investigation of ISIS crimes. The defeated, yet insurgent, militants further demonstrated their intention of keeping the Nineveh Plains a significant feature of their strategy. Local security challenges escalated as the Iraqi Central Government attempted to remove control of the Nineveh Plains from the PMF Hashid al-Shaabi militia. These efforts were not successful, and only strengthened the local militia presence. In a hostile response to international pressure, the militias began initiating a show of strength and independence. This, in turn, thrust local Christians and Yazidis into an awkward position, as significant attempts were made to force them to choose sides.
ISIS has made yet another attempt to restore confidence amongst members. On August 8, the media arm of ISIS announced a significant leadership transition. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who established the so-called caliphate and is reportedly suffering from severe injuries, transitioned military leadership to Abdullah Qardash. Baghdadi remains the spiritual leader of ISIS.
Related: Timeline of ISIS in Iraq
Related: Attacks on Assyrians in Syria By ISIS and Other Muslim Groups
Unlike Baghdadi, Qardash is originally from the Nineveh Governorate (Tal Afar). This means that Qardash has had more exposure to the same religious minorities which ISIS had attempted to eliminate through genocide. How this will impact the activities of ISIS in the region has yet to be determined.
The Iraqi government continues its "Will of Victory" military operation dedicated toward eliminating ISIS sleeper cells. In the Nineveh Governorate, these activities resulted in the deaths of six alleged ISIS militants and the arrest of 14. An estimated 12 ISIS hideouts were destroyed. This represents a significant decrease of public anti-ISIS activities compared to the previous month.
This may be a consequence of an internal power struggle between the Iraqi government and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition of Iranian backed militias. The PMF has come under international pressure for their human rights abuses in the wake of ISIS's defeat. The Iraqi government had announced that the PMF will integrate into the formal armed forces at the end of July. This included an order for the PMF Hashid al-Shaabi militia to exit the Nineveh Plains.
However, the deadline was missed. On August 5, the Iraqi Army made an attempt to take control of the Nineveh Plains from Hashid. The militia responded by organizing Shia-led protests that effectively prevented the Iraqi Army's purpose. "What they did is shame. They brought women and kids to protest, and the army could never fight families or groups that included women and kids," observed a local Christian.
The army then retracted their presence, and the Iraqi government agreed that all checkpoints (except one, which will be jointly administered) in the Nineveh Plains will remain under Hashid control. Hashid will administer the security of Mosul.
The Prime Minister insists that this is a temporary solution. The Nineveh Provincial Council has remained outspoken against this resolution, saying that federal police should administer security in the governorate.
"The countdown has started for Brigade 30 and Hashid. The US is smart enough; they pushed the army to fight them. But it is important for the US to support the army because it is clear that Brigade 30 has external support from Iran," recommended a Qeraqosh resident.
The conflict between Hashid and the Iraqi Army has furthered community polarization by testing the loyalties of those residing in the Nineveh Plains. Christians often face criticism for having Western political connections, and Hashid has heavily felt Western pressure as a result of their human rights abuses.
Shortly after the August 5 incident, Hashid leadership began a media campaign which attempted to show their relationship with the local Christian community in a positive light. At the same time, Hashid deployed a local TV media campaign that encouraged the elevation of denominational differences.
As part of this particular campaign, Christians were asked several questions about Israel. Meanwhile, Yazidis were accused by a prominent Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadar, of having survived ISIS only to side with Israel.
This month, several Hashid weapon depots were destroyed in drone strikes. On August 26, the PMF officially stated that these drone strikes are a result of Israeli aggression and are tantamount to a declaration of war. The same day, the PMF headquarters in Nineveh deployed air defense weapons against an unidentified drone observing the location.
The Iraqi government has reaffirmed its commitment to protecting the PMF against reoccurring attacks that challenge the country's sovereignty, and notes that this situation distracts from anti-ISIS operations.
In Sinjar, the homeland of Yazidis, the PMF has come under criticism for spending $35,000 in private donations toward the reconstruction of a revered Shia shrine (Sayyida Zaynab the Younger's Shrine). This is the only Shia shrine in Sinjar. There have been no efforts to rebuild the 68 Yazidi shrines destroyed by ISIS, and reconstruction has generally been absent in Sinjar. It is noteworthy that the geographical placement of Sinjar provides increased strategic strength to the PMF.
"We are strangers to this country," voiced one Yazidi. "In all the meetings, Shia leaders say, 'You are a part of this.' But let me ask you, what have they done for us?"
She continued, "The [religious] sites are important to be repaired, but the most important is to take care of the 3,000 women who are still missing. The most important thing is to retreat ISIS survivors and their kids. The most important thing could be how to put a plan to bring those who are living in tents until this moment to their homes. Can you believe we are in a 21st century and people still live in tents and camps!"
Senior Iraqi officials have begun warning that, according to a new law which will take effect in April 2020, IDPs can only vote in upcoming provincial elections from their home cities. The government has faced criticism for attempting to force IDPs to return home. The government insists that IDPs are returning, citing 235 IDPs having returned in August. However, this pales in comparison to the 7,000 returnees who have fled back to displacement areas within the first six months of this year.
Meanwhile, Iraq's legislature is considering a proposal which would require Supreme Court decisions to have the support of three out of the four Islamic scholars advising the judiciary. Currently, they have a type of observer status. Christian leaders have voiced strong opposition to the proposal, expressing concern that this would further solidify Islamic law within an environment that already subjects religious minorities to discrimination.
August marked the five-year anniversary since the rise of ISIS. The Kurdish Regional Government passed a resolution marking August 3 as the Yazidi Genocide Remembrance Day. The Iraq Central Government issued a series of voluntary pledges at the United Nations as part of its re-election bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council for 2020-2021. This includes several pledges related to protecting the rights of religious minorities following ISIS. However, especially in light of their failure to control Hashid, it is not clear whether the Central Government can actually implement these pledges.
Many hoped that the UN investigative team would announce significant progress during the commemorative month, but no related announcements were made. There is an increase of condemnation about the international arena's failure to engage in criminal prosecutions of ISIS militants.
"I believe the government intentionally forgot us; it is indirect message to leave. The problem is we don't even have capability to leave, so it is permission to die," added one victim of ISIS's genocide.
The international arena is continuing to fund reconstruction. The United Nations and Iraq signed a memorandum establishing a special Reconstruction and Recovery Trust Fund that would collect international pledges made last February. The United Arab Emirates announced that they would provide $50 million to UNESCO for the purpose of repairing holy and cultural sites. This includes two churches demolished by ISIS: al-Sa'a and al-Tahra churches.