Washington -- During the month of September, irregular military forces existing within the Nineveh Plains increased demonstrations of strength. The Islamic State published a rare audio message from self-declared Caliph al-Baghdadi, who strongly suggested an upcoming increase of militant activity. The Hashid al-Shaabi militia, which gained control of the Nineveh Plains following the defeat of ISIS, showcased the consequences of demographic change in the region during the Shia Ashura holiday.
The Nineveh Governorate is expelling displaced persons from local camps, and Christians are increasingly vocal regarding concerns over the misappropriation of project funds. The UN investigation into the crimes of ISIS was reauthorized for another year. While some trials are proceeding forward, a new report suggests that there is little local interest outside of religious minority groups about this process.
ISIS's release of a rare audio message by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was part of an attempt to restore confidence among the defeated militants. This message encouraged the militants to increase focus on spiritual development, media outreach, military excursions, and security protocols.
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The 30-minute message specifically mentioned the wives and children of ISIS held in detention camps. Baghdadi used derogatory terms about Christians to frame why the militants should do everything in their power to free their families from these camps. He also called on militants to target local officials engaged in transitional justice issues.
Local media reports indicate an increased number of alleged ISIS militants arrested (28) or killed (20). Three car bombs were located and seized throughout Nineveh. Also, in two separate incidents, an Iraqi army officer was killed in an explosion and a paramilitary fighter was injured in a second detonation. In Sinjar, two Iraqi army personnel were killed and one was wounded while diffusing a booby-trapped house. The Pentagon expressed fear that ISIS is exploiting security gaps within Iraq's disputed territories.
Meanwhile, the paramilitary Hashid al-Shaabi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) continued sowing disorder within these territories. They temporarily prevented the deputy governor of Mosul and a Kurdish lawmaker from passing through a checkpoint on their way home. The UN Mission for Iraq held a review on the PMF's negative impact on the Nineveh Plains, but it is not clear what steps the mission will take as a consequence.
The Church remains concerned about the strength of Hashid's influence in the Nineveh region. The Chaldean primate has repeatedly warned of demographic change as a result of Hashid's activities. In a September statement, the primate expressed the need to "implement the Iraqi Prime Minister's decision regarding the withdrawal of armed militias from the cities of the Nineveh Plain, whatever their affiliation."
The consequences of demographic change were strongly felt during Ashura, a holiday celebrated by Shia Muslims. Prior to ISIS, Sunni Muslims were the dominant Islamic demographic in the Nineveh Plains. Hashid's control of Nineveh provides military backing to the local Shia communities. For the first time, Shia Muslims were able to impose an Ashura curfew on the Nineveh Plains. This effectively shut down transportation during the holiday.
Christians found the situation concerning. The curfew was viewed as an "unnecessary slap" toward local Sunni Muslims, and thus a way to stoke community tension. Christians were also uncomfortable with Ashura displays so close to their homes. "Intentionally, all of the mokubs (observers) were shouting, 'Ya Hussien' very highly when they arrived close to Qaraqosh," said one resident. "We are not comfortable living next to Muslim extremist neighborhoods. The daily rate for immigration is one family at least per day."
Furthermore, issues involving ISIS detainment and IDP camps are fueling possible ignition points amongst the local communities.
According to Human Rights Watch, over 2,000 Iraqis have been forcibly expelled from displacement camps located in the Nineveh Governorate. This expulsion began on August 23 and carried through September. It is a consequence of a secret resolution passed in July which orders people from areas other than Nineveh, approximately 38,040 individuals, to leave displacement camps. Forcing the return of displaced persons stands in contradiction to Iraq's own laws. It establishes a precedent that exposes a vulnerable demographic to the violence from which they had attempted escape. Most Christians and Yazidis remain displaced from Nineveh to other governorates.
One of the major concerns for detainment camps holding suspected ISIS members and their families is that kidnapped Yazidi women or children may still be held captive in these locations.
The Yazidi Director of the Office for Kidnapped Affairs has requested permission from the Iraq Central Government to conduct DNA testing inside these facilities. It is estimated that nearly 3,000 Yazidi women remain missing. The surviving Yazidi community continues expressing frustration at the slow investigative process into their disappearance. This slow process also creates problems for women who have already been freed.
"I'm sorry, but with all my respect, human rights are a big lie," said one Yazidi. "The world is talking about human rights and with all that is happening, no one is raising awareness, no one is helping."
Speaking of his relative, a Yazidi woman held captive, he continued "She does not have an identity, and we cannot assure her an identity card. Without an identity card, you are nothing. She does not even have a source of income, and she cannot have it without identity."
For Christians, however, a primary concern is the perception of project corruption as different groups vie for territorial control.
"We've been witnessing development in the area, as you can notice the paving of the main road," said one Christian. "Still (Christian leaders) are taking a percentage on each project illegally, and that is making organizational work very difficult."
"I think prayers are the number one need. Second, I think any support going to this church and their leaders should stop immediately, especially financial support, because it just strengthens their power over people," added another. "Third step, I think we need to come to confession and make it known to the public."
The United Nations investigation into the crimes of ISIS was reauthorized for one year after the UNITAD charter expired on September 21. The Iraq Mission continues emphasizing the need for a criminal investigation into the individual crimes of ISIS members. A press release stated that "holding those accountable will further expose these crimes being used as a tactic of terrorism... UNITAD will redouble efforts to work in close cooperation with the Iraqi authorities so that the justice so long promised to those communities most impacted by ISIL crimes may be delivered."
Shatha Salim Bashar, a Yazidi woman kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS, announced plans to travel to Germany in October. There, she will testify against one of her alleged rapists in a court of law in his European country of origin. This is a notable step forward. Foreigners made up a significant demographic of ISIS militants, and nations have struggled with whether these fighters should be tried in the country where their crimes were committed or in their home countries.
A Christian mass grave was "rediscovered" in Qeraqosh. The grave, which contains the remains of seven adults, was first discovered in March 2017 but was not reported until September 2019. The grave was exhumed during the initial discovery, and evidence suggested that the victims were executed. The remains were then later reburied. Calls for an official UN investigation into the mass grave is ongoing, as well as concerns about how much evidence remains in the grave following its disturbance three years earlier.
The Iraqi Media House published a report which examined the local media's treatment of religious minorities following ISIS. It found a significant decrease of media coverage and that existing coverage focuses on rivalries, rather than the underlying human rights issues facing religious minorities. As a result, while local media may cover some of the transitional justice issues facing Iraq, it is done so with low quality production and in a manner which aggravates those problems rather than promoting national unity.
The report recommends that the media "should change the ways to communicate with the public... rather than turning these sites into closed platforms on the same dialogue with a specific audience."