Washington -- The year 2019 brought mixed outcomes for Iraq's Nineveh Governorate. The Islamic State (ISIS) suffered serious setbacks, but an unknown number of militants remain at large in the governorate. Security, however, has not improved as Iranian-backed PMF militias sought territorial control. These militias would eventually become an ignition point for protests which defined the country, but demonstrations were prevented in the governorate. The UNITAD investigation into the crimes of ISIS gained traction, but the methodology continues to prompt questions of whether it is too little, too late.
Iraq launched a Will of Victory campaign in 2019, which included military operations in Nineveh intended to disrupt the organization of ISIS. The campaign relies heavily upon PMF militias, whose continued presence in Nineveh often prompts questions of whether they are motivated by fighting ISIS or by seizing new territory.
Motivations of various militias aside, the Will of Victory campaign regularly announced the results of counter-terrorism activities throughout the year. In December, a flurry of arrests took place during the Christmas season, a time when terrorists traditionally plan attacks. A total of 14 were arrested, and 18 others were killed. Though the timing was notable, the numbers are on track with previous monthly announcements. "I think ISIS is still in Iraq; the only difference is they threw [down] their weapons and they will pick them back up at any weak point," said one Christian.
Though ISIS continued to show itself organizationally capable throughout 2019, the year was largely defined by the sophisticated organization of the PMF militias that took control of the Nineveh Plains. Many residents complained that there was no difference between the behavior of ISIS and the militias. Harassment and extortion of non-Shia religious groups became commonplace. "Their main excuse for taking the money is that they are protecting our village. At the other side, (the militia) facilitates life for the Shabak since they are Shia Muslims. They make the process for Shabak very easy," added a Christian from Qeraqosh.
International attempts to lessen Iran's militia influence in Iraq heightened their resolve to maintain and grow their role in the country. While Iraqis protested the role of these militias, fear of militia retaliation in the Nineveh Plains caused many to discourage and even prevent locals from joining the protests.
Much of the polarization within the Nineveh Governorate relates to the consequences of corruption and conflicting visions regarding the region's future. Through the support of militias, Shia Muslims have gained a strong foothold in Nineveh that didn't exist pre-ISIS. Retaliation of suspected ISIS militants has strong religious and tribal undertones. International aid for rebuilding the Nineveh Plains began flowing more smoothly, along with fresh reports of corruption, creating new lines of division even within recipient communities.
For example, one Christian shared, "We've been witnessing development in the area, as you can notice the paving of the main road. Still (Christian leaders) are taking a percentage on each project illegally, and that is making organizational work very difficult."
PMF militias remain the most significant source of polarization in Nineveh. "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 Qeraqosh 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," shared one Qeraqosh farmer.
In July, the United States issued sanctions against two PMF militia figures and the former governor of Nineveh, who facilitated PMF activities. The PMF's response was aggressive, and local Christians were placed within their crosshairs for further harassment. "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. The PMF's aggression has only grown, particularly outside of Nineveh, where the protests were more common. The culture of fear that the PMF has established within Nineveh prevented many from joining the demonstrators.
The investigation into the crimes of ISIS was painfully slow to launch, but gained significant traction in 2019. Most of the focus was on exhuming mass graves of Yazidi victims and digitizing evidence in Mosul. For many Yazidis, the slowness of the process has been a significant discouragement, leaving many feeling hopeless about the future. Rebuilding activities are largely absent from Sinjar, further deepening their sense of discouragement. Whereas Christian areas have seen much physical restoration, the investigation of ISIS crimes has been largely overlooked in these areas.
"I believe the government intentionally forgot us; it is indirect message to leave. The problem is we don't even have [the] capability to leave, so it is permission to die," added one victim of ISIS's genocide.
A consistent theme of the investigative process is the process of detainment and trial of suspected ISIS members. Where to detain ISIS suspects remains under constant discussion, including whether they should even be detained in Nineveh, where many of their genocide victims live. Who pays for their detainment is yet another question, as ISIS has many foreign fighters. Their home countries often refuse to financially contribute, while refusing to accept these fighters back home for trial. The underlying concern is what will happen to these fighters if no one accepts responsibility, potentially leading them to be released back into Iraqi society. Such uncertainty further destabilizes the area's security environment.