While COVID-19 dominates most of daily life in the Nineveh Governorate, sectarian tensions are further defining the landscape. Residents report competing mandates between the governorate and checkpoints operated by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). A fracture within the PMF could further engrain Iranian influence in Nineveh and deepen the governorate's disputed status. Meanwhile, Shabak activism has increased regarding their growing presence near Christian areas. Christians are negotiating their role with the immigration portfolio in Iraq's government.
Understanding of COVID-19 is a global challenge, but the pandemic makes an already difficult living environment in Nineveh even more demanding. "COVID-19 is a mystery," says one interviewed resident. "Some reports and even patients say if you have even very simple symptoms, you need to go to the doctor, while others say you are safe unless it is advanced symptoms. We don't understand which is right."
Another adds, "It is very hard to get tested, but we are safe in Qeraqosh. We are born and raised on an organic system. Everything is fresh. Our immune system could be the strongest in the world. We also have faith in God and his saints; he will protect us."
A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) reported only six confirmed cases in Nineveh (five cured, one active), placing the governorate in the bottom 3 for locations where the virus was confirmed in Iraq. Like Nineveh, the other two governorates were also occupied by ISIS. No cases were reported in Sinjar.
Nearly 30 NGOs have warned that COVID-19 has the potential for disaster in Northern Iraq. Nineveh lacks a solid infrastructure system, thus impacting health care access. Doctors Without Borders reported that the main referral hospital for COVID-19 patients in Nineveh is al-Shifaa Hospital in Mosul. Other reports indicate that while the test can be conducted in Mosul, analysis must occur in Baghdad, causing delays. The expense of traveling to medical facilities is already a significant burden for families impacted by ISIS. These challenges could be impacting numbers reported to WHO. Another challenge, reported by Reuters, is that Iraq is significantly underreporting confirmed COVID-19 cases and is making attempts to restrict whistleblowing efforts.
Because of the low number of cases in Nineveh, Governor Jabouri had reduced restrictions on movement beginning on April 18th "to relieve the burden of citizens as the month of Ramadan approaches." An earlier statement by the governorate had reduced these kinds of restrictions for agriculture. However, despite these official statements, residents report difficulties traveling within the governorate.
For example, a farmer told ICC that "I don't know why do we have a government? There is a signed letter by the Governor of Mosul, Naim al-Jabouri, ordering all checkpoints to allow trucks to pass. At the checkpoint, my truck driver has been told by the office that he is the master. He is the one who makes decisions, not the governor."
A driver for a local fodder seller also shared that, "I've been struggling at checkpoints. I stayed 6 hours last time to pass, even with hundreds of phone calls, talking to the importer, exporter, more and more people to get me past with these tons of fodder."
Traveling within their home cities, however, is not always a challenge for Nineveh residents. "It is no big difference in daily life for Qeraqosh before and during coronavirus. We are not a crowded city," explains one.
As a disputed territory, the future of the Nineveh Governorate is constantly caught between the cross-hairs of Iraq's competing militia and political system.
Shabak -- Christian tensions in Nineveh appear to have become slightly more elevated through media engagement. The Shabak, who are supported by Iran, have repeatedly been reported as facilitating demographic change in Christian areas such as Bartella. In one recent media report, Shabak activists stated that "Many Christians have left Iraq, so areas became Shabak and pictures of Imam Hussein appeared. It was a result, not a plan. We just wanted water, services, schools for the children. If the government had given us land, we would've never left our areas."
Meanwhile, Christian immigration has become a source of political tension. Because of the massive amount of Christian immigration due to persecution, it has become traditional for Christians to handle the Central Government's Ministry of Displacement and Migration portfolio. However, the appointment has been lacking because of the authorities' inability to form a united government and underlying sectarian tensions.
The PMF militias are also showing signs of significant stress. Four brigades affiliated with Sistani in Southern Iraq have now made the choice to split from the PMF brigades associated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which are those brigades who control the Nineveh Governorate. This has caused significant in-fighting, leading some to explain this as the reason why ISIS has greatly increased attacks in the areas surrounding Nineveh. However, others say that these attacks are of a defensive rather than offensive nature, while still others say that these attacks are more reflective of KRG -- ICG tensions impacting disputed territories.
Regardless, an increase of ISIS attacks has not been observed in Nineveh, only the surrounding areas. Incidents involving ISIS within Nineveh appear split between an offensive and defensive nature. In one case, security forces blew up a hideout of ISIS fighters. In another, two civilians were killed by a roadside bomb near the border with Saladin. The PMF is usually involved in ISIS-related incidents, on the one hand, providing counter-terrorism support in Nineveh. On the other hand, their harassment and intimidation of residents make them an unwelcome presence.
COVID-19 has effectively stalled much of the fieldwork of UNITAD, the United Nations team investigating the genocide of ISIS. UNITAD announced that they have signed an agreement with the European Union to support the digitization of evidence related to the crimes of ISIS. This involves a 3.5 million EUR contribution to this project from the European Union. It is hoped that this will deepen the evidential foundation for future prosecutions, some of which are moving forward in Europe. "By establishing a comprehensive documentary record of these acts, we also contribute to global efforts to promote peace and security by ensuring that the ideologically bankrupt nature of ISIL is exposed," said UNITAD in a statement.