The defeat of ISIS in Iraq came at the cost of strengthening militias. The pandemic has given many regional governments an opportunity to centralize authority. But Iraq's militias have resisted similar attempts by Baghdad. For those observing this dynamic, it brings memories of a past filled with hardship and history of increased persecution.
During the early 2000s, these militias were at the forefront of Christian persecution, prompting the first immigration wave. "Christian immigration passed through three main stages," explained a former resident of Baghdad to ICC. "The first was from 2005-2007, [the] second was in 2010 when some extremists attacked [a] church during Sunday mass and the third stage was in 2014 when ISIS attacked [the] Nineveh Plain."
Will there be a fourth stage? Many hope not, but recent militia tension brings memories of the early 2000s.
Recently, Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Services conducted an unprecedented raid on a militia in Baghdad. The next day, the militia threatened retaliation. One militia member threatened Prime Minister al-Khadami, who ordered the raid, reportedly saying "you are smaller than attacking an office of our militia."
The prime minister remains new to his office, after militia interference in the political system delayed the process for months. Untangling the web of militia control is a struggle and dangerous endeavor, but the prime minister's early policies seem to indicate this is a priority. This has left Christians unsettled and skeptical of the prime minister's ability to actually break down militia control.
"I can't believe what al-Khadami is pretending to do. If you look back at previous prime ministers, al-Abadi or Abdul Mahdi, you will find similarity on the decisions, but none turn to actions," said Ehab, a Christian from Baghdad.
He continued, "both Abadi and Abdul Mahdi took strict decision about militias having weapons, but again [nothing] came to reality. Having that history tells me not to believe al-Khadami and that all he is doing [will] not exceed a show."
It is well-known across Iraq that the federal government has no power, and that the militias actually control the country with the support of neighboring Iran, a Shia country.
Ali, a militia member, told ICC. "Now the people of Iraq are exhausted under the Shi'a Islamic control. All who are in control somehow belong to some sort of militia. Over the past 17 years, they worked on weakening the government and [taking] its power. They are controlling the country by militias."
The militias are often well-funded through an elaborate trade network. Weapons and other supplies are smuggled across borders. This is significant concern for Nineveh Governorate residents, as this area is the last distinctly Christian area in Iraq. It shares a border with Syria and is geographically close to Turkey. Iranian trucks frequently pass through.
"Militias will never allow the government to take control on borders, it is a huge income for them to support their employees, weapons, and to support Iran," explains Fadi, a displaced from Nineveh. "According to my knowledge, border income [is] considered the 2nd income for Iraq after exporting oil. It is supposed to take 12% of the total income if it goes to the Central Iraq Ministry of Finance. But it goes to the militias. That explain how these militias are having all these cars, influence, weapons, and support in general."
Many Christians lament the misdirection of border income, as funds delivered to the government could help them. Instead, militias use it to perpetuate violence and human rights abuses.
"If the borders' income goes to the government it will be for good of Iraqis. But now the income been used to buy weapons and to employ someone who killed Iraqis; it is exactly the opposite," said a local woman named Romina. Speaking of Christians, she says "we are part of the community and whatever happened to Iraq in general have a direct impact on our lives."
"I see al-Khadami as a hero who needs support to achieve something good for all Iraqis by maintaining fair partnerships with the international community on political and economic sides. But that's against what Iran wants because it will decrease Iranian trading and political influence in Iraq," continued Romina.
Tensions only continue to rise as recently news broke that Hisham al-Hashimi was assassinated in Baghdad. A leading expert on Iraq's militias who had an advisory role with the government and frequently appeared in the media, many believe his death was a warning. Do not speak ill of the militias. Do not try to control them.
For Christians, it is a warning felt with worry and concern. The militias cause them so many hardships. But will constraining the militias increase these challenges?