August 3, 2016 marks the tragic two-year anniversary of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attack on the Yezidi village of Sinjar in northern Iraq. ISIL killed and enslaved thousands of Yezidis while displacing tens of thousands on the mountaintops of northern Iraq. The town of Sinjar fell victim to the conflict of what some consider “disputed territories” in Iraq.
Disputed territories are towns located outside the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s formal borders and are contested with the federal government in Baghdad on whose administration they fall under. As a result of this conflict, many of these disputed areas had no reliable security forces to protect them. The divisions of the Iraqi army in Nineveh province and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) regional Peshmerga forces both fled as ISIL forces invaded. Territory that was disputed was abandoned for terrorists to wreak havoc.
This is not the first time the neglected people of disputed territories experience pain and chaos. Many of the disputed territories in Iraq encompass most of Iraq’s minorities such as the Turkmen, the third largest ethnic group in Iraq, and ethnic-religious minorities such as the Yezidis and the Assyrians, Iraq’s indigenous group. These communities fell victim to Saddam’s Ba’athist agenda of Arabization and to his endless wars with the rest of Iraqis. Arabization saw Iraq’s minorities persecuted for their religious and ethnic identities and an attempt to erase them by banning their language, religious and social practices.
The overthrow of Saddam in 2003 and the introduction of the 2005 Iraqi constitution was meant to turn a new page in all Iraqi lives, including Iraqi minorities. The constitution recognized who they were and was meant to protect them. The events of the summer of 2014 reveal the Iraqi government failed to do so. Iraq’s majority Shia Arabs continue to suffer the largest levels of poverty and lowest levels of development; this capitulation reveals the failure of governance by Iraq’s post Saddam administrations. The fact U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, has to tell the world ISIL has committed genocide against the Shia, Iraq’s largest component, and the Assyrian and Yezidi minorities, is a testament to the Iraqi government’s failures. Such incompetence is inexcusable.
However, for all their failures over the past 13 years, it is about time to begin to implement the Iraqi constitution and hold those that violate its articles accountable. Iraq’s minorities will disappear, and be remembered only in the history books like Iraq’s Jewish community if nothing is done soon. If Baghdad officially administers the disputed territories, then it must pull all its weight and ensure it does so correctly. The KRG struggles to pay its forces and showed how stretched they have become when trying to expand its presence. The Iraqi government must continue liberating land from ISIL and never allow illegal occupations to occur again. Iraq’s borders must be secured by the Iraqi Security Forces who continue to transform under the training of the coalition and from the experience gained on the battlefield.
For the minorities impacted by ISIL this will not be enough after all they have gone through. Therefore, the Iraqi government must empower these minorities by creating minority protection units within the Iraqi security forces to allow them to protect themselves while Iraqi soldiers guard Iraq’s borders and the outer boundaries of Nineveh, Salah al-Din and the other provinces that neighbour Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The KRG can claim disputed territories all they want; their region is under Iraqi sovereignty until they actually secede. Until then, they must not defy the first article of the constitution or prevent the empowerment of other communities in Iraq.
While both Baghdad and KRG failed to protect minorities, the Iraqi constitution protects the identity of minorities such as Yezidis and Assyrians. The KRG has taken an identical approach to that of Saddam’s Arabization through Kurdification. Alongside ensuring foreign forces like ISIL can never invade Iraq again, cultural genocide like Arabization or Kurdification must not be tolerated in Iraq either. After liberating all of Iraq from ISIL, Baghdad must work with its minorities, empower them and truly protect them.
As for the KRG, they continue to be dependent on Baghdad for support, so minorities within disputed territories will hesitate to seek patronage with the KRG. Kirkuk’s governor is finding that the hard way as he is now trying to cut out the middle man (KRG) after receiving less for his province’s petrodollar shares through illegal KRG oil sales than under Iraq’s federal oil sales.
The KRG may continue to put up a fight over disputed areas but that is no excuse for Baghdad to not uphold its duty as the sovereign capital of Iraq to protect all Iraqis. The KRG is at its weakest point now and while they may be able to put up a better fight with regards to oil sales, disputed areas must no longer be a fight it has with the KRG. If there is need for any evidence of what it is like to be a newly established province under the KRG, just look at Halabja. No improvements whatsoever since declaring themselves as a province under the KRG. Iraq’s minority leaders have expressed themselves across many capital cities across the West, wanting help to establish autonomous regions to govern themselves.
Iraq must not allow itself to fragment like the former Yugoslavia but it can become a true federalist state by establishing provinces for these communities. For example, in addition to a province in Sinjar for the Yezidis and Nineveh Plains for Assyrians, a province for Turkmens in Tal Afar which would be a bigger province than the province of Duhok established in 1991. These provinces would be more appropriate than autonomous regions as Yezidis, Assyrians and Turkmen do not only live in cities and towns like Sinjar and Tal Afar but across multiple provinces. Autonomous regions will restrict minorities from outside these areas if autonomous regions are established just like how the Kurdistan Region has divided Kurds living in southern Iraq from those living in the Kurdistan Region.
The focus has been on the war effort but the brave Iraqi soldiers are taking care of that very well, it is only a matter of time before all of Iraq is liberated from ISIL. What happens afterwards must be discussed now and an important aspect of post-ISIL Iraq is the minorities of Iraq. They must no longer be neglected and that begins by working with them to ensure that they can protect and govern themselves. In addition, there must be a greater effort in Iraqi education of all Iraq’s minorities so we no longer run into the ignorance and chaos of today. A big part of what makes Iraq unique in the Middle East is its diversity that must be taught, promoted and protected. There is no excuse to hear Iraqi minority leaders pleading to foreign governments while the Iraqi state remains ignorant or unbothered by what happens to its people.
Seeing fellow Iraqis who are from minority backgrounds in the north suffer and plead to foreign governments for help hurts no less than seeing fellow Iraqis of the same background as me fall victim to cowardly terrorist attacks in my city of origin, Baghdad.
Hamzeh Hadad is an Iraqi writer and commentator. He holds a Bachelor of Arts with honors from the University of King’s College.