In late December 2008 the Brookings Institution and the University of Bern, Germany released a report on Iraq’s minorities and refugees entitled “Minorities, Displacement and Iraq’s Future.” Although the paper was meant to be about all of Iraq’s minority groups, it largely focused upon the country’s Christians. It’s major findings were that Iraq’s small religious and ethnic groups have been targeted and attacked relentlessly since the U.S. invasion, driving a disproportionate amount from their homes, and out of the country. Unless these groups are re-integrated Iraq will be less diverse and tolerant, and a largely segregated country due to the sectarian war.
Estimates On Iraq’s Minorities:
Christians: 2003: 1-1.4 million, Today, 600,000-800,000
Jews: 2003: a few hundred, Today: 10-15
Mandeans: 2003: 30,000, Today: Fewer than 13,000
Palestinians: 2003: 35,000, Today: 15,000
Turkomen: 2003: 800,000 claimed, Today: as few as 200,000
Yazidis: 2003: No known, Today: around 550,000
The Brookings Institution and the University of Bern defined Iraq’s minorities as the country’s smallest religious and ethnic groups. These consist of the Armenian, Syriac, and Chaldo-Assyrian Christian, Bahai, Jewish, Mandean, and Yazidi religions, along with the Faili Kurds, Palestinians, Shabaks, and Turkomen. Many of these groups have lived in Iraq for over 1,000 years. All of them were treated differently under the Saddam Hussein regime. The Bahais and Fayli Kurds were persecuted, while the Palestinians were given special treatment. Since the U.S. invasion they have all faced similar situations. These include a lack of power, persecution, and attacks. The country’s Jews for example have mostly disappeared, having fled Iraq, while the Palestinians are trapped with nowhere to go.
The religious and ethnic parties studied in the report are different from the Sunnis and Kurds who each are numerical minorities. The Sunnis ran the country under Saddam, have large numbers of politicians, and are a junior partner in the ruling coalition behind Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They have also conducted a bloody insurgency that still continues in parts of Iraq. The Kurds on the other hand, were attacked and persecuted under Saddam, but since the Gulf War have gained more and more autonomy. Under the old regime, Kurds faced Saddam’s Arabization program and Operation Anfal that pushed out over 100,000 from northern Iraq, and killed around the same amount. After 2003, the Kurds were able to form the Kurdistan Regional Government incorporating the provinces of Dohuk, Irbil, and Sulamaniyah. The Kurds were also one of the major groups that drafted the constitution, and got Article 140 included that provides a mechanism for them to annex disputed areas such as Kirkuk. They are also the second largest bloc in parliament after the Shiites. Most of the Kurdish refugees have also resettled in Kurdistan rather than in other countries. Only 1% of Iraqis living in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey are Kurds. Many have also been able to resettle in areas of northern Iraq where Saddam forced them out. None of these experiences are the same as the minorities looked at by Brookings and the University of Bern.
All of Iraq’s minorities have been singled out for discrimination and attacks. Christians and Yazidis were prominent in the alcohol industry, which has brought on attacks by both Shiite and Sunni Islamists. Christians were seen as a symbol of the West, and killed by both Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Mahdi Army. In October 2008, Christians in Mosul were attacked riving out over 2,000 families. Only one-third has returned since then. As a result of this violence, a large number of each group has been displaced or fled to other countries. The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration estimates that about half of Iraq’s minorities have left the country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) believes 30% of Iraqi refugees are minorities. The Mandeans fear that this displacement might mean their end because they won’t be able to find marriage partners. You can only be a member of their religion by being born into it.
Because many of Iraq’s minorities live in the north, they are also caught in the middle of the political battle between the Arabs and Kurds. This is especially true in places like Mosul and Kirkuk. In those areas and others Kurds have aspirations to annex large swaths of territory, which Arabs generally oppose. Many feel pressed to assimilate to one of the larger groups for protection and patronage. The minorities lack tribal affiliations, large numbers of politicians, and some are pacifists. The smaller minorities then either have to align with a larger group or leave because of the relentless pressure upon them.
The Kurds especially in places like Ninewa province have been playing on these fears. They provide aid, security, housing and funding for churches to Christians, but many believe this is to win over their votes and form a patronage system with them so that they become dependent upon the Kurds.There are reports that Christians can’t get jobs unless they join one of the major Kurdish parties for example. Their policy has apparently worked as the Christian community is split over the future of Ninewa. The largest Assyrian Christian Party, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, has supported the central government against the Kurds, but the three smaller Christian parties have joined with the Kurds and called for the annexation of northern sections of Ninewa to Kurdistan believing that they would be safer with the Kurds than with Baghdad.
The Provincial Election Law shows how minorities are caught up in this larger power struggle between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. When the act was finally passed it dropped a provision to provide quotas for minority seats on provincial councils. Later, an amendment was added, but it only gave six out of 440 seats for minorities when the United Nations had asked for 12. Christians got one seat each in Baghdad, Ninewa, and Basra, Yazidis got one seat in Ninewa, the Sabeans one in Baghdad, and the Shabaks a seat in Ninewa. Minorities can run for other seats, but Iraqis have tended to vote along sectarian lines. The law was heralded as another step towards reconciliation, but not for the country’s minorities. They felt slighted, and believed this was another way to keep them marginalized and powerless.
The reason why their numbers were reduced in the final election amendment was because of the conflict between Arabs and Kurds. The Arabs believed that most of these minorities would vote with the Kurds, and support their plans for expansion. The Kurds on the other hand did not want many of these groups designated as minorities because they consider them Kurds. With minority quotas they were afraid they would not get as many votes. Many Yazidis for example do consider themselves Kurds. Both sides also believed that with no quota minorities would be more dependent upon them to get government assistance.
In order to resolve this issue the Brookings Institution and the Bern University say that the thousands of minorities that have fled the country need to return, be re-integrated, and be protected. A small portion of Iraq’s four million plus refugees have begun going back to their homes and provinces. The UNHCR has recorded no minorities coming back however. In order for this to happen, they have to be assured of their safety first. This has not happened for those still in the country. The government also needs to deal with property disputes. Baghdad has started some policies on evicting squatters, but they are not being applied evenly. There is also not enough evidence yet that this is having any influence on whether Iraqis come back or not. The election law was also not something that would encourage minorities. If they don’t come back, then Iraq will be a less diverse and tolerant country the paper warns. When minorities leave, those left behind are often victimized making the whole situation worse.
If minorities do come back they need to be able to return to their original communities as well. This would be part of the process of reversing the sectarian cleansing that occurred from 2006 to 2007. If minorities, along with all the Sunnis and Shiites can’t return to their neighborhoods than Iraq will be a segregated nation. Families will be internally displaced living with friends or relatives where their group is the majority. Iraq could end up like Bosnia where international effort has led to a country that still has hundreds of thousands of displaced thirteen years after the Dayton Peace Accords.
Finally, the report ends with six suggestions to help relieve this problem. First, Baghdad needs to prevent future displacement, which is the basic job of any government to protect its citizens. This also includes providing jobs and services. Second, Brookings and Bern believe the government and the international community shouldn’t focus just upon specific groups, but all minorities in general. This will make for more equitable policies. Third, a property resolution system needs to be created. Fourth, the international community needs to consult with the minorities about their needs. Fifth, the host countries where many of these minorities have fled need to receive aid to help support them. Last, because some people may never go back to Iraq they need to be repatriated to Europe and the United States.
The Brookings Institution and the University of Bern provide a general overview of the problems facing Iraq’s minorities. All of the country’s small religious and ethnic groups have been victimized since the U.S. invasion. Thousands have fled their homes, and the country as a result. This has placed entire communities in jeopardy. In fact, some of the smaller groups like the Mandeans fear that they will go extinct if this continues. Many of those still in the country are concentrated in the north where they are trapped in the rivalry between the Arabs and Kurds. As the Provincial Election Law amendment on quotas shows, without strong representation minorities are open to political manipulation, which again does not bode well for their future in Iraq as the larger and more powerful groups can largely determine their future. The major problem with the report is that it only really gives evidence of the Christians, without really telling what’s happening to the other groups in any detail. Providing the larger structural problems is not all bad however. In the end, given their position, it doesn’t appear that Iraq’s minorities will have a safe future in Iraq any time soon. Iraq has to overcome all of its major divisions first, before it can even deal with the smaller groups. Until then, the country’s minorities will most likely continue to be pawns in the larger struggles between Arabs and Kurds, while still being attacked for being different.
Ferris, Elizabeth and Stoltz, Kimberly, “Minorities, Displacement and Iraq’s Future,” Brookings Institution-University of Bern, December 2008
Hanna, Michael Wahid, “Through the cracks,” The National, 12/19/08
Paley, Amit, “Strip of Iraq ‘on the Verge of Exploding,’” Washington Post, 9/13/08
Timmerman, Kenneth, “Christians Face Extinction in Northern Iraq,” Newsmax.com, 4/24/08
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