The three districts of the Nineveh Plains under scrutiny here are classified as disputed territories under Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi constitution. Tel Kaif and Shekhan have disputed boundaries with the Duhok governorate of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Hamdaniyah shares a disputed boundary with the Erbil governorate. Since 2016/17, the government of Iraq has alleged control over much of the Plains in nominal terms, although not in material terms, leaving non-government actors with the “lion’s share of influence”.[5] The neglect by federal and regional governments has been evidenced through the dismal service infrastructure and weak institutional capacities of local service providers. Against this backdrop, this section identifies the following key findings that are detailed below:

The convoluted governance situation of the Nineveh Plains produces, paradoxically, both an absence of governance and a complex lattice of governance, which results in citizens having to develop multiple networks to access different services and receive support from different informal actors to cope and survive.

Local politicians representing the populations of the Plains are linked to different parties in the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil, since both administrations have applied pressure on local communities through local leaders to identify with one government or the other. The result is that the Plains becomes a political playing field for Erbil and Baghdad instead of vice versa.[6] Unsurprisingly, this increases polarisation within communities, limiting chances for more resolution-oriented political dialogue.

Yazidi, Assyrian, Christian and Shabak representation in the Iraqi parliament and the NPC remains largely symbolic. MPs for these communities only represent their individual group as minority votes that can’t ‘tip the scales’ in one direction or another. This produces limited space and unbalanced competition for minority groups at the local level as well. Hence, their ability to lobby or create pressure for greater rights for their communities is limited.

Nineveh’s provincial council and governorate

The Nineveh Provincial Council (NPC) was elected in 2013 amidst heightened security turmoil. This resulted in a significantly lower turnout at about half that of 2009: 581,449, compared to 995,169 in the previous election. The 39 member council was dominated by representation from minority groups. The increase in the representation of the latter groups meant that a scatter of different Christian, Yazidi and Shabak political parties won a total of 18 seats with each winning between one to four seats.[7] The number of seats won by minorities demonstrated popular discontent and lack of confidence in the previous council due to its fractured nature and inability to deliver basic services.[8] Nonetheless, and despite the loss of Arab parties’ control over the council of the council, the fragmented political landscape and inability to create stronger coalitions between minority political blocs allowed the status quo to persist. The Brotherhood and Coexistence Alliance, consisting of the KDP and the PUK, with a total of 11 seats, followed by the Muttahidoon coalition of Arab Sunni parties with 8 seats, remained in the lead. As a result, Atheel al-Nujaifi, from the previous council, remained governor.[9]

The reversal to the 2009 status quo, in addition to conflict and heightened political tensions, regressed the already dismal performance of the NPC. After the liberation of Nineveh from IS started in 2015, al-Nujaifi was replaced by Nawaf al-Agoub. Al-Agoub’s tenure witnessed a shift in local balance of power in favour of new armed groups and political factions that had little presence in Nineveh prior to IS.[10] Known for widespread corruption and embezzlement, the new governor provided room for new actors to embed themselves within Nineveh’s governance.[11] Al-Agoub forged powerful alliances with militias and Shia parties to dominate the system of governance and remain in power irrespective of his policies (or lack of).[12] The increasing informality in governance and control by armed groups and parties over small pockets of land especially within the Plains, undermined what little remained of local governing institutions.

The death of more than 100 Iraqis in the sinking of a ferry in Mosul’s Tigris river created sufficient pressure to replace al-Agoubi in 2019. With growing discontent and media attention to Nineveh’s regressing state of governance, Baghdad reacted by attempting to further centralize power within its own coffers. This primarily included a transfer of powers from the local government in Nineveh to federal ministries. Until this day, several governorate-level service directorates, including health and education, are directly connected to the federal government ministries and not the provincial councils in contradiction to the recommendations by the Higher Coordination Committee of Provinces and the constitution.[13] In addition, the Council of Representatives (CoR) overrode the local NPC members to remove al-Agoub and imposed the selection of his successor, Mansour Murid. Murid was a political appointee by Baghdad’s political elite, specifically a negotiated deal between PMF’s head, Falih al-Fayadh, the KDP and a number of Arab Sunni parties.

Murid’s selection and deselection by Baghdad, signalled a cycle of competition over control of Nineveh’s resources and governance by political parties. Murid’s inability to accommodate party interests and mediate the influence of competing factions, primarily within the PMF, threatened his survival. As a result, Murid was pressured to resign seven months after his appointment. In an attempt to consolidate power, political parties nominated Najm al-Jabouri as a compromise candidate.[14] Despite al-Jabouri’s popularity locally, specifically within Mosul, his authority is largely constrained by the political blocs that brought him into power. In addition, four years after the liberation of Nineveh, real power now resides and is embedded outside of his office, and his ability to leverage sufficient support to reinstate formal governance structures is limited. Case in point, to date, al-Jabouri has not attempted to challenge vested economic interests and military presence of several PMF groups and other parties in Nineveh.

Consequences on governance within the Nineveh Plains

Thirteen years and four governors later, the 2013 election results remain relevant to the character of governance within the Nineveh Plains. The inability of the Plains’ minority groups to lobby through a unified political coalition has resulted in their continued seclusion from provincial politics. The political dominance of large, traditional political parties at the national level, has made competition even more impenetrable for minority groups. Specifically, the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties rarely require the support of Christians and minorities to assure their dominance. With a total of nine seats reserved for representatives of minority groups from the Nineveh Plains in parliament – five for Christians, one for Kurdish minorities and one each for Yazidis, Assyrians and Shabak – from a total of 329 seats, their ability to influence decision making is limited at best.[15] However, with over a third of seats within the provincial council, minority groups are still rendered futile as they compete against entrenched political parties with resources, influence and connections. The CoR’s decision to dismiss provincial councils in 2019 further amplified this phenomenon by providing governors with individual exposure to power, limiting the oversight previously warranted by the council. As governors are often selected from prominent Arab Sunni tribes to tailor to Mosul’s population, constituents from the Plains feel largely unrecognized and excluded from the benefits and assistance provided by the governorate.

Traditional political parties also exploit the fragmentation within the Plains’ minority population to their advantage. Most notably, the political dispute between Erbil and Baghdad is devolved to local politicians and leaders. Both the central government in Baghdad and the KRG continue to apply pressure on local communities to identify with one government or the other. Unsurprisingly, this increases polarization within communities and limits the chances for more resolution-oriented political dialogue. For example, the Plains’ Shabak community is represented by two competing political camps.[16] The ‘Shabak nationalist’ camp led by Hunain al-Qaddo, a parliamentarian representing al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc, before he passed away in December 2020. Al-Qaddo’s camp favours the seperation of the Plain from Nineveh’s governorate to attach it directly to the federal government in Baghdad. The camp has gained prominence amongst the Shabak community as a result of its security dominance and clientelist handouts to constituents.[17] The opposing Shabak camp is pro-Kurdish and is led by Mala Salim, a KDP parliamentarian. Salim’s camp also advocates for the seperation of the Plain from Nineveh’s governorate, only to be tied to the KRG administration in Erbil. More significantly, however, political leaders begin to represent Erbil and Baghdad in the Plains instead of representing the Plain’s constituents in Erbil and Baghdad.

Marginalization of the Plains from provincial and government decision-making coupled with political competition and polarization has produced a mosaic of segregated bubbles of governance. Specifically, the legislative and executive bodies at the district and subdistrict levels are overruled by various political, security and religious actors. Striking is the ascension of armed groups as key governance actors rooted in their ability to successfully manipulate the absence of state institutions in the Plains to solidify their control. Their roles extend beyond providing security services and control of territory to providing employment, tax collection and administrative and basic services to constituents. While several of these armed groups have direct and indirect ties and affiliations to national actors including the PMF and the KDP’s Peshmerga, they remain localized to a great extent. This allows them to retain autonomy in managing local governance issues and operations independent of regional or national changes in politics or policies.

The capture of state resources by national and local actors has made citizens’ access to basic services within the Plains rather difficult. This has mostly pushed citizens to develop a multitude of networks as coping mechanisms to get by. The majority of ordinary citizens do not want to take sides in the several ongoing disputes (see section 4). In fact, interviews showed that residents try to maximize benefits across several actors in order to receive sufficient services. For example, several respondents continue to receive services from Erbil and Duhok, including water, healthcare and education, as the KRG still has an extensive service infrastructure that pre-dates 2014. Simultaneously, residents acknowledge dependency on Baghdad in receiving salaries and welfare benefits. As a result, citizens live in a town where security is provided by, for example, KRG-affiliated groups, as in Shekhan; work in a second town benefiting from employment opportunities with Shia armed groups; and register in a third town closer to Mosul for benefits from the central government in Baghdad or the NPC. Such convoluted governance practices have undermined the authority of provincial and central governments to the advantage of community governance structures that operate on a quid pro quo mechanism – that is, services for influence.

Skeleton, M. and Bahnam, K. 2019. The Bishop and the Prime Minister: Mediating Conflict in the Nineveh Plains. LSE Blogs. See: link
Van Zoonen, D. and Wirya, K. 2017. The Shabaks: Perceptions of Reconciliation and Conflict. MERI. See: link
Independent High Electoral Commission. 2013. ‘2013 Nineveh Governorate Election’.
Candidates were able to canvass outside Mosul due to better security, and many Mosul-based candidates withdrew from the election.
Saleed, A. 2013. ‘Voter’s Revolution in Ninawa: Local Minorities Take Over Provincial Government’, Niqash.
Saleem, Z. 2020. ‘Prisoner of the Deal: Nineveh’s governor and local state capture’, LSE.
This system allowed al-Agoub to embezzle over $64 million of funds intended for Nineveh’s reconstruction.
Ala’Aldeen, D. 2020. ‘Nineveh as a Model’, Middle East Research Institute.
The federal ministries of municipalities and construction, sports and youth and justice and social affairs have already transfered powers back to the local government in Nineveh.
Al-Jabbouri is a native of Nineveh from a powerful Sunni Arab tribe. He served as Nineveh Commander of Operations of the Iraqi army during and after the war against IS. In that position, al-Jabouri built a reputation for being a professional military commander and developed political ties across Nineveh.
Iraqi Parliament Council, at : link
Van Zoonen, D. and Wirya, K. 2017. ‘The Shabaks Perceptions of Reconciliation and Conflict’, MERI.
Almas, M. et. Al. 2020. ‘Religious and ethnic minorities quota seats between fragmentations and rivalries of dominant political parties.’ Kirkuknow.