The Arab-Kurdish dispute over control of the Plains predates the fight against IS and has long nested community tensions. Kurdish sponsored armed groups including the Peshmerga, Christian forces and Kurdish-affiliated units of the Iraqi army extended influence and control over large swaths of the Plains. Nonetheless, exclusionary policies and marginalization of Shia Muslim Shabaks allowed Baghdad an entry point into the Plains through experimenting with sponsorship of new Shabak armed groups.
Shortly afterwards, in August 2014, IS took full control over the Plains. The Kurdish forces and federal police in the Plains withdrew immediately as IS began to approach urban centres and Christian and Yezidi towns. In 2016, liberation operations were launched with aerial support from global coalition forces, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Kurdish forces and tribal forces. The joint efforts of these actors succeeded in ridding the area of IS in a short period of time but also fragmented the security landscape of the Plains. Against this backdrop, this section identifies the following key findings that are detailed below:
The degree of acceptance and preference by the local population of the many security actors that expanded their influence after liberation of the territory from IS is mixed and differs along ethno-sectarian lines.
The latter is the result of security actors, chief among them the PMF, favouring their own constituencies to the detriment of other communities in the area. In fact, while often at the forefront of security provision, the local PMF units in the Nineveh Plains (specifically the 30th and 50th Brigades) play a pivotal role in exacerbating social tensions and shifting power dynamics by controlling areas of strategic value and empowering Shia communities.
Consequently, the ensuing situation has produced a large degree of frustration from local non-Shia communities that feel the PMF’s presence favours the growth of the Shia population in an area once dominated by non-Shia minority groups.
Since the liberation, the Nineveh Plains features a relatively stable security situation with limited IS activities. This is primarily due to two reasons. First, the Plains’ landscape – flat extensions of land – means it is easy to secure by controlling key entry points, in contrast to the mountainous regions in other parts of Nineveh. Second, the restricted movement of IS suspects’ families and their concentration in PMF-secured camps has limited violent activity to incidents in camps of Hamdaniyah, for example, or Tal Kaif’s border with Mosul. Figure 1 below, provides an overview of the security situation in the Plains.
Source: ACLED database (2020)
However, the liberation of the Nineveh Plains also provided ample opportunity for security actors other than IS to extend influence and control. Previously dominant Kurdish forces – including the Peshmerga, Asayish and the Nineveh Plains Guards and Forces – have lost large swathes of territory in the Plains which are now controlled by the Iraqi Army, PMF groups (mainly the 30th and 50th brigades) and the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU) that participated in the liberation. Beyond losing territorial control, the track record and conduct of Kurdish forces in Nineveh province has been mixed. Several respondents indicate feelings of betrayal caused by the retreat of Kurdish forces during the fight against IS. Therefore, the degree of their acceptance and preference by the local population, including Christians and Yezidi Kurds, is mixed too.
As per figure 2, Kurdish forces were pushed back to the northern periphery of the Plains controlling the Shekhan district and the border between Tel Kayf and Duhok. Tal Kayf has been handed over to the Iraqi army and federal police in 2019, but large security gaps persist. The Christian Bablyon Brigade, the 50th PMF Brigade, extends along the border between Mosul and Tal Kayf controlling entry into the district from its southern borders. In Hamdaniya, the Plains largest district, territory is divided between Liwa al-Shabak, the 30th Brigade, and the NPU, an Assyrian military organization. The NPU oversees checkpoints in eastern Christian areas such as Bakhdida and Bartella. The 30th Brigade, also headquartered in Bartella, controls most urban centers and border controls in and out of Hamdaniya.
The fragmentation of the security architecture and territorial control has divided up the region among the various security forces, each exerting control within their territory. Major highways and checkpoints are often manned by different groups, making travel difficult and trapping residents and humanitarian workers in particular areas. Security forces have taken matters into their own hands, ignoring orders issued by Baghdad. Each group demands its own set of permissions, documentation or charges to work and move in a given area. In addition, the highly securitised nature of the Plains often amplifies social tensions and forcibly favours a group’s own constituents at the cost of other ethnoreligious groups. Christian, Shia and Kurdish forces advantage their own communities and compete over strategic sites for an economic edge; for example, previously disenfranchised Shabak communities from rural areas gained sway in Christian areas and urban centres – producing a significant shift in local power in the process.
Source: Assyrian Policy Institute. 2020. ‘Contested Control: The Future of Security in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain’
Until today, PMF forces were considered the first responders against IS attacks in the region. Figure 3 below shows that it is the PMF, ISF and tribal forces (in descending order) that were involved in countering IS attacks between 2018 and 2020. Notably the role of the ISF and Global Coalition forces has decreased significantly after 2018 as the fight against IS dissolved.
Source: ACLED database (2020)
Beyond averting an IS insurgency, several PMF groups guard a number of checkpoints in the towns of Tal Keif and Hamdaniyah and their surroundings. Despite the protection they provide, their strategic control and evolving role causes the PMF to remain a source of local contention and polarisation. For several respondents, the PMF groups are heroes who sacrificed their lives to defeat IS – in stark contrast to government forces and Kurdish Peshmerga that proved unreliable and abandoned the Christians and Assyrians when IS approached. For others, the PMF continues to forcefully control territory against the wishes of local residents. Indeed, several reports about PMF misbehaviour from local residents, human rights watchers and international organisations have been voiced in the last few years and taken centre stage in the discussion around the region. In July 2019, the United States issued sanctions against two local PMF figures (30th and 50th) and the former governor of Nineveh, who facilitated PMF activities. The PMF’s response was aggressive and local Christians were placed within their crosshairs for further harassment. A number of protests and demonstrations have thus been recorded over the last two years, with residents demanding the exit of the PMF from their area and their replacement by the official security forces. However, participation in such demonstrations has never exceeded a few dozen residents, either due to fear or because several residents have begun normalising the existence of the PMF in the Plains.
Increased scrutiny and stern warnings from international partners have indeed seemed to tame the PMF for a limited period of time in 2019. For starters, Waad Qaddo, the 30th Brigade founder for the Shabak in Nineveh, was replaced by his assistant Zain al-Abedin Kheder. Waad Qaddo’s belated removal was met with some reservations by locals, as the leadership change did not include major structural transformation to the local PMF group. In addition, Brigade 50 began to withdraw from several towns, specifically Bashiqa and Batnaya. The Hashd’s area of control has been delineated and is now restricted to Bartella and Tel Kaif’s border with Mosul (see figure 2). Over the same period, human rights violations and reported violence began to decline and security perceptions of local residents gradually improved. Such changes were in line with the PMF commission’s attempt to formalise local PMF structures and professionalise their operations across Iraq – including Nineveh – in 2019.
However, these positive developments were short lived. Today, the PMF is relatively leaderless and torn by a struggle for control between different factions as a result of the assassination of its erstwhile leaders Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020. The killing of the pair at the same time – and the inability of the Iranians to replace them with figures with the same leadership skills – has loosened Iran’s grip on the PMF and created a crisis of coordination with respect to administrative authorities. Al-Muhandis had previously used the financial and human resources of the PMF Committee to tighten control over factions and bring them under his influence.
As Nineveh is considered a ‘special’ governorate (in addition to Anbar) without its own (decentralised) PMF Commission coordination unit, special liaison officer Brigadier-General Muhammad Ismail al-Shakabi used to report to al-Muhandis directly. Yet, this link is now broken. Al-Muhandis had continuously supported and reinforced local PMF groups in the Plains to ensure that he could maintain sufficient control over them. For example, he provided them with reassurance and reinforcement after both prime ministers al-Abadi and Abdul Mahdi pushed for the implementation of Executive Order 1388 that required the transfer of local PMF units in the Plains (Brigade 30th and 50th) to the operational and administrative control of the army-led Nineveh Operations Command. While far from ideal, it at least ensured that these local PMF units operated in a fairly disciplined manner and could be called to order by al-Muhandis.
The vacuum resulting from al-Muhandis’ death gave these local PMF groups a freer rein to compensate locally for lost national support and leverage. Accordingly, local PMF factions such as Brigade 30 and 50 in Nineveh have future-proofed their position. Respondents indicated that old checkpoints were reinstalled, access to several towns and cities (especially across the disputed borders) was once again limited and unjustified discrimination against local Christian and Yezidi populations resurfaced after the January 2020 assassination. In some cases, PMF actions are meant to prevent Counter Terrorism Services (CTS), Iraqi army or coalition forces from entering an area in which the PMF wishes to maintain its primacy. The attack on Erbil airport in October 2020, for example, was initiated by six missiles launched from the Nineveh Plains in an area controlled by the PMF. The attack was small in scale – the intention was to demonstrate PMF capabilities and test the coalition response rather than to cause loss of life.
The complexity of the PMF’s role in the Plains is attributed to a number of factors. Primarily, calls for redeployment and integration into formal security structures is difficult for local PMF forces that are embedded within local communities and operate in their home districts, contrary to PMF groups with a more national presence. As a result, local PMF groups play a pivotal role in local social structures and power dynamics by empowering Shia communities. Moreover, both PMF groups in Nineveh (Brigades 30 and 50) control areas of strategic value with good accessibility to trade markets, highways and urban centres. Accordingly, this has produced a large degree of frustration from local non-Shia communities that feel the PMF’s presence favours the growth of the Shia population in an area once dominated by non-Shia minority groups. Finally, PMF groups in the Plains enjoy a large degree of autonomy. Law No. 21 allows the governorates to decide if, and where, Iraqi military units should be stationed locally. However, this law does not seem to apply to Nineveh. PMF leaders have large degree of control over such decision making, view their presence in the province as critical and question both the integrity of the Iraqi Army and the possibility of integrating the two forces.
Liwa al-Shabak (30th Brigade)
The PMF 30th Brigade (Liwa al-Shabak/Quwar Sahl Nineveh) is a force of 1,000-1,500 from the Shabak people, a non-Arab ethnic minority native to the Nineveh Plains. The Shabak are both Shia and Sunni by religion, and Brigade 30 is dominated by Shia Shabak. The brigade has established its headquarters in Bartella. Primarily, PMF 30th is involved in large-scale business operations, as it controls the strategic territory on the eastern periphery of Mosul city, north and south of the Mosul to Erbil highway, meaning that it controls trade between Mosul and Erbil, carrying all manner of goods to Mosul markets and serving as the main reconstruction artery. Their vehicle checkpoints also provide significant money-making opportunities. Their traditional connection to eastern Mosul suburbs and mechanics quarters have placed them in pole position in the scrap metal market, a large industry due to the high levels of destruction in the city. The 30th Brigade largely operates from depopulated towns such as the Christian towns of Bartella, Bazwiya and Bashiqa, seizing control over uninhabited land and vacant homes. Several respondents have indicated that Shabak and Shia Muslim populations have benefited from the presence of the 30th Brigade, as it facilitates access to services and housing for their constituents.
Brigade 30 has been the cause of controversy regarding sectarian abuses and specifically for seeking to prevent the return of Christian IDPs to Bartella. As a result, Waas Qado, the Brigade 30th’s commander, has since then been subjected to US sanctions. The Brigade also often limits international access to several areas within the Plains. On 3 February 2021, the 30th Brigade even harassed a coalition military foot patrol that was conducting a patrol outside its base.
Kata’ib Babylon (50th Brigade)
Despite its local character, there are nevertheless a number of speculations about members of Brigade 50th, with several interviewees believing that a majority of its soldiers are outsiders ‘pretending to be local Christian units’. With a total of 1,000 soldiers, the brigade is located in an area northeast of Mosul called Batnaya. Many of its fighters are in fact not Christians, but originate from Baghdad’s Sadr City, Muthana and Dhi Qar. It is led by a Christian fighter from Baghdad called Rayan al-Kildani. Al-Kildani is known for being a fervent loyalist to the IRGC and was a close associate of al-Muhandis. His relationship with the local Christian population is tense, including with reputable religious leaders and clerics in the region, such as the Patriarch of Babylon and the head of the Catholic church. Brigade 50th is believed to have illegally seized and sold agricultural land and is also accused of discriminatory behavior in Batnaya.
Sources: Knights, M. et. al. 2020. ‘Honored, Not Contained: The Future of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces’, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; EASO. 2020. ‘Iraq Security Situation – Country of Origin Information Report’. Assyrian Policy Institute. 2020. ‘Contested Control: The Future of Security in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains’.