Islamic State’s swift seizure of vast swathes of territory created new fissures and exacerbated old animosities among the diverse communities of the Nineveh Plains. Members of certain communities joined IS, while others showed sympathy to the group and yet others were mercilessly prosecuted by it. The war against IS also prompted some communities to form their own armed forces (the Shia Shabak, for example), which can now be used to challenge rival communities and impose one-sided solutions. While no government plan for the post-IS situation is available and Iraq as a whole faces substantial economic and political headwinds, the Plains’ dynamics are likely to continue to be conflictual and communal relations may worsen further. Understanding how communities perceive reconciliation and conflict is a key element in ensuring the safe return of IDPs and prevent new displacement.
Against this backdrop, this report identifies four conflict dimensions that affect the Plains and that correspond to – i.e. either because they are a result of, or are aggravated by – the three factors of instability selected and analysed previously in this report. They include:
Contestation between Erbil and Baghdad: After Iraqi forces regained control of the Plains in 2016, political parties from both sides started to pit communities against each other and mobilise identity as a political instrument. Both governments seek to gain control over the area. This has increased Kurdish-Arab rivalry but also created splits in both the Shabak and Christian communities, pitting those loyal to Erbil against those loyal to Baghdad.
Muslim – non-Muslim tensions: Religious identity has become more salient since IS took over the Nineveh Plains, especially between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Shia and Sunnis have populated Christian and Assyrian areas, which has created friction and social tensions due to an unwillingness to coexist on the part of non-Muslims due to IS, in addition to ongoing discriminatory practices from Muslims.
Arms and armed actor proliferation: The proliferation of armed actors in the Plains perpetuates conflict, as it accentuates social cleavages, creates new violent clashes, facilitates securitisation of issues that could otherwise be peacefully resolved and stimulates factions to seek control over strategic locations.
Sunni stigmatisation: The social isolation and security-heavy approach of Sunni groups after the defeat of IS has led to their increased marginalisation – socially and administratively – by all actors of the Plains.
As a result of the issues listed above, largescale discrimination is becoming common practice in the Nineveh Plains. Christians discriminate against Shabaks, who refer to themselves as ‘second-class citizens’. In turn, Shabaks discriminate against Christians by deploying armed forces and committing acts of violence. Meanwhile, Sunni communities in the Nineveh Plains have been stripped of their agency with limited access to legal protection, sentenced to a life at the margins. Women cannot get married or seek employment; they cannot access basic services such as medical treatment and are gradually losing their most basic rights.
Unlike regular displacement camps, where residents are allowed to work, receive benefits and services, Sunnis are placed in Nineveh’s highly securitised camp zones with restrictions on movement and limited access to basic services. Leaving the camps is also very difficult for a large number of Sunnis, as going home requires legal documents (e.g. for children who were born under IS rule and do not have government-issued papers). Getting such papers, requires women to disavow their husbands and their actions. But a wife’s disavowal of her husband can be used in court as proof of the man’s affiliation to IS. In addition, if the wife accuses him of being an IS member, his family might take revenge. Others just consider their husbands unwilling IS collaborators rather than affiliates.
Some camp residents choose not to go through the lengthy bureaucratic process of leaving because they fear being exposed to discrimination and harassment at the hands of officers managing such cases who typically have little sympathy towards Sunni who lived under IS rule. A recent report by the Iraqi Center for Documentation of War Crimes details grave discriminatory practices by Iraqi security forces and the Shabak 30th brigade in Nineveh’s jails and detention centres. This includes systemic use of torture and other human rights violations. In addition, cases of kidnappings and forced disappearances from camps continue to surface. Residents of camps and detention centres have no access to legal aid and (I)NGOs often have to bribe security officers to allow them to enter such camps undercover.
(I)NGOs that provide assistance and support to Sunni groups face criticism and delegitimisation from residents and community members across the Plains. When asked about their relationship with other communities, the connection with the Sunni Arab community was consistently said to be the worst. They find it difficult, if not impossible, to re-establish trust with the Sunni population – unlike their professed openness to reconcile with other groups. Many seem to prefer moving towards further social, territorial and political segregation as a way of avoiding problems. Non-Sunni respondents often shared personal stories of intimidation, discrimination, killings and terrorist attacks from their time living in the villages of the Nineveh plain under IS control. Many had been forced to flee from their homes due to violence or threats thereof and find it difficult to reconciliate with the Sunni community more broadly.
On the other side of the ledger, Sunni residents are refusing to turn in those who guided IS when it arrived in 2014 and hand them over to the courts because these are seen as incapable of administering justice fairly and efficiently. This fuels views that Sunni villagers are protecting terrorist accomplices. In fact, IS forced some Sunnis into silence when it was pushed out of Bashiqa in 2016. Moreover, if someone starts to talk, it will be like a ball of wool unravelling and others will fall under suspicion through gossip and hearsay that might well put their lives in danger. For example, Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which IDPs have falsely accused other (Sunni) camp residents of supporting or joining IS to settle scores with or retaliate against personal rivals. In other words, the absence of a reliable government process and institutions allows community prejudices and grievances to fester, entrench and persist.