After ISIS: Perspectives of Displaced Communities from Ninewa on Return to Iraq’s Disputed Territory
A Report by the Dutch Organization PAX published in June 2015.
Recently, military developments and international involvement have resulted in ISIS retreating from some areas previously under its control in Iraq. As these areas become accessible again, IDP communities struggle to return while the potential for renewed conflict remains alarmingly high. In order to understand current conflict dynamics and prepare for conflict sensitive peace building programs responding to realities on the ground, PAX has commissioned a qualitative research among Ninewa IDP communities in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. The perceptions of IDP communities on return and insights from stakeholders on community relations in a post ISIS Ninewa have been used as a basis for analysis in this report.
Ninewa Governorate, formerly known as Mosul Governorate, is wedged between Kurdish northern Iraq and Arabic Central Iraq. Large areas are part of the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) areas, contested between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the Government of Iraq (GoI). This area is home to the majority of Iraq’s minority groups, and is the most diverse region in the country. It is home to Christians of various denominations, Yazidis, Shabak, Turkmen, Kaka’is, Kurds and Arabs. Historically, the area has been the subject of Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policies, and Arab tribes were relocated to this area to change its demographic composition. This history of demographic engineering continues to fuel land disputes today and has contributed to marginalization, lack of administrative clarity and weak social cohesion, which have been exacerbated in the years following the removal of the Saddam regime in 2003 and have ultimately paved the way for ISIS taking control in 2014.
Although IDP communities report tolerable relations between their communities prior to ISIS, the social fabric in the area is extremely fragile. A closer look reveals that multiple factors, not easily expressed by civilians in a repressive climate, are feeding tense inter-community grievances.
Ninewa’s history of displacement shows a trend of uprooting civilian populations, either as a result of strategic government policies, as a consequence of the persecution of minorities or following economic incentives. The multiple displacements of minorities from the city of Mosul to other areas in Ninewa or to the Kurdistan Region-Iraq (KRI) served as a prelude to the almost complete migration of minorities out of Ninewa following the control of ISIS in June 2014.
Impacts of ISIS on the future of Ninewa’s social fabric are complicated and they extend far beyond physical displacement of people from the area. Among IDP communities, apart from the general polarization between minorities and Kurds vis-à-vis Sunni Arabs (victims vs. perpetrators), many divisions exist between minorities and even within the various minority communities. This context poses a real challenge for a peaceful return and possibilities for social cohesion in Ninewa Governorate after ISIS.
IDP communities from Ninewa are highly disillusioned by the lack of protection by either the Iraqi Army or the Kurdish Peshmerga. The local authorities of Ninewa, the Governorate and Provincial Council, have been displaced to Erbil, Dohuk or Bagdad and prove unable to influence military developments on the ground or to provide adequate services in the IDP camps. For Ninewa communities, the national government in Bagdad is increasingly absent. They are instead depending on support within their own networks, on religious and ethnic lines. In this context, and in the absence of clear prospects for return, IDP communities look for resettlement abroad or to developing their own militias on religious or ethnic basis. This poses a serious threat to return scenarios, may facilitate revenge, and further fuelling renewed conflict.
Division and militarization of Ninewa communities is also a result of a crisis of leadership within the political process. While most political leaders of Ninewa communities are following pro-Erbil (Kurdish), pro-Baghdad (central Iraq) or international agendas, Sunni leaders struggle to provide a strong alternative for ISIS. Many Ba’ath officials, who were removed from power since 2003, have supported waves of anti-government protests and ultimately ISIS. Accordingly, some stakeholders argue that a review of the de-baathification policy is essential for peace and stability in Ninewa.
Since last year, the international military support for the Peshmerga in their struggle against ISIS is favoring the Kurds in the DIBS areas, and further polarizing the volatile situation. Assessments and facts on the ground show that KRG has consolidated its position in Ninewa, while an official settlement on the status of the DIBs remains absent. Although many Arab IDPs from all over Iraq have found safe refuge in KRI, Sunni IDP communities from Ninewa are fearful from being portrayed as ISIS supporters. In some areas which have been recaptured by Peshmerga from ISIS, some worrying incidents have been reported of displacement of Arab Sunni communities and return of predominantly Kurdish IDPs. If these incidents turn into a trend, this may severely affect peaceful return scenarios to Ninewa.
According to International Humanitarian Law, civilians do not only have the right to seek safety in another part of a country, they are also legally entitled to protection against forcible return or resettlement. While a settlement of the DIBS issue is vital for post ISIS political and social reconstruction, the new authorities in Ninewa, as well as intervening international agencies, should carefully design conflict sensitive programming in order to contribute to post conflict resolution and the peaceful return of all IDPs.
PAX is highly concerned about the lack of a comprehensive peacebuilding strategy complementing military operations in Iraq. For such a peacebuilding strategy to be effective, planning should be longterm and responding to the realities and specific local histories on the ground. For the case of Ninewa, the return of all displaced communities after conflict is essential for restructuring the social fabric and building fundaments for peace and reconciliation.
The full report can be accessed at the following link: