Human Rights Watch: minorities under seige in northern Iraq

From Human Rights Watch, Oct. 27:

Iraq: Protect Besieged Minorities
Yazidis, Shabaks, and Christians Caught in Kurdish-Arab Contest for Control

Iraq's central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government should protect besieged minorities in the disputed territories of Nineveh province, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch documented attacks by Sunni Arab extremist groups targeting Yazidis, Shabaks, and Assyrian Christians, and intimidation by Kurdish forces against minority political and civic associations resisting Kurdish efforts to incorporate the area into the autonomous territory the regional government controls.

The 51-page report, "On Vulnerable Ground: Violence against Minority Communities in Nineveh Province's Disputed Territories," calls on the regional government to grant legal recognition to Shabaks and Yazidis as distinct ethnic groups instead of imposing Kurdish identity on them and to ensure that they can participate in public affairs without fear of retribution. The report also calls on the central government in Baghdad to protect minorities at the local, provincial, and national levels, and to investigate killings and displacement of Assyrian Christians and deadly attacks against other minorities.

"Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and Shabaks have suffered extensively since 2003," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Iraqi authorities, both Arab and Kurdish, need to rein in security forces, extremists and vigilante groups to send a message that minorities cannot be attacked with impunity."

Research for the report was conducted in February and March 2009, and included field research and interviews in northern Iraq with minority representatives and victims, senior Kurdish officials, and Nineveh Provincial Council representatives.

Minorities in Iraq find themselves in an increasingly precarious position as the Arab-dominated central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government vie for control of the disputed territories. These territories are the most diverse in the country in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion. A main front in this conflict is Nineveh, Iraq's second-most-populous province, which has a unique concentration of minority groups with a historic presence in the area. In addition to attacks and pressures against Yazidis, Shabaks and Christians documented in this report, northern Iraq's Turkmen minority and Kakai Kurds have also come under attack.

Both Kurdish and Arab authorities lay claim to Nineveh's disputed territories, and since 2003, the Kurdistan Regional Government has been in a position to reshape the reality on the ground through its extensive security and political presence. To consolidate its grip, it has offered minorities financial and other inducements to win their support while simultaneously using repressive measures to keep them in line. Kurdish forces have engaged in arbitrary arrests and detentions, intimidation, and in some cases low-level violence, against minorities who have challenged regional government control of the disputed territories.

"Iraq's Kurds certainly deserve redress for the crimes against them by former Iraqi governments, but redress for past wrongs doesn't justify repression and intimidation by one ethnic group to establish exclusive control of the region," Stork said. "These minority communities and the Kurds share a common history of oppression in northern Iraq, including Arabization, and forced displacement."

Extremist elements in the Sunni Arab insurgency, for their part, view minority communities as "crusaders" and "infidels." Some have carried out devastating attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians. Nineveh's provincial capital, Mosul, has become a hotbed of the insurgency in part because the regional government's hegemony in the immediate area has alienated Sunni Arabs long accustomed to positions of privilege and power under previous governments.

Simultaneous truck bombings in Nineveh in August 2007, presumably by armed Sunni Islamists, killed more than 300 Yazidis and wounded more than 700 in the single worst attack against civilians since the start of the war. In late 2008, a systematic and orchestrated campaign of targeted killings and violence left 40 Chaldo-Assyrians dead and more than 12,000 displaced from their homes in Mosul. Representatives from various communities have traded accusations of responsibility for the attacks on Christians.

Insurgent groups have renewed bombings in the months following the withdrawal of US forces from cities to their bases on June 30, 2009. Attacks against minority groups in five locations across Nineveh between July and September killed more than 157 people and wounded 500 from the Yazidi, Shabak, Turkmen and Kakai communities.

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