On the Removal of Assyrian Mayors in Nineveh by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)

KRG presence visible around the perimeter of ancient Assyrian town of Alqosh in the Nineveh Plain, November 2016.

This last month has seen the ousting of two mayors of townships in the Nineveh Plain: Mr. Faiz Abed Jahwareh of Alqosh, and Mr Basim Bello of Tel Keppe.

I write this to bring to light not only the decision by the KDP dominated Nineveh Provincial Council to oust and replace mayors in Assyrians towns in the Nineveh Plain with KDP affiliated stooges all too ready to promote KDP policies, but to give people some perspective on how historical these abuses have been — abuses which have led to their removal from public office.

Alqosh

The particulars of the removal of Mr Jahwareh are covered excellently here by Roosh, so I won’t get into that, save to emphasize that this is not the first time the KDP has attempted to disfigure the administrative make up of Alqosh.

In June 2014, the KDP had removed Mr Jahwareh from his position and replaced him with a Kurd from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) only to reinstate him two days later after protests from Alqoshi residents.

Protesters in Alqosh, June 2014

The political situation was seemingly too fragile since the KDP were not confident enough to follow through with implementing its policy of total administrative dominance in the Nineveh Plain. They caved in, but not without exercising a vicious contempt for the local population, such as this incident involving the arrest and torture of Assyrian students without explanation.

However, after vast KRG territorial gains brought about by the emergence of ISIS and relentless spending on lobbying within Western media and governments, the situation now in 2017 looks decidedly much different.

After appointing a ‘temporary’ mayor (or boss) in the form of Kurdish KDP member Mr Abdel Amin Omar to an entirely Assyrian town, the council have duly appointed Mrs Lara Yousif Zaya, an Assyrian member of the KDP, citing the need for the mayor of the township to be exclusively Christian and from the centre of Alqosh district, and not merely a resident.

Curiously, the ‘legal’ stipulation for this however does not exist, and if it did, would bring Iraqi administrative law into disrepute for being sectarian and racist. What was in place is a deal brokered shortly after 2003, where the various components of the district, including Arabs and Yezidis, were allotted roles in its administration. The seat of mayor of the district was reserved for Alqosh as a representation of its participation in this agreement.

The idea that the role was ‘legally’ bound up in the religious identity of the individual was peddled by the KDP among the populace to win their hearts and minds in a bid to secure support for the KDP appointee.

Left: protesters in Alqosh, July 2017. Right: protesters in Stockholm, July 2017.

The people of Alqosh are fighting against this decision. They have staged two protests and the deposed mayor has launched an appeal. Barely any mention of this incident has even made it to Western eyes and ears, as much of the analysis of the region (derived from both Western sources and Eastern sources with a stake in influencing them) currently comprises of either hungover belching in the wake of ISIS’ defeat or doomsday scenarios prophesying neverending sequels to ISIS.

Amid the clamour to celebrate and the solemn whispers by onlookers are the people trying to rebuild their lives in ravaged towns and cities in Nineveh. They are trying to do this with little or no support financially or politically from the Federal Government, and whilst resisting the advances of the KRG as it targets their lands. Fortunately for the wholly Assyrian population of Alqosh, ISIS never ventured that far north. But Alqoshis have another enemy; the residents are still being surrounded from all sides by peshmerga checkpoints, Kurdish flags, portraits of Barzani and now they have a KDP boss. They are being slowly suffocated, but they resist anyway.

Alqosh resident and local leader of the ADM Athra Kado reading a statement during 2nd demonstration

Tel Keppe

The situation in Tel Keppe is similar in that the mayor, Mr Basim Bello, a man no stranger to threats and harassment by KDP affiliated provincial council members and governors, was removed from office on August 3rd 2017, 19 days after Mr Jahwareh.

Mr Basim Bello holding the Assyrian flag.

The decision to do so was made by Nineveh Provincial Council leader and KDP member Bashar Al-Keke. The most important thing about his ousting is that the antagonism by the KDP specifically against Mr Bello stretches back a decade, as recently explored in a video by AX. It represents a sustained, long term and deliberate campaign by the KDP to remove him from any public office. Sadly, the culmination of this campaign has resulted in their victory, and a defeat for Assyrians trying to exercise their democratic will in their own lands.

Mr Bello has been an outspoken critic of the KDP for a very long time despite operating under the auspices of their frequently violent and unpredictable security apparatus. From a Wikileaks cable dating back to July 2008:

In a July 3 meeting with PRT and US Army civil affairs personnel, Mayor of Tal Kaif District (and Provincial Chairman of the Assyrian Democratic Movement) Basim Bello said Assyrians in Ninewa Province feel intimidated by the Kurds and suffer from a lack of essential services.

Mr Bello is quoted yet again in another cable from August 2008:

According to Bello, the rift between the ADM and the Kurdish parties began in 2003 as the KRG attempted to expand its political control further into Christian areas of the Ninewa plain. Bello said the KRG is following a policy of encroachment into the Ninewa plain by attempting to establish “facts on the ground” by moving Kurds into Christian areas; stacking district and sub district councils with un-elected Kurdish members; and, in the case of Al Qosh, spending lavishly, particularly on church and church-related construction.

And went to say:

His own personal security aside — he believes he is under direct threat from the senior leadership of the KDP — Bello said his greatest concern is the prospect of irreversible modifications to councils that would give the KRG political control to go along with its effective occupation of the area.
Bello also raised continuing Kurdish intimidation, including a personal threat made against him by the KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. Bello explained what he sees as an increasingly bellicose KRG policy as the result of the Kurds’ desire not to lose what was gained in terms of self-rule after the first Gulf War. As a result, there is an ongoing trend toward authoritarianism in the KRG…

These statements were made in 2008, nearly a decade ago and reflect a reality on the ground that was known to US officials then and now. This is the kind of tyranny the people of the Nineveh Plain have been contending with for a very long time.

In 2007 a year before these cables were sent, Mr Bello was formerly reprimanded and penalized by the KDP led provincial council for legitimate and approved trips undertaken oversees. Below is the exchange of documents coupled with English translation:

Letter from KDP member and Chairman of the Council of the Judiciary of Tel Keppe, Durman Haji Suleiman, to KDP member and Governor of Ninewa, Dored Mohammed Kashmoola.
Letter from Mr Kashmoola to Mr Bello.
Response from Mr Bello to Mr Kashmoola.

The ‘severe penalty’ was fortunately annulled after US officials intervened to support Mr Bello, so no more came of this particular incident. The US was clearly concerned about his position as an open critic of the KRG according the cables in the following year — it is no surprise that this day would come given the right circumstances: when an emboldened KRG operating in a climate of lawlessness, would take advantage of the tumult and uncertainty to impose its will onto lands and people not under its political jurisdiction.

We can see that despite the safe zone established in 1991 which descended into civil war among the different Kurdish factions (eventually resulting in Barzani hegemony) through the 2003 invasion and ousting of Saddam (resulting in even more gains made by the KRG), territories home to Assyrians were still on the menu as ISIS’ territorial project receded. The parties comprising the KRG are simply not content with their lot and have expanded their project to include more areas seemingly by the year — all enabled by the vacuum of power and law in the northern territories of Iraq. This expansion is fueled by their own rivalry — no side is seemingly willing to enter into open conflict with each other again, preferring instead to compete in terms of assets, military power, and land.

I had consulted Mr Bello and his colleagues when I wrote a report regarding the under-representation of local Assyrian elements in the security of the Nineveh Plain pre-ISIS and the over-representation by minority Kurds supported and parachuted in by the KDP. Given the numbers obtained at the time, it was clear that the security situation pre-ISIS was dominated by people who had no stake in towns like Tel Keppe, so it was no surprise to me to see peshmerga fleeing such areas in 2014 — even if they were not ordered to retreat by their superiors as they had been, it was not their homes and families they were supposedly tasked with defending, but ours.

The Referendum

It must be said in no uncertain terms: the removal of two elected and long-standing mayors unsympathetic to the aims and policies of the KDP, by the KDP is linked to the controversial KRG referendum scheduled for September 25th 2017.

There is a reason this is happening now in what the KRG presently refer to as ‘Kurdistani’ areas — a politically charged word they have only recently deployed in their lobbying efforts to designate land mostly populated by non-Kurds, but according to them, belonging to Kurdistan. In order to sidestep a kind of overt, creeping ethno-fascism, simple semantics are deployed to soften the message. The KRG have learned to not refer to Assyrians (right now) as “Kurdish Christians”, but rather Kurdistani Christians living in Kurdistani areas. This is the word they are pushing shamelessly in Western offices, but it is a word which only dresses up an old strategy in new clothes: to annex the Nineveh Plain, even if the area has, even in modern history, a predominantly non-Kurdish population.

The policies pushed by the KDP in the Nineveh Plain have long affected other minorities such as the Yazidis in Shingal to the west, as Matthew Barber writes here:

In Shingal (“Sinjar” in Arabic) after 2003, the KDP quickly became a powerful presence. Many Yazidis were open to pursuing a future for Shingal as part of Kurdistan, hoping that life under Kurdish government would offer greater rights for minorities than had been the case under Ba’thist rule. But from those early days, the KDP asa’ish began systematically arresting and intimidating Yazidi civilians who joined competing political parties, especially those who favored keeping Shingal’s administration under the authority of the central government. Though services in Shingal are almost entirely paid for by Baghdad, the KDP bullied non-KDP Nineveh officials out of Shingal so that it could maintain administrative control. Shingal’s “mayors” (qaymaqam), including the current one, are never elected by the local people, but are appointed by the party and are, of course, always party loyalists. Despite the fact that the KDP completely dominated Shingal, it remained one of Iraq’s least developed and most marginalized districts.

For Yazidis, a historically persecuted and little known community, the appointing of a mayor rather than the process of electing one is a long-standing practice imposed on them against their will by outside forces. This top-down structure which robs Yazidis of their freedom and dignity is now being imposed on Assyrians with the same intensity and by the same outside force.

KRG forces advancing into Shingal (Sinjar) in the Nineveh Plain, 2015.

The Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) have repeatedly called for the Nineveh Plain to be excluded from the upcoming referendum, knowing too well the horrendous conditions in which it would implemented in. This demand runs counter to the will of the KDP who wish to impose it there and other areas outside of the KRG’s jurisdiction. It is important to note that a referendum, whatever you may think of one generally, is not the issue. It is a referendum imposed on a people who want no part in it. In this context, it is a question asked to the wrong people. It is by virtue of being asked that these people are included in the bigger project by default, not because of who they are, but because of what they have — land.

With the removal of these two mayors, it seems several things are happening or have become clearer:

  1. The KDP is now confidently asserting itself in areas it has long had eyes on. Not only have the peshmerga marched into Nineveh and planted their flags and set up checkpoints in and around Assyrian towns, the KDP leadership are appointing KDP members, either Kurdish or from minority communities (whatever they can get away with), into public office and bypassing any kind of democratic process.
  2. The demands made by Assyrian parties, as negotiated and signed in March 2017, are clearly not being acted upon by the KRG or relevant parties. This goes further than representing a failure of representative democracy, but it reinforces the lawlessness and the worthlessness of representing communities in an environment which does not respect them or their rights to live as free and equal citizens.
  3. The Federal Government of Iraq has been a near non-existent force in much of these events. A lot of attention of late has been on the liberation of Mosul and outlying areas such as Tel Afar, but amongst this noise, communities recently ravaged by genocide are being subjugated by another hostile force. In a way, Assyrians waving Iraqi flags in Alqosh during the recent protest was a smoke signal — they are asking for help from a Federal Government whose eyes are elsewhere. So far, Baghdad have not given any indication they are willing to intervene to relieve this growing pressure.
  4. Western actors, principally the US, have become less engaged in Iraqi affairs over time since their armed forces officially pulled out of the country in December 2011. Their engagement, whilst not preventing the vast majority of the abuses Assyrians were subjected to by the KRG, at least provided a perverse way to document them on an almost daily basis. Since this disengagement and the formation of a new US regime, a changing of this policy is non-existent. In this kind of climate, the KRG is free to impose its own policies, since there is nothing stopping them: neither Iraqi Federal Government, nor Western actors have the will or the interest in curtailing these policies.
From left to right: Kirkuk Governor Najmiddin Karim, KRG Head of Foreign Relations Falah Mustafa, Massoud Barzani, and Charles Tannock MEP, Brussels July 2017.

As I have written before, the referendum is not about Kurdish independence, and anyone who thinks it is is either a complete loon, has no grasp of political and economic realities, or is a supporter of the dictator Massoud Barzani and his dynasty for whatever reason (all are bad). The referendum is Barzani’s attempt to both reinforce his ownership of the Kurdish nationalist project at a time when his overlord status is facing heightened scrutiny, and to annex lands which expand his fiefdom and thereby increase his dynasty’s wealth and influence.

Provided the referendum is imposed on the people of the Nineveh Plain with the majority of people intending to vote no, a no vote will never surface. The KDP made sure of this in the past through all kinds of nefarious and violent tactics we will no doubt see again come September this year. These might not be the memories of a Westerner at a conference in DC applauding Bayan Rahman, the KRG Rep. to the US, but they are the memories of Assyrians and other minorities who have suffered under the yoke of the KRG most of their lives.

By removing these mayors, the KDP is publicly laying down a marker of how it intends to proceed, unhindered now by Washington bureaucrats still adjusting to their new offices or a potential backlash from a media and analyst complex mostly seduced by the KRG’s selective hospitality.

By not doing anything in response, the Federal Government of Iraq and Western states normalize this behaviour by the KRG— behaviour, which if permitted to continue and worsen by all parties, would present the single biggest threat to our existence as a people in our homelands since the genocide by the Ottomans.

Its one thing having the world come together to defeat ISIS, a common enemy. But for Assyrians, its another thing having the world come together to send the KRG millions of dollars to indirectly support this war of attrition against their very existence.