Nineveh Plain Protection Units training Assyrians to fight Islamic State.
Should I stay or should I go?
For years, Christians in Iraq have had the words of that old Clash song in the back of their minds. And this year, as the Islamic State moved into the historic Assyrian Christian lands in northern Iraq, the lyrics have gone from the back to the front of the minds of many.
But, as the troubles of 2014 have led many to flee from their homes and villages and even their country, some Christians are beginning to sing another tune: Stay and Fight.
This week, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the main political party of Assyrians in Iraq, announced the formation of a largely (but not exclusively) Christian militia that hopes to defend Christians from further onslaught of the Islamic State and maybe even contribute to taking back lands that were lost to the Islamist group.
Called the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, the group now has between 500-1000 men in training, said David W. Lazar, a Baghdad native who runs the American Mesopotamian Organization that is helping to support the project.
Lazar said in an interview Wednesday that members of the militia are currently in parts of the Nineveh Plain that are not occupied by ISIS, such as Alquosh and other villages. He said “Americans” are training the recruits but would not say who, specifically, and whether U.S. military personnel are involved. He said the new soldiers have “light arms” but that “we’re not sending" them weapons.
Funding, said Lazar, is coming from the “Assyrian communities in the diaspora,” specifically in the United States and Europe.
Eventually, he said, “we’ll seek help from US and European governments.”
“They will be part of national guard, a project Iraq is putting together,” Lazar said. “We will be pushing for creation of Nineveh Plain Province because it’s our right.”
The move to form a militia is born partially out of frustration. Assyrian Christians feel let down by the Iraqi government and military. They claim that the Kurds who run part of northern Iraq, and their peshmerga militia, who appeared at first to defend Christians from Islamist militants, failed to protect them at the most critical times. And the Assyrians seem to be growing impatient with the US-led coalition that is, apparently, taking a mostly hands-off approach and hoping that airstrikes against the Islamic State will help local forces fight their own battle.
“Kurds told Christians: ‘Relax, stay in your house, we’ll take care of it.’ They got them to hand over their weapons, saying, ‘We can’t have a lot of weapons floating around; that might cause problems,’” said Jeff Gardner, who is helping the American Mesopotamian Organization with public relations.
But the Christians ended up having to abandon their homes anyway.
“If the US and the West don’t want to put boots on the ground, they should boost the locals to have boots on the ground. The Kurds are not the only solution,” Lazar opined. “You can’t have the policy of the United States and Iraq depending on just the Kurds…. The US and the West should also empower the ethnic and religious minorities there—the Assyrians, the Yazidis and others. Then we take ISIS out with the help of the United States. We can do the same thing the Kurds are doing, probably better because the Assyrians and the Yazidis cannot be penetrated by Sunni extremists.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Wednesday said he would ask the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to provide a mission to improve his country’s defense capacity, according to the Wall Street Journal. Al-Abadi made the request in a meeting Wednesday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on the sidelines of a gathering of ministers in Brussels from the coalition fighting Sunni extremist group Islamic State.
But if the Nineveh Plain Protection Units are successful, a skeptical Michael Stephens said, Assyrians had better be ready for a surprise when they return home.
“One of the biggest problems is that when ISIS leaves an area, it leaves it full of roadside bombs and mines and traps everywhere, which makes the place uninhabitable for anybody who wants to move back,” said Stephens, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.
Either way, all sides face a potentially harsh winter, and internally displaced persons and refugees across the region got some very bad news this week, as the United Nations World Food Program announced that it had run out of funds and was cutting off its programs in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt.
“I’m not sure [the shortfall] can be made up,” said Atonement Father Elias Mallon, external affairs officer of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which is raising money and trying to help fill in some of the gaps. “When the UN runs out of money, that takes an important component off the scene, and it’s just going to make the humanitarian crisis worse. There are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons in northwestern Iraq. In that part of the country there are high mountains and it can get very very cold in the winter.”
Assisting the refugees, too, is a battle to save innocent lives.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.