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Commander of Iraq-Based Christian Militia Asks for Greater US Support

Marines gather under the American Flag during a change of command ceremony aboard Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, June 19, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Sarah Cherry/Released)
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Dwekh Nawsha leader says Obama's air support is helping, but America can do more

Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush on Wednesday called for “boots on the ground” in the fight against the Islamic State group. President Obama continues to insist that airstrikes, along with the military offensive of Iraq’s army and other native troops, will carry the day.

One military leader from Iraq, on a visit to Washington this week, tends to side with the president, but he is asking for more American support.

“What our people have been facing in Iraq for the past year is a situation of being Assyrian Christians, an indigenous people, facing massacres and being thrown off our land,” Emanuel Khoshaba Youkhana said in an interview with Aleteia. Khoshaba, an Assyrian Christian, is secretary general of the Assyrian Patriotic Party and commander in chief of the Assyrian Armed Forces. The militia is known in the Assyrian language as Dwekh Nawsha, which translates as “Self-Sacrificers.”

“Our fight is for our religion, our ethnicity and our country,” he said.

Born in Kirkuk, Khoshaba joined the Iraqi opposition against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1984. After that he became member of Assyrian Patriotic Party. He represented the Assyrian people for the Nineveh province in the founding conference of the new Iraq, and the Iraqi Parliament in 2003.

Dwekh Nawsha was formed soon after ISIS took over the northern Iraq city of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain in the summer of 2014. It is one of the five Christian militias, most founded since the ISIS invasion in June 2014. The others are the Nineveh Plains Protection Unit, out of Dohuk; the Nineveh Plains Forces, based in Telskuf, which operates under the auspices of the Kurdish peshmerga; the Babylonian Brigades, which operate under Iraq’s Shia-dominated militias, and the Syriac Military Council, which is fighting alongside the Kurds in northeastern Syria.

The area had been home to the Assyrian Christian people for almost 2000 years.

“When our people fled the Nineveh Plain, and the Islamic State occupied the major cities and villages of our people, at that time we took up arms to fight back, to defend ourselves and do our duty for our people, our land, our country,” Khoshaba said.

The group, which began with 12 men, now has several hundred. All of them are Assyrian Christians. Some have returned to Iraq after living abroad. All of them have a military background.

Based in Baqofa, a mere two kilometers from the Islamic State’s front line north of Mosul, the Dwekh Nawsha coordinates with the peshmerga and man a “forward line of troops.

“Every day we get hit by mortars,” Khoshaba said.

When a coalition of Yazidis and Kurds recently took back Sinjar from ISIS, Dwekh Nawsha was there to lend support.

Khoshaba acknowledged that the Obama administration has a more hands-off policy with regard to the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, “but they can support and help the people who are here and participate in this fight, as if the US troops were there.

“We need training, equipment, weapons, support for our families,” he said. “You can bring numbers, huge numbers, if you have support.”

He said the air campaign being carried out by the US and its coalition has helped. “Without the help of the air force on the 9th and 10th of August 2015, Erbil might have been taken by ISIS. The coalition forces stopped them.”

Now Erbil is home to more than 125,000 internally displaced persons, mostly Christian, from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, and he said they still live under miserable conditions. Some are relatives of members of Dwekh Nawsha.

“They are not in camps but live in caravans,” he said. “You just give them food and a place to sleep. For sure they don’t want to stay like that. They’ll leave the country. So we are losing Christians, we are losing Christianity in Iraq because we make no effort to help them to stay and give the support and liberate the cities and villages so they can go back home…. How can you expect anyone to keep living without kids going to school, help for the sick, work to do? What do you want him to be? We don’t want to be refugees. We built Mesopotamia. We’ve been there for thousands of years. We want to retake our villages from Islamic State. We need support to stay in our country. Our future is there.”

He acknowledged that some IDPs do get desperate and attempt passages to the West. Tuesday night, he said, a boat carrying several refugees, including seven Christians, sank in the Aegean on its way to Greece. The seven Christians perished.

Reuters reported recently that the US State Department plans to open a refugee settlement processing center in Erbil before the end of 2015. But Nina Shea, a longtime observer and advocate of international religious freedom, said it will be of “no benefit to Christians.”

“IDPs aren’t refugees,” she said in an interview. “This is for benefit of Muslims from Syria. Refugees are people who have fled their country. These new centers are to expedite processing of UN referrals of Muslims from Syria.”

 

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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