Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 November 2014, 14:08 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Iraq

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 16 July 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - Iraq, 16 July 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a66d9b34b.html [accessed 26 November 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Iraq has been home to a wide cross-section of the Middle East's ethnic and religious communities, some for more than two millennia. The majority of its population, about 60 per cent, are ethnically Arab Ithna'ashari ('Twelver') Shia. This group was kept out of positions of power under Saddam Hussein, but today has the greatest share of political power. Perhaps 20 per cent of the population are Arab Sunnis (though this figure is widely disputed) and15-20 per cent are ethnic Kurds, a majority of whom are Sunni Muslim. There are numerous smaller ethnic and religious groups, including Christians (Chaldeans, Assyrians and Armenians), Baha'is, Dom (a people related to the Roma), Jews, Faili (Shia Kurds), Mandaean-Sabeans, Palestinians, Sarliya-Kakaiya, Shabak, Turkmen and Yezidis. Under Saddam, many of these communities were ethnically cleansed under a policy of Arabization. Some were given favourable treatment, however.

In December 2008, the USCIRF called for Iraq to be designated 'a country of particular concern' under America's International Religious Freedom Act. The reason for this, according to the State Department report, was particularly because of the situation for Iraq's smallest religious minorities, including Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, other Christians, Mandaean-Sabeans, Shabaks and Yezidis. Commission chair Felice D. Gaer said: 'The lack of effective government action to protect these communities from abuses has established Iraq among one the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities.'

In the sectarian violence following the US-led invasion of 2003, minority groups were disproportionately the victims. Palestinian refugees, who received favoured status under Saddam, became targets of attacks. Christians, who under Saddam were permitted to trade alcohol, were in several areas singled out by hard-line Islamist movements for murder or forced conversion. Their religious buildings, shops and homes were also targeted. Mandaean-Sabeans, members of an ancient Gnostic sect whose prophet is John the Baptist, were targeted in Baghdad. The Mandaean Human Rights Group Report of 2008 states that forcible conversions and confiscation of property and businesses are taking place, and the Mandaean Associations Union reported the killing of nine Mandaeans in Al-Kut City in Iraq on 26 March 2008.

Regarding both Iraq's many internally displaced people (IDPs) and the general population, UN agencies and NGOs continue to express concern over access to schooling and the quality of education. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated in February 2008 that access to regular schooling has been hampered due to continued security fears, school closures and the exodus of teaching staff. School enrolment rates are thought to be as low as 46 per cent, with the highest drop-out rates noted in Nineveh Governorate – an area where many minorities live.

As the country has become more ethnically segregated, struggles have been exacerbated by resource conflicts. Iraq's oil resources are concentrated in north, including the Kurdish-governed areas, and in the Shia-majority south. This has led to disagreements over the level of federalism Iraq will have, and how resources will be shared, controlled and distributed by the government. Final agreement on issues such as Iraq's oil law continued to be delayed in 2008.

One result of these disputes has been ethnopolitical groups using identity politics and forced migration to assert their dominance over strategic resources or population areas. Kurds have fought for increased territory for their semi-autonomous region in the north, and minorities have been the targets of violence and intimidation as a result, particularly in and around the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, which Iraqi Turkmen, Christians and Yazidi communities consider their homeland. In those cities, some groups, including Arabs and Kurds, have tried to co-opt others, force them to leave, or consolidate power through violence; 2008 saw an increase of such inter-ethnic conflict. Kirkuk is currently under the political control of Kurdish authorities; decades of ethnic cleansing have shaped the mutual distrust among different ethnic groups and Turkmen have been particularly opposed to the inclusion of Kirkuk under Kurdish authority.

The political participation of minorities in government has been a major issue in 2008, and is intimately connected with this kind of identity politics. Early drafts of the crucial provincial elections law included quotas for minorities, including Assyrian Christians and Shabak, but these were removed in September 2008, when a last-minute revision of the bill allowed a resolution of the status of Kirkuk to be postponed until early 2009. The decision sparked protests in some Iraqi cities, and international condemnation. In November, following an advocacy campaign by minority organizations and MRG, the parliament restored minority representation, but offered minorities far fewer quota seats than recommended by the UN: only six out of 440.

Shabak are ethnically and linguistically distinct from Kurds, but Kurdish militias in some areas of the north have harassed them, insisting that they are in fact Kurds in order to consolidate land claims. According to a July 2008 report from the Iraq Ministry of Human Rights, the Shabak minority had suffered the worst internal displacement, reporting 3,708 families (about 16,000 people) displaced.

Yezidis, members of an ancient pre-Islamic faith, are particular targets. Though they did not occur at the disastrous levels of 2007, attacks against Yezidis continued in 2008, including the killing of seven members of one family by armed militants and a car bombing in the predominantly Yazidi town of Sinjar, near Mosul, that killed several people and wounded more than 40 others.

The situation of Iraq's Christian communities continued to be a concern during 2008. In March 2008, one of Iraq's most senior Chaldean Catholic clerics was abducted in the same city. In April, an Assyrian Orthodox priest was murdered in Baghdad. In October 2008, the UNHCR reported that targeted attacks against Christians in Mosul caused 13,000 people to flee. According to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, many have now returned.

The situation of Palestinian refugees in Iraq remains grave. After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, many were threatened, kidnapped, tortured or killed. Many tried to flee to neighbouring countries, but Syria will not admit them, Iraq remains unsafe and their future is bleak. Thousands of Palestinians now inhabit three harsh desert camps on the Iraq-Syria border. In March 2008, UNHCR appealed for the immediate relocation and resettlement of Palestinians suffering from acute medical conditions. As of September 2008, 306 had been resettled: 116 were accepted by Chile, 174 by Sweden and 16 by Switzerland.

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