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State of the World's Minorities 2007 - Iraq

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 4 March 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2007 - Iraq, 4 March 2007, available at: [accessed 28 May 2016]
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.

Violence in Iraq continues to worsen, with a study in the Lancet finding that – as of September 2006 – the Iraqi death toll attributable to conflict since the March 2003 American-led invasion had risen to over 650,000. With mounting chaos, the United Nations (UN) estimated that, by October 2006, over 1.6 million Iraqis had fled the country and 100,000 more each month were abandoning their burning homeland. Militants sought to extend their control over land, principally by killing and expelling minority populations. Religious and ethnic minorities throughout Iraq became even more imperilled with acceleration of the cycle of killings and retribution, especially in sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni Arabs. Minority women faced added danger of violence from Islamic extremists, and even their own families, through so-called 'honour killings' following sexual violence. Some have stopped attending university in order to avoid coercion.

Muslims make up about 96 per cent of the Iraqi population. This overwhelming majority is mainly divided into a large Shia Arab majority, a Sunni Arab minority estimated at around 20 per cent, and around 6 million ethnic Kurds, who are mostly Sunni. An estimated 10 per cent of the population is not Shia Arab, Sunni Arab or Sunni Kurd, and includes ethnic Shabaks, Turkomans and Faili (Shia) Kurds, as well as Christians, Mandean-Sabeans, Yezidis and Baha'is.

The Baathist regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein was firmly based in the favoured Sunni Arab minority and became notorious for the repression and even slaughter of Shia, Kurds and many of Iraq's smaller minorities. Following the ouster of Saddam in 2003, the American-led occupying force installed a transitional government using ethnic and sectarian quotas that left Sunni Arabs feeling under-represented. Elections in January 2005, boycotted by Sunni Arabs, led to establishment of a government dominated by Shia and Kurds. This government oversaw the drafting and ratification of a new constitution in October 2005 that left Sunni Arabs feeling marginalized. Other minorities were also largely excluded from the process, as Western powers concentrated on forging consensus among the three main ethnic/sectarian groups, to which all but five of the 71 constitutional framers belonged.

The Shia Arab majority appeared content to await the post-Saddam transition that would cede them control of the country, and refrained from large-scale retaliation against Sunni Arab attacks until coming to power in the January 2005 elections. But, following those elections, Shia militants associated with the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its Badr Organization, played a major role in the Interior Ministry and committed numerous indiscriminate attacks on Sunni civilians. In November 2005, US forces discovered an underground detention and torture facility run by the Interior Ministry in Baghdad.

Amidst this bloodshed, sectarian and ethnic division marked the campaign ahead of another round of elections in December 2005. The government arising from that vote is divided among the three main factions: President Jalal Talabani is Kurdish, Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi is Sunni Arab, and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is Shia Arab; yet this power-sharing has not hindered Iraq's slide into sectarian civil war and dark days for its minorities.

Rival political parties within government openly support different militias who patrol various parts of the country in the name of community protection, but are also clearly working to extend their areas of control. These same militias detain, torture and conduct 'trials' of their victims, and summarily execute them with impunity. For example, Prime Minister Maliki depends on a faction allied with radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Many Sunni Arab victims of militia assaults report that perpetrators are in police or sometimes army uniforms, use police vehicles and act without interference from local police. Sunni Arab militants have targeted police stations and police recruits in retaliation for Shia Arab militia attacks, and to discourage cooperation with the government and international troops.

It is unclear to what extent Sunni Arab attacks are the work of domestic Baathist forces, or that of foreign insurgents, but it is increasingly clear that Iraqi Sunnis are engaging in sectarian violence. Shia militias have been unwilling to disarm because they say their community would then be endangered by the Sunni insurgency, but these in turn encourage Sunni Arab militancy. Iraqis of many stripes feel increasingly reliant on sectarian and ethnic militias because the American-led international and Iraqi government forces have proved incapable of establishing security.

The 22 February 2006 bombing of a Shia shrine set off a particularly fierce round of sectarian violence, the worst of which came in such mixed Sunni-Shia Arab areas of the country as Baghdad, Tal Afar and Diyala. The violence escalated throughout the year. Iraqi government figures placed the number of civilian dead for September and October 2006 at 7,054, with 5,000 of these killings in Baghdad. Most victims had been tortured. In one October incident, following the abduction and decapitation of 17 Shia civilians in the mixed Sunni-Shia Arab town of Balad, up to 90 Sunni civilians suffered reprisal killings and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported that most remaining Sunnis had fled the town. By November 2006, the UN estimated that 425,000 Iraqis had been displaced in sectarian violence since the February Samarra bombings. On 23 November, a new assault threatened to intensify the killing further, as a series of car bombs, mortar attacks and rockets killed over 200 civilians in Sadr City, the Shia Arab slum of Baghdad and stronghold of leading Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. In the aftermath, Shia Arab militants launched retaliatory attacks on Sunni civilians and their holy sites.

In September 2006 the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported patterns of displacement that reflected the perceived threat to Shia and Sunni Arabs living as sectarian minorities. Shia Arabs were fleeing the Sunni Arab-dominated central Iraqi governates of Anbar and Salah al Din, as well as the mixed governate of Baghdad for the majority Shia Arab southern governates, while Sunni Arabs were moving from those southern governates into the governates of Baghdad, Diyala and Anbar. IOM also reported high rates of movement by Shia and Sunni Arabs into segregated towns and neighbourhoods within the mixed governates of Baghdad and Diyala.

The overwhelming reality of daily sectarian violence has left Iraq's smaller minorities particularly vulnerable. A report for Minority Rights Group International (MRG), published in early 2007, warned that the impact of the conflict on some minority groups has been so acute that they are in danger of being driven out entirely from a territory they have called home for hundreds – in some cases, thousands – of years. They are targeted on sectarian and/or ethnic grounds, and face added danger from the perception that they cooperate with American-led forces.

Iraq's ethnic Kurdish minority is mostly Sunni and concentrated in the north. Iraqi Kurds suffered greatly under Saddam's rule, but gained wide autonomy and relative prosperity during the sanctions regime, and with the Western air protection from Saddam's forces that preceded the 2003 invasion. Kurds in Iraq strive for greater autonomy and the dream of an independent Kurdistan, which is anathema to Iran, Syria and Turkey, all of which have neighbouring Kurdish minorities who, they fear, would seek to join such a new state. In July 2006, the International Crisis Group warned of a brewing battle for oil-rich Kirkuk in the north, which lies beyond the Erbil-based Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG's) reach, but within its desire. Kurds used their position in the government elected in January 2005 to secure a process that would reverse the Saddam-era process of Arabization in Kirkuk, moving toward its eventual formal inclusion in the Kurdish region by referendum in late 2007. Turkey has signalled its opposition, as have Iraq's Sunni and Shia Arabs. Similarly, the Kurdish government in Erbil governate has attempted to extend its influence to the likewise disputed city of Mosul. In October 2006, a Kurdish member of parliament and his driver, who had been kidnapped earlier, were found dead – the suspected work of a Shia Arab militia. That same month, a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was assassinated in Mosul.

Kurdish claims on Kirkuk and Mosul clash with those of the Turkish-speaking Turkomans, Iraq's third-largest ethnic group, which makes up 3 per cent of the population, and has both Sunni and Shia adherents. Turkomans view Kirkuk as historically theirs and, with Turkish assistance, have formed the Iraqi Turkman Front (ITF) to prevent Kurdish control of Kirkuk. UN reports in 2006 indicated that forces of the KRG and Kurdish militias were policing illegally in Kirkuk and other disputed areas. These militas have abducted Turkomans and Arabs, subjecting them to torture. In June, 20 Turkoman students were killed in Kara Teppe and explosions in Turkoman areas of Kirkuk killed 13. A car bomb at a July parade by the ITF in Kirkuk wounded another 20. Turkomans also remain prone to predominant sectarian violence. Of 17 Turkoman officials arrested in October at a militia checkpoint in Tikrit, two Sunnis were released while 15 Shias disappeared.

The small ethnic Shabak minority, among which are both Sunni and Shia, has lived in the Nineveh Plains of the north for hundreds of years, but faces harassment from Kurdish militants. Despite Shabaks' distinct language and recognition as an ethnic group, Kurds wishing to extend land claims into the Nineveh governate claim that Shabaks are really Kurds. The Faili Kurds, who follow Shia Islam, live along the Iran/Iraq border and in Baghdad. Repressed as 'Iranians' under the Saddam regime, they are now targeted for ethnic and religious reasons. In November 2005, two Faili Kurdish mosques in the town of Khanaqin were bombed. The Yezidi are ethnically and linguistically Kurdish but have their own 4,000-year-old religion. They face persecution by religious extremists as 'devil worshippers'. A Yezidi council member for the Nineveh Plains was assassinated in April 2006, one of 11 Yezidis reported murdered between September 2005 and September 2006.

Iraq is home to many Christian groups, including Chaldo-Assyrians, Syriac-speaking Orthodox Christians, Catholic and Oriental Orthodox Armenians, and Protestants. Chaldo-Assyrians and Syriac Christians both speak the ancient Syriac language and have been in the region since the earliest days of Christianity's spread in the region; they consider themselves Arabs but are not recognized as such by the government. Armenians have been in Mesopotamia since the days of Babylon, their numbers bolstered following the Armenian genocide of 1915. In its September-October human rights report, UNAMI reported increasing violence against all Christians, with a spike in attacks on Christians following the Pope's controversial remarks on Islam in September 2006. Churches and convents were attacked by rocket and gunfire, and a Syriac Orthodox priest was kidnapped and decapitated in October. With mounting violence, many Iraqi churches have cancelled services and the UN reports that Iraqi Christians are fleeing in disproportionate numbers to Syria, Jordan and beyond.

The Mandean-Sabeans are Gnostics who have practised their faith in Iraq for over 2,000 years and speak an endangered language. Their religion forbids the use of violence, which makes them easy targets for Islamic extremists. The state offers no protection from attacks, such as one that killed four Mandean-Sabeans in October 2006. As members of the community flee abroad, the number of Mandean-Sabeans estimated to remain in Iraq in late 2006 was 13,000, down two-thirds since the American-led invasion.

Followers of the Baha'i faith in Iraq are targeted by Islamic extremists because they don't believe Mohammed was the last prophet. For the past 30 years, Baha'i have not been allowed to have citizenship papers or travel documents, which makes it difficult for them to leave the country. Almost entirely gone from Iraq are Jews, who have a 2,600year history in the country and once numbered 150,000. In October 2005, the UN reported that the only Jews left in Iraq were in Baghdad, and their numbers had shrunk to 20.

Although an estimated 4,000–15,000 Palestinian refugees have left Iraq since 2003, some 20,000 remain and are subject to attack by militias in Baghdad. Favoured as political pawns under Saddam, this mostly Sunni minority now face retaliatory attacks, including by Iraqi security services. Militias have also been seizing Palestinian homes, often for their ethnic kin, who have been displaced by other militias elsewhere in Iraq. The UN received reports of at least six Palestinians killed in June 2006 and the refugee agency reported that many Palestinians were encamped at the Syrian border, trying to flee the country.

Subject to the same sectarian and ethnic targeting as Iraqi men, women face the added burden of gender discrimination. The number of widows in the country is increasing, and Islamic militants leave few opportunities for women to make money, let alone drive or move around without a male relative. The Iraqi government estimates that mixed marriages between Sunni and Shia Arabs account for nearly a third of all marriages in Iraq. In November 2006, the local Peace for Iraqis Association reported that hundreds of Iraqis in mixed sectarian marriages were being forced by militias or their families to divorce, throwing more women into economic uncertainty. Short-term marriages of convenience, known as Muta'a, were on the rise in 2006; these may serve immediate economic needs of women, but afford them no rights when the marriage is over.

Women across Iraq, many of them non-Muslims, have reported numerous death threats for failing to fully cover their heads and bodies in line with strict Islamic teachings. The Women's Rights Association of Baghdad reported in March 2006 that, since the 2003 invasion, the number of women attacked for failing to cover their heads and faces had more than tripled.

Across Iraq, kidnappings, rapes and sexual slavery of women have increased. UNAMI, in its September-October human rights report, mentions a 'worrying trend of female "suicides" and "attempted suicides" as a result of family conflicts' in the KRG. The government has not aggressively pursued the perpetrators of such 'honour killings', who receive light sentences when they are apprehended and tried. In October, an activist for women's and Arab rights in the Kurdistan region was murdered following threats accusing her of collaboration with international forces. In response to their targeting by militants, many girls' schools did not open this fall.

Although aiming to serve the cause of transitional justice, it appeared that the trial of Saddam Hussein only provided more fodder for sectarian tensions. When Saddam and two co-defendants were sentenced to death on 5 November 2006 for a 1982 massacre of Shia in Dujail, Shia Arabs and Kurds celebrated, while Sunni Arabs saw it as further evidence of their endangerment and loss of privilege. Human Rights Watch criticized the trial's conduct and the verdict's 'suspect' timing, two days before US mid-term Congressional elections. In the course of the trial, three defence attorneys and a witness were assassinated. Although the 'Anfal' trial against Saddam and others for the killing of some 180,000 Kurds was ongoing, Saddam was hanged on 30 December 2006 – the first day of the Muslim holiday Eid-al-Adha as observed by Sunnis.

As Iraqi civil war raged, the report of the Iraq Study Group, commissioned by the US Congress and released in December 2006, stirred enormous controversy in the US and UK but offered few new ideas for Iraq. It was not clear that the weak Iraqi government would be able to establish security for anyone, especially the country's minorities.

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