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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Iraq

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Iraq, 11 March 2008, available at: [accessed 22 January 2018]
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.

The fifth year of war following the US-led invasion of Iraq was one of the bloodiest. The main fault line remains that between Sunni and Shia Arabs. However, within the broader war, small, often-forgotten minorities have been most prone to violent attack. The overall number of civilian deaths from the beginning of the conflict is disputed, but probably ranges in the hundreds of thousands. In July 2007 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that 2 million Iraqis had become refugees and 2 million more internally displaced since March 2003. The agency further estimated that 2,000 additional Iraqis continued to be displaced every day. Most of the refugees have fled to Jordan and Syria, which have taken in some 500,000 and 1.5 million Iraqis, respectively – according to the UN, nearly a third of these refugees come from minority communities.

Iraqis fleeing insecurity and dire economic conditions have encountered new political and physical barriers at foreign borders. Some groups have found escape especially difficult, notably the Palestinian minority.

For the approximately 30,000 Iraqis internally displaced each month, new barriers also arose in 2007. In October, UNHCR announced that 11 of 18 Iraqi provincial governors had closed their territories to internally displaced persons from other provinces, and that any new arrivals would be denied government support for food and education.

Sectarian violence

Shia and Sunni Arabs living as numerical minorities among a majority of the other community face severe threats in all parts of the country, targeted by militias vying for power and land, or exacting retribution for attacks from the other side. Sectarian violence has been especially fierce ever since February 2006 when Sunni militants bombed one of the holiest Shia mosques in Samarra. Many in the Shia numerical majority are eager to consolidate control over the country, while long-dominant Sunnis fear persecution as a minority. The December 2006 hanging of Saddam Hussein following a war crimes trial deemed deeply flawed by human rights advocates did nothing to dampen those fears. In August 2007, the main Sunni bloc withdrew from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, accusing him of sectarianism. By October, despite intense international pressure, the Iraqi government still had not reached agreement on how the country's oil revenues should be shared; Sunnis, predominantly from the country's oil-poor centre, fear efforts by Shia and Kurds to keep revenues in the oil-rich south and north.

In September 2007 the US Department of Defence claimed that death rates from sectarian violence had fallen compared with those of the previous year, however an analysis released separately by the politically independent US Government Accountability Office 'could not determine if sectarian violence had declined'.

Radical Shia militias have overt backers in government, and have infiltrated the Iraqi National Police and, to a lesser extent, the Iraqi army; from within the security services and without, death squads and militias continue to target Sunni civilians. They have also particularly targeted the Palestinian community in Iraq for abduction, torture and murder. Palestinians are Sunni, and under Saddam Hussein received privileged treatment in the country. The US alleges that Iran is providing support to some of the militants. In overwhelmingly Shia southern Iraq, Shia militias have fought each other for resources and power.

Many of the Sunni attacks on Shia have been perpetrated by foreign-led militias, including 'al-Qaeda in Iraq', and have often featured car bombs and suicide attacks. In February 2007, a bomb at a Shia market in Baghdad killed 137; in April five car bombs targeting Shia in Baghdad killed 200 people in a single day. As part of an announced offensive during the holy month of Ramadan, Sunni militants conducted a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks in September. During 2007, the US military began arming and training militias loyal to Sunni traditional tribal leaders, some of whom are hostile to foreign Sunni militants. Shia leaders have been wary of the tactic, worrying that support for Sunni militarization could eventually further sectarian attacks on their communities.

The ongoing sectarian violence has continued the process of segregation between Shia and Sunni Iraqis. In 2007 the government intervened to try to shore up the common practice of mixed sectarian marriage in Iraq by introducing cash bonuses for newly married, mixed Sunni-Shia couples. Meanwhile, Baghdad real-estate agents experienced a boom in arranging housing exchanges between Shia and Sunni minorities in Baghdad neighbourhoods. As the city and country become more segregated, life for remaining sectarian minorities has become more perilous.

International forces, mostly American, have been reluctant to take action on behalf of smaller minority groups, especially as political desperation to find a way out of the quagmire in Iraq has increasingly meant finding accommodation with the three dominant groups, elements of which are usually responsible for targeting smaller groups. Additionally, smaller minorities for the most part have no militias of their own, and must rely on police, who are often corrupt, or themselves perpetrators of ethnic and sectarian violence.

Attacks on non-Muslims

Iraq's Christian minorities, from the ancient communities of Chaldo-Assyrians and Syriac-speaking Orthodox Christians to the Armenians who fled to Iraq from the Ottoman Empire early in the twentieth century, are now all under severe threat. Across Iraq, Shia and Sunni Islamic extremists have singled out Christian families, often forcing them to pay protection money. When the funds run out, they are given a choice of converting, fleeing or dying. Among Christians who stay, women are forced to wear the Muslim abaya body covering. Death threats forced the last Anglican vicar, a British citizen, to flee Iraq in July 2007. He testified before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that in a single week earlier in July, 36 of his congregation had been kidnapped.

While many Christians have fled abroad, others have moved to the relatively calmer north. Reports indicate that 3,000 Christian families have left Baghdad and moved to the Kurdish territories, whilst another 4,000 have moved to the Nineveh Plains. The new arrivals often lack employment, schools and housing. There has been talk that some Christian communities – especially the umbrella Assyrian ones – are lobbying for a separate entity in the Nineveh Plains just north of Mosul. Discussions continue over the shape of any such entity and what degree of self-governance it would take on. While representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have said they support the creation of a 'Nineveh province' within Kurdistan, the US government has opposed the idea, saying it would 'further sectarianism'.

The year 2007 was one of devastation for Yezidis, ethnic and linguistic Kurds who are adherents of a 4,000-year-old, pre-Islamic faith. Following a fatwa, or religious instruction from a Sunni militant group called 'Islamic State of Iraq' calling for the deaths of Yezidis, suspected Sunni militants pulled 23 Yezidi men from a bus and executed them in April 2007. The same group of extremists perpetrated the single most devastating terrorist attack of the Iraq war in August 2007; four truck bombs killed almost 500 Yezidis in two villages in the Nineveh Plains, along the Syrian border. The area is strategically important disputed territory. Following the US offensive against Sunni insurgents to the south, reports indicate that 'al-Qaeda in Iraq' has increased its presence in this region. Many Yezidis have fled the country and those who remain are now fearful of travel outside of their communities. Yezidi farmers are losing their livelihoods because they can no longer travel to markets to sell their produce. In October, the New York Times reported that security fears had led Yezidis to stop performing religious ceremonies.

Conflict in the north

The Kurds in the north have autonomous rule, with centres in Erbil and Suleimaniyyeh, and are drafting a local constitution for the Kurdish areas. Kurdish aspirations for an independent Kurdistan are anathema to Iran, Syria and Turkey, all of which have neighbouring Kurdish minorities who, they fear, would seek to join such a new state. Over the course of 2007, Turkey grew increasingly concerned about attacks on its territory conducted by militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which uses northern Iraq as a refuge. In August, Turkey and Iraq signed an agreement on coordination of efforts to combat the PKK, but cross-border incursions by the PKK continued in September and October. In November Turkey moved 100,000 troops and heavy weapons to the border and the prospect of Turkish involvement in Iraq threatened to roil the relatively calm north, where small minorities have suffered the most from what violence has occurred in that region. Through intense US diplomacy with Turkey and pressure on the Iraqi Kurdish government to block support to the PKK, it was hoped that such a scenario could be avoided.

Violence between Kurds and Arabs increased during 2007, as a referendum slated for the end of the year on the future status of the oil-rich town of Kirkuk neared. The Iraqi Constitution provides for the referendum to decide on whether Kirkuk province will join the autonomous Kurdistan Region. In April the central government approved an incentive package for Sunni Arabs forcibly settled in Kirkuk under Saddam Hussein to return to their original homelands in the south. According to an Iraqi minister, by October around 1,000 Sunni Arab families had accepted the approximately US $15,000 payment to leave their Kirkuk homes. Yet, whilst Kurds view Kirkuk as the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, many Arabs and Turkomans oppose this, and smaller minorities including Armenians, Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Faili and Shabak have been caught in the middle. Forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government, along with Kurdish militias, have targeted Arabs and Turkomans, including through tactics of abduction and torture. Increasingly, Sunni Arab militants opposed to Kirkuk joining Kurdistan have launched attacks on Kurdish targets.

Turkomans view Kirkuk as historically theirs. Out of its opposition to the Kurds gaining control of Kirkuk and the likewise-disputed oil-town of Mosul, Turkey has provided backing for Turkoman militias that are confronting Kurdish forces. Apart from the competition for land, Turkomans have been targeted on sectarian grounds, with women being particularly vulnerable. In June 2007, four Shia Iraqi soldiers were charged with the rape of a Sunni Turkoman woman in Tel Afar – one of many such reported incidents. In July 2007 a marketplace bomb attack on Shia Turkomans killed between 130 and 210 civilians, mostly women and children.

Kurdish militants have also harassed the small ethnic Shabak community. In the interests of extending land claims in the northern Nineveh governorate, these Kurds assert that, despite Shabaks' distinct language and recognition as an ethnic group, Shabaks are really Kurds. Additionally, the majority of Shabak who are Shia have been targeted by Sunni militants. In July 2007 a Shabak MP claimed that Sunni militants had killed around 1,000 Shabak and displaced a further 4,000 from the Mosul area since 2003.

Faili, who are Shia Kurds, also face threats on sectarian grounds. A July 2007 truck bomb at a café frequented by Faili in the town of Amirli killed 105 and injured nearly 250 more. Journalists suspected that the bombing was linked to the forthcoming referendum on Kurdish autonomy.

Grim prospects

Despite the election of a parliament and the drafting of a constitution, the prospect of full-scale civil war between Shia militias and Sunni insurgents that threatens the existence of Iraq as a country, is still very real. A 'surge' of around 28,000 additional American troops in 2007 was meant to restore order in the country. Reported drops in levels of violence in Baghdad by the end of the year offered tentative hope – but clearly the country has a long road to travel before it climbs out of the post-invasion abyss. And the success of the surge strategy is by no means assured. Opposition to the war in the US has grown dramatically, and the Bush administration is facing ever stronger calls for force draw-down and withdrawal. In October, the British government announced that it would withdraw 1,000 troops, or 20 per cent of its force, from Iraq by the end of 2007.

Iraqi refugees

According to UN figures, nearly a third of the 2 million Iraqis who have fled the country come from the country's smaller minority groups. Beyond individual survival, these groups fear for the survival of their cultures.

According to a Kurdish government official in October 2007, at least 70,000 Yezidis, or 15 per cent of the group's population, have fled the country. Iraq's ancient and once sizeable Jewish community has all but entirely emigrated, with only a handful of Jewish people remaining in Baghdad.

Many Iraqi Christians also are emigrating in disproportionately large numbers. According to UNHCR, while Christians make up 4 per cent of the overall Iraqi population, they constitute 40 per cent of Iraqi refugees. According to the Iraqi non-governmental Christian Peace organization, a Christian minority of 850,000 in 2003 has been whittled down to under 600,000 today. In May 2007, USCIRF estimated that up to half of all Iraqi Christians had left the country.

For Iraqis fleeing the devastation of war, Syria has been a prime destination. Since March 2003 the country has taken in around 1.5 million Iraqis and, according to one Syrian non-governmental organization (NGO) estimate in August 2007, as many as 2 million. The refugees have swelled Syria's population by 8–10 per cent and the government estimates that the burden, including accommodation of Iraqi children in schools, has cost it US $1 billion each year. The influx has caused increases in the prices of housing and basic commodities. Assistance provided by UNHCR and other international agencies has not come close to covering the needs, and many Iraqi refugees are falling into poverty and despair. Homelessness is becoming a major problem, and some desperate Iraqis are turning to begging or crime to get by. Many of the Iraqi refugees are destitute widows, and some have turned to sex work to survive.

Since it allowed 300 Palestinian refugees from Iraq to enter in April–May 2006, the Syrian government has singled out this group for denial of entry. By May 2007, around 1,400 Iraqi Palestinians were camped at the Iraqi-Syrian border – fleeing Shia militia attacks at home and refused permission to enter Syria. Despite assistance from UNHCR and the International Committee for the Red Cross, Palestinians are living in squalid desert camps, exposed to blazing desert heat and sand storms, and lacking adequate water supplies. In May 2007 UNHCR appealed for international assistance in providing health care at the camps, noting that some Palestinian Iraqis were dying of treatable illnesses.

Jordan has admitted more Iraqi refugees per capita than any other country, with estimates ranging from 500,000 to 1 million. As in Syria, the influx has placed a heavy burden on the government, while driving up housing prices and the cost of basic goods. Many of the Iraqi refugees, disproportionately from Iraq's smaller ethnic and religious minority groups, live in poverty. Unemployment rates are high, in part because the refugees are ineligible for work in the public sector. With a higher cost of living, especially in Amman, increasing numbers of Iraqis have turned to begging.

Up till February 2007, Jordan still had no visa requirement for entry of Iraqi citizens, which helped make the country one of the prime destinations for those fleeing persecution. Beyond instituting a new passport requirement, ever since the 2005 suicide bomb attacks perpetrated by Iraqis on three hotels in Amman, the Jordanian government has feared the import of sectarian violence and routinely turned away Iraqi males between the ages of 18 and 45 and screened for Shia. In April 2007, Human Rights Watch documented the systematic rejection of Iraqi Shias at the border, as well as increasing police sweeps and repatriation of Iraqi refugees.

Although the US-led invasion triggered the conflict that has led to mass displacement, by July 2007 the US had only admitted 825 Iraqi refugees, while between 2003 and 2005 the UK had only let in 100. Iraqis working for these and other Western governments, international organizations, NGOs and international media outlets have been targeted by extremists; because many of the Iraqis willing to take such work are non-Muslims, these minorities have been disproportionately affected. As the number of Iraqis working at the US embassy killed or claiming asylum status abroad rose, in July 2007, the American ambassador pleaded with Washington to grant refugee visas to all local embassy staff and their families. A bill liberalizing the asylum process for Iraqis associated with US or US-backed institutions passed the US Senate in September, and included special allowances for Iraqis from minority religious groups. Sweden has admitted nearly half of the estimated 20,000 Iraqi refugees who have been allowed to settle in Western countries. Many of the thousands of refugees in Sweden are Assyrians and other Christians.

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