As U.S. troops continue to pull out from Iraq, it is worth visiting the question of what future there is, if any, for the country's Assyrians. Since the 2003 American-led invasion, the Christian population has declined from some 1.2-1.5 million to 400-800,000 today, and it is undeniable that Christians constitute a disproportionate percentage of Iraqi refugees. In fact, it is thought that around 40% of refugees are Christian, even though prior to the war they comprised at most 5% of Iraq's population of roughly 30 million.
Since the end of 2006, there has been a marked decline in violence, for most of the Sunni insurgents began to realize that they were losing the sectarian civil war for Baghdad against the Shi'a militias and thus appreciated that survival depended on working with the central government against al-Qa'ida.
However, Iraq's Assyrian community still faces two problems. Outside of the areas administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), there is the threat of al-Qa'ida, which is still able to extort money around $150 per month from most businesses in Mosul and is capable of carrying out mass casualty attacks and hostage takings. The most notorious recent example is undoubtedly the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Assyrian Catholic Church in Karrada on October 31st 2010.
Although the Iraqi security forces were able to take out 8 militants and relieve the hostage crisis, the terrorists nonetheless detonated their explosives prior to being killed, leaving 58 dead and 67 wounded. The attack was followed by 11 roadside bombings and mortar firings on Christian neighborhoods in Baghdad that killed 5 more civilians and injured 20. Consequently, around 133 and 109 Christian families registered as refugees in Syria and Jordan respectively. More recently, two churches were bombed in Kirkuk last August, leaving 23 wounded in the first attack and damage to the church in the other (a third plot was foiled after the bomb was defused).
The KRG areas have provided a safe haven for many Assyrians fleeing the threat of Islamist violence further south since 2003, and the former KRG Minister of Finance- Sarkis Aghajan- did use some KRG funds to finance a Christian defense militia in Mosul and help rebuild a few churches and villages. The KRG hoped that these limited initiatives would win over the Assyrian (also known as Chaldean and Syriac) Christians to submit to Kurdish rule and authority, at the expense of marginalizing the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM).
Yet many Assyrians justifiably complain of problems of discrimination. As a 2007 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom notes:
"KRG officials were also reported to have used public works projects to divert water and other vital resources from Chaldo-Assyrian to Kurdish communities…leading to mass exodus, which was later followed by the seizure and conversion of abandoned Chaldo-Assyrian property by the local Kurdish population."
The anxieties of some Assyrian leaders over these issues are apparent in disclosures from the Wikileaks cables. Consider a message from the Ninewa Provincial Reconstruction Team:
"In a July 3 meeting with PRT and US Army civil affairs personnel, Mayor of Tal Kaif [Tel Keppe] District (and Provincial Chairman of the Assyrian Democratic Movement) Basim Bello said Assyrians in Ninewa Province feel intimidated by the Kurds and suffer from a lack of essential services. Bello said the solution lies in the inclusion of all groups in the provincial government. He said civil rights protections for Christians will continue to be a concern whether predominantly Christian areas remain part of Ninewa or join the KRG. He reiterated his party's position that the Christian areas of Ninewa should form an autonomous region under Article 125 of the constitution."
In light of issues highlighted above, one can only agree with the ADM's proposal that the only viable way to preserve Iraq's fledgling Christian population is the creation of an autonomous province, based on Article 125 of the Iraqi Constitution, which affirms that the "Constitution shall guarantee the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents, and this shall be regulated by law." There are of course several predominantly Christian towns around which this autonomous region could be based, including Alqosh, Batnaya, Tesqopa and Baqofa. The question now arises of how the prospects for attaining this goal can be raised.
The answer lies in one word: federalism. According to the constitution, provinces can break away into separate autonomous regions (or in groups) subject to a referendum. Calls for federalism have a long history in southern Iraq, especially in Basra province since 2003.
Basra has witnessed a growing number of Nouri al-Maliki's supporters advocate for autonomy amid a boom in foreign oil investment. Thus, as Wail Abdul Latif, a former lawmaker and advocate for autonomy, put it, "While the foreign companies, mainly the oil ones, are entering Basra to tap into its resources, Basrawis are being crushed by deprivation and poverty." None of this should be surprising since Iraq's centralized command economy inherited from the days of Saddam Hussein allows oil revenues to be siphoned off through bureaucracy and corruption.
As many analysts have observed, the premier has been able in violation of the constitution to obstruct these initiatives for federalism largely because the calls for federalism in these Shi'a areas have come from members of his own State of Law bloc that heads the ruling coalition in Baghdad.
Yet as Reidar Visser points out, "any growth of such calls for federal regions in the Sunni governorates would create an interesting dilemma for the central government." This could trigger a "domino effect" across the country, making advocacy for autonomy in any province much harder to resist. Of interest were Osama al-Nujaifi's comments on the issue in an interview with the BBC during his recent visit to the UK. Pointing to the fact that many Sunnis feel they are now second-class citizens, al-Nujaifi apparently affirmed that "the Sunnis are frustrated in the country and feel they are second-class citizens, forcing many of them to demand the establishment of geographic and non-sectarian regions, because they support the unity of Iraq." For these remarks, he was condemned by the White Iraqi National Movement, which is a splinter group formed in March from Allawi's al-Iraqiya bloc that is predominantly Sunni.
Nevertheless, there are good grounds to think that calls for federalism beyond rhetorical threats could significantly increase on account of the ongoing splits within the al-Iraqiya movement. More and more members are becoming frustrated at Allawi's inability to counter al-Maliki's attempts to control areas of government like the Defense Ministry that should have been awarded to al-Iraqiya in accordance with the compromise agreement drawn up by Massoud Barzani in December 2010. Most recently, members of the 'Solution Bloc' have split from al-Iraqiya only this month.
Hence, it is to be hoped that exasperation with the persistent personal power struggles among the Iraqi political elite will multiply calls for autonomy on a much larger and serious scale. Indeed, as Joel Wing notes, the preoccupation of the likes of al-Malki and Allawi with acquisition of political power for its own sake means that "the needs of the average lawmaker are hardly ever heard." This could well trigger a chain of events in the driver for federalism culminating in the realization of the ADM's goal of creating an autonomous region for Christians in the north. Such a development could also provide a safe haven for Syrian Christians if they are subject to attacks at the hands of the Sunni majority in the event of the downfall of Assad's regime.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an intern at the Middle East Forum.