BASHIQA, Iraq — Residents in Iraq’s most diverse areas are under the protection of Kurdish forces and are happy to be safe from Sunni extremists. Now they are weighing whether their future lies with the Kurdistan Region — but they first need to get basic services working again.
The Kurdish Peshmerga has strengthened its presence in Nineveh province’s disputed rural areas after Sunni fighters led by the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized the provincial capital, Mosul last month.
Bashiqa is one of the towns. Lying just 18 kilometres from Mosul with two roads linking it to Iraq’s most volatile city, Bashiqa and nearby villages in Nineveh province have been the heart of Iraq’s minority communities for centuries. Yazidis, one of the region’s oldest religions, are the biggest group, and live alongside Assyrians, Sunni Arabs, Kurds and ethnic Shabak, who like the Kurds descendants of the Medes.
Bashiqa’s exceptional ethnic and religious diversity has made it the target of extremists in the past. Kurdish forces now man checkpoints into Bashiqa together with the provincial police — some of who stayed on even though Baghdad cut Mosul’s services and funds, including their salaries, after the Sunni militia takeover of the city and surrounding areas.
The Kurdish influence in Bashiqa was already high, with Kurdish parties active in local politics and the Kurdish Kermanji dialect one of the languages spoken here. Yet the area only came under complete Kurdish control after the Iraqi army retreated in June.
The question now is whether Bashiqa and the surrounding area, called the Nineveh plains, will be incorporated into the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), or even become part of an independent Kurdish state if the region breaks away from Iraq.
“Most of us are for a Kurdish state; only a minority is not,” said Husam Abdullah, the project coordinator of the Yazidi Solidarity and Fraternity League in Bashiqa. He added that people hope the new situation will offer them jobs.
Kurdistan Region President Barzani has stressed that KRG has become a safe haven for other communities fleeing the violence. “Thousands have fled, especially Christians. Where ISIS establishes a Caliphate, their lives are in danger. We protect our minorities against these terrorists.”
Even so, some of the Christians in the area prefer to have an autonomous local government in the Nineveh plains. In addition, three Sunni villages near Bashiqa don’t want to be ruled by the Kurds.
For that reason, Abdullah calls for a public referendum to determine whether the region will be governed by the KRG or Baghdad.
For now, however, the most urgent issue is basic services. Baghdad cut electricity after ISIS and the Sunni tribes took over, leaving the province to draw on power from Mosul’s dam which supplies only two hours a day. Generators can’t fill the gap, partly due to a lack of petrol after the main Iraqi refinery fell into the hands of the fighters.
The lack of electricity and petrol also result in water no longer being pumped, so the area has to depend on wells that are being dug.
“Electricity and water: these are now our main problems,” Abdullah said.
His office was stifling, and the open windows made no difference in the sweltering afternoon heat. Abdullah’s “fan” was a piece of cardboard that he jokingly called “the Kurdish split,” the local term for air conditioning.
Those who are in favor of joining the KRG do have some demands. Apart from water and electricity shortages, Abdullah points to roads and other infrastructure in the area that urgently need repairs.
“And we would like to have some Yazidi seats in the Kurdish Parliament and a Minister for Yazidi Affairs,” he added.
In nearby Bartella, another mixed town with large Christian and Shabak populations, Salim Jemah, an MP who also serves with the Shabak Consultation Committee, agreed that the lack of water and electricity is a major strain on the area.
Since 2003, some 8,000 families fled to Bartella from Mosul. Most of the Shabak in the region — estimated in the hundreds of thousands — are Shiite and therefore victims of attacks by Sunni extremists.
Hundreds have arrived recently from some 11 Shabak villages that are not yet under control of the Peshmerga. Sunni insurgents have raided the villages, kidnapping dozens of men, killing many, looting houses and stealing cattle.
Jemah claimed Arabs from neighboring villages helped them. “We are very saddened by this.”
He has asked the KRG to extend the trenches that are being dug to secure the new Kurdish borders to secure and cordon off the villages. Jemah said he has offered the KRG “a thousand volunteers to fight with the Peshmerga.”
Jemah said he is deeply grateful for the safety the Peshmerga is offering, but admitted that not all Shabak are equally happy with the Kurdish presence. Ethnic Shabak are split between those who align with the Kurds and others who are closer to Shiite Arabs because of their religious ties. Many, he said, left for the Shiite holy towns Najaf and Karbala.
“The Shabak community has asked the Kurdish President to incorporate this area into Kurdistan,” he said. “Those who were opposed to Kurdish independence changed their mind after the fall of Mosul. Without the Peshmerga present here, many more people would have fled as far as Erbil.”
He maintained that the Shabak “do not feel safe” among Arabs and is hoping that an independent Kurdish state will be created soon.
“We want to be part of heaven,” he said.