Minorities in North Iraq Look To Post-Isis Future
A Christmas tree stands on a roundabout in Bartalla in northern Iraq, its base adorned by posters of Shabak martyrs killed in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS).
Now that victory has been declared against the militants, Iraq's ethnic and religious minorities are taking the future into their own hands.
In Baz Gerkan village, where fighting damaged or destroyed most of the houses, Shabak residents have rebuilt their school themselves.
A few kilometers (miles) away, they have restored the shrine of Imam Rida, the eighth of Shia Islam's 12 imams, which was blown up by the ISIS militants who consider Shia to be heretics.
Shabaks, who number around 60,000 in Iraq, have their own language and say they first settled in the Arab country several centuries ago from northern Iran.
Their places of worship, similar to those of Christians, Ezidis and other minorities, were targeted by ISIS, and many fled their homes during the three years of ISIS occupation.
There are now only 400,000 Christians in Iraq against more than one million before the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, making up three percent of the country's population along with Ezidis, Sabeans and Shabaks.
Today, several months after the entire northern province of Nineveh was retaken from the militants, churches and monasteries are being restored.
And for the first time in four years last December, Christmas carols were heard across Mosul Governorate.
The Kurdish-speaking Ezidi minority has also managed to rebuild 20 of 23 temples destroyed by the militants in the Bashiqa area, east of Iraq's second city Mosul.
"All this was done thanks to donations from Ezidis and other inhabitants of the region," said Hilal Ali, who is in charge of the Ezidi sites of worship.
Mutassem Abed, 47, is a Shia who joined the Hashid al-Shaabi coalition of paramilitary units following a call to arms in 2004 by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shia cleric.
The Hashid was formed specifically to counter the rise of ISIS in the country, and played a key role in the militants’ defeat in 2017.
Now that the fighting has ended, Abed is looking to his future.
Rebuilding sanctuary and safety
"We must rebuild a sanctuary that is even more beautiful and even bigger, to say to ISIS that it did not win," the Shabak fighter told AFP, wearing a parka over his uniform.
Life may slowly be returning to normal, but many checkpoints have been set up, often manned by members of Hashid units from the Shabak, Turkmen, Christian or Ezidi minorities.
Iraq is relying on local forces to maintain security on the ground, after declaring in December that the war against ISIS had been won.
Such fighters know the local people, speak their languages and can easily spot any intruders, commanders say.
Fighters with local knowledge
"Even before ISIS, other terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda tried to chase out minorities," said Zein al-Abidine Jamil, a Shabak commander with the Hashid.
Another Bartalla Shabak, a policeman manning a checkpoint in the old part of Mosul, recalled the days when he could only enter the city under escort.
"Mosul? I went there on patrol. But never in a personal capacity. A lone Shia? That would have been madness!" he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Sunni Muslims are a minority in Iraq, but in Mosul they form the majority and also have a presence in villages around the city.
The Shabak minority has a small Sunni community within it. But, residents say, many of them joined ISIS and were killed. Others fled with their families, joining the ranks of the displaced.
Today, several months after Nineveh province was rid of ISIS, "we are directly responsible for the security of citizens,” said Jamil.
Because of their local knowledge, such fighters were a major asset to the armed forces in their fightback against ISIS.
Dangers of revenge
However, human rights groups have charged that some minorities targeted by the ISIS militants were themselves guilty of abuses.
In December, the New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Ezidi fighters of executing 52 civilians in apparent revenge killings after capturing territory from the militants.
HRW said those killed included women and children, and came from eight families of the Sunni tribe Al-Bu Metewut who were fleeing clashes between ISIS and pro-government militias north of Mosul.