Iran is using its proven strategy of co-opting local militias to encroach on Iraq’s Christian heartland. The good news: the incursion is still reversible.
In the past few weeks, Iraqi federal forces and the militias who fight under the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) umbrella have taken back most of the disputed territory that the Kurdistan Region had hoped to incorporate into a future state. These disputed territories include the Nineveh Plains area, the heartland of Christianity in Iraq and a multiethnic series of farming villages bordering the city of Mosul. The forces crossed the Ba’ashiqa line and reached the town of Teleskuf, where Peshmerga forces began to fire on the advancing Iraqi forces. Hundreds of Christians who had recently moved back to the town rebuilt by the Hungarian government had to flee the crossfire with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Speedy intervention by the United States prevented the clashes from turning into a full-scale battle.
While the dust has not yet settled over the disputed territories in Iraq, a new reality is settling in for the residents of the Nineveh Plains. For the first time in more than a decade, the Iraqi Central Government instead of the Kurdistan Regional Government has control over most of the area—save the town of Alqosh in the north of the Plains. One militia whose role has greatly expanded in the Plains is the Babylon Brigades, whose presence extends from the nearly empty town of Tel Kayf to the populated towns of Batnaya and Ba’ashiqa. The militia, which has ties to Iran, has spread anxiety among civilians about growing Iranian expansion in Iraq’s north.
Iran’s bottom-up approach is why its foreign policy has been so successful in Iraq. Its leaders have been able to project a great deal of power, using the cracks in Iraqi stability to cement their own interests and bolster their allies among the Iraqi militias. This expansion threatens the embattled Christian community that has been struggling to recuperate since the fall of ISIS. Policymakers in Washington and Iraq should be mindful of this expansion before they wake up with a destabilizing Iranian canton in the Nineveh Plains, strategically wedged between Kurdistan and Mosul.
The Babylon Brigade
The 1,000-strong Babylon Brigade is operationally part of the PMU umbrella, the volunteer forces formed by fatwa when ISIS neared Baghdad. Although it is currently led by Christian quasi-celebrity and former Mahdi Army affiliate Rayan al-Kildani, the Babylon Brigade is composed mostly of Shi‘a Arabs and Shabak not native to the area, and is supported by the Iran-backed Badr Organization. The Brigade did not participate in the battle for the Nineveh Plains, and it was only during the battle for Mosul that they positioned themselves in the town of Tel Kayf, right outside of the city.
Very little is known about the origins or inner workings of the Brigade. The PMU touts Al-Kildani as an example of its diversity and of the willingness among Shi‘a to include Christians in the country’s post-ISIS makeup. However, for many Christians, the pictures of al-Kildani on social media receiving the Eucharist or praying in a church are disingenuous attempts to highlight his Christian heritage and therefore his legitimacy as a Christian leader.
Their distrust of him is reasonable. At the beginning of the battle for Mosul, the Brigade became embroiled in controversy when a video of al-Kildani was released in which he tells Brigade members that the battle will be revenge against “the descendants of Yezid [a historical figure reviled by Shi‘a],” exacted upon the citizens of Mosul. This led the Chaldean Patriarch, head of the largest Christian church in Iraq, to assert that al-Kildani “does not represent Christians in any way. His deplorable statements are aimed at creating abhorrent sectarian strife.” Al-Kildani’s reference to Yezid and other statements have fueled rumors that he is a crypto-Muslim or the son of a convert.
The Babylon Brigade’s actions on the Nineveh Plains are of serious concern as well. In July 2017, member of the Babylon Brigade were caught stealing ancient artifacts from the Mar Behnam Monastery and nearby homes. The Nineveh Plains Units (NPU), a 500-strong militia aligned with a pro-Baghdad Christian political party that runs security in the Al-Hamdaniya District of the Plains, arrested six members of the Brigade in response. The Brigade responded by teaming up with another local PMU force to attack the place where the prisoners were being held captive, stealing several of the NPU’s weapons and vehicles in the process. In response to the incident, the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office and the PMU High Command expelled the Babylon Brigade from the entire district.
In addition, al-Kildani has reportedly hosted leading Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in the Nineveh Plains. Al-Kildani has also photographed himself with the pro-Iranian politician Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Brigade and U.S.-designated terrorists Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis of Kataeb Hezbollah and Qais Khazali of the League of the Righteous. In April of 2017, al-Kildani was hosted in Tehran by Iran’s Ambassador to Iraq and Qods Force commander, Iraj Masjedi. Using its “Christian” identity as a pretext, Iranian leaders have been able to use the Babylon Brigade to guarantee that they will have a say in Northern Iraq.
The Shi‘a Shabak
The Iranian regime has also been working to empower Shabak PMU forces and populations. Traditionally concentrated in the district of Hamdaniya and Mosul city, the Shabak have been historically treated as a separate ethno-religious group with a unique language. However, the community has faced severe pressure to submit to either an Arab or Kurdish ethnic identity.
The Shabak leadership is divided into pro-KRG and pro-Baghdad parties, each with their own militias affiliated with the two major powers. Sunni Shabaks (around 30 percent) generally support the KRG, while Shi‘a Shabak (around 70 percent) remain aligned with the central government and PMU leadership, including the powerful Iran-backed Badr Organization. The Shabak Democratic Gathering party, which advocates the formation of a separate Nineveh Plains province, is led by Dr. Hunain al-Qaddo, a member of Iraq’s Council of Representatives and an ally of Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law block as well as the pro-Iranian Badr Organization.
Since the liberation of the Nineveh Plains from ISIS, Shabak have been buying homes and other properties with offers many desperately impoverished Christian refugees cannot refuse. The building of an Iranian-funded school in Bartella named after the Iranian Imam Khomeini further intensifies Christian fears of encroachment. Many Christians believe that the Shabak are being funded by an outside source, namely the Badr Organization, in a deliberate attempt to drive them out of their towns and change the ethnic makeup of the Nineveh Plains.
Lately, the Shabak PMU has been encroaching on Christian towns, with the encouragement of its Iranian backers. The operations of these fighters are not yet well understood, but Shabak militias based out of smaller Shabak towns and Bartella are viewed negatively by Christian forces. Their growing financial and military presence in traditionally Christian areas of the Nineveh Plains has complicated efforts to stabilize liberated communities. In much the same way as they made inroads into the Turkmen community, capitalizing on that relationship during recent events in Kirkuk and other disputed territories, Iran’s leaders are attempting to use the Shabak as their proxies in Northern Iraq.
Policy Recommendations for the United States and Iraq
By working with locals, creating proxy forces, and providing services, the Iranians are able to gain legitimacy with the local communities and advance their own policy agenda in the country. Both American and Iraqi leaders would be wise to slow the growing Iranian expansion on the Nineveh Plains in order to ensure that Iran does not have a say in the sensitive area of Northern Iraq.
Through the United Institute of Peace, the U.S. government can foster inter-communal relations between the Christians and Shabak of the Nineveh Plains, as well as between those communities and the Sunni populations in the greater Nineveh Province. Both U.S. and Iraqi officials can work to ensure that only federal forces and local militias, like the Nineveh Plains Units, the Shabak PMU, and other Christian forces, remain on the ground. Another useful measure would be the establishment of a joint training and operation center along with a new, unified local force composed of the existent local militias. This would ensure that non-local forces that have caused trouble and are seemingly beholden to Iran, like the Babylon Brigade, are pulled out of the Nineveh Plains.
Lastly, Iraq’s government must work to swiftly rebuild the towns on the Nineveh Plains and address the pre-ISIS grievances of the Shabak, including the lack of economic development and public services in their towns. These measures will ensure that Iran’s regime cannot take advantage of peoples desperate for help and sow further seeds for conflict. The encroachment of Iran in this region should alarm those who wish it to recover from the depredations of ISIS, but this encroachment can and should be reversed.