For Christians living in the ancient sprawling town of Tel Kaif, just 10 minutes north of Mosul, geography is a curse. “We are sandwiched between the Arabs in Mosul, and the Kurds in Erbil,” says William Warda, 47, who grew up in this city in the 1960s and '70s.
Local leaders are hoping that a modest proposal, currently in committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, can bring dramatic changes to their everyday lives.
The $4 million measure will fund a 711-man local police force for the Nineveh Plain. It is part of a $30 million emergency relief package for the predominantly Christian region submitted to Congress last month by Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
“We need to have our own security force, our own police force,” Warda tells Newsmax. “But we want an official force, not a militia. It should be drawn from all the communities in the Nineveh Plain, not just Christians. And it should be part of the national police, reporting to Baghdad, not to Erbil or Mosul.”
With the collapse of central government services in the region because of terrorist incursion from Baghdad, fighters loyal to Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani have set up shop in Christian towns and villages, even though the Nineveh Plain lies outside KRG authority.
While the Kurdish fighters, known as peshmergas, provide much-needed security for the area, they also commit exactions, local leaders and residents tell Newsmax.
Sometimes, the harassment is banal. In the town of Hamdaniya, for example, Barzani’s men have taken over the town library and has refused to give it back.
“They have set up an intelligence headquarters there,” said Ehmad Behnam, a member of the Hamdaniya district council. “We have asked them many times to go someplace else, but they refuse to leave.”
In Tel Keif, students complain that they were barred from renting a hall for a high school graduation party last year by local militiamen working for the KRG Finance Minister Sarkis Aghajan, because they weren’t members of his party.
Mr. Aghajan, who is Christian, has become the public face of the KRG in the Ninevah Plain, where he has built an extensive patronage system by doling out cash through local churches.
But the repression also can get ugly.
In December 2005, during Iraq’s first parliamentary elections, Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) bused hundreds of peshmerga fighters and party loyalists to Christian villages on Election Day, where complacent officials opened the polls and allowed them to vote.
Once they had cast all the available ballots in one town, they would move on to the next village to vote again. “The image you see in America of people dipping their finger in purple ink after they voted was a joke here,” one local official told Newsmax.
“The KDP controlled the polling places, so for them the ink was no problem,” he said. “None of them was made to dip their finger in the ink.”
Dozens of local officials filed formal complaints of election fraud and ballot stuffing with the Mosul governor, the central government in Baghdad, the United Nations, and the U.S. embassy, but never received a reply.
“We must have international election monitors in all these places in time for the next parliamentary elections,” former Iraqi minister of migration, Pascale Warda, told Newsmax.
In Hamdaniya, the largest Christian district in the Nineveh Plain, Kurdish peshmergas simply stole the ballot boxes when local officials phoned the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to get them to send more ballots.
“Everyone in Hamdaniyah and the surrounding villages was deprived of their right to vote,” said Warda.
In the early evening, well after the polls had officially closed, district council member Louis Markus Yacoub was told that fresh ballots had finally arrived.
“I was the one selected to go pick up the ballots, but the Kurdish intelligence people arrested me on the way,” Yacoub said.
They yanked him out of the car in front of four policemen, and took him to the local peshmerga headquarters, where they beat him for three hours.
“They beat me in my back and my shoulders. They beat me in my face and my head. Seven people were beating me with their fists. They even broke my teeth,” he said.
Yacoub says the peshmerga told him outright that they had arrested him to prevent him for picking up the fresh ballots, because they knew they would lose the elections if the Christians were allowed to vote.
“We are asking for the militas to be banned from the next elections,’ said fellow council member Ehmad Ayad. “Next time, we would like the protection of the national army, with American help.”
The KDP hasn’t only targeted Christians. In Dohuk, teams of armed peshmerga fighters stormed the election offices of the opposition Kurdish Islamic Union, killing two party workers, including the leader of the KIU election list.
In Zakho, they killed two more KIU officials. “They were hoping to do worse, but I happened to be in Baghdad at the time and asked U.S. and British ambassadors for help,” says KIU general secretary, Salahuddin Bahauddin.
After several phone calls by the ambassadors to KRG President Barzani, the peshmerga stood down. “Their plan was to attack us in other regions as well,” Bahauddin told Newsmax in Erbil.
The KRG eventually agreed to pay Bahauddin’s party compensation for the damage done to their buildings. But KRG officials insist that the violence was the work of individuals, not the government militia.
Such explanations fool no one in the Nineveh Plain. “If the Kurds would just take their hand off this region, the future would be very bright,” said Tel Kaif Mayor Bassam Ballo.
Johnny Koshaba learned first-hand how brutal the peshmerga can be. The 34-year old Assyrian journalist was taken from his home in Tel Kaif last month and beaten after he wrote an article exposing the corruption of KRG Finance Minister Sarkis Aghajan.
“I found that the money Sarkis hands out was going to individuals who serve his policy and the Kurdish leaders’ policies to take over this land,” Koshaba said.
The peshmerga took him to a detention center in Sarseng — more than an hour’s drive away — and beat him for two days while they interrogated him.
On the third day, they presented him with a “confession” written in Kurdish and told him they would release him if he signed it.
“I don’t read or speak Kurdish, but I signed it anyway,’ Koshaba said. “They told me I was not allowed to talk about what happened to me during my detention.”
Warda, who runs the Hammurabi Organization for Human Rights and Democracy Monitoring, believes that the exactions of the peshmerga have driven Arabs in nearby Mosul into the hands of al-Qaida.
“An Arab tribal leader told me, ‘we can get rid of al-Qaida in one day, but we won’t, because we don’t want the peshmerga to fill the vacuum,’” he said.
Al-Qaida and the Kurdish peshmerga need each other, said Dr. John Eibner, the CEO of Christian Solidarity International, who toured the region last week as part of an aid mission.
“Without al-Qaida, the United States wouldn’t support the peshmerga. Without the peshmerga, the locals wouldn’t support al-Qaida,” he said.
It was never supposed to happen this way. Two years ago, the U.S. Army Joint Operation Center and the Iraqi Interior Ministry ordered the creation of a local police force for the Nineveh Plain, but it has twice been blocked by the officials from Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party.
Leading the charge against the local police force was the KDP deputy governor of Nineveh Province, Khisro Goran, who claimed the police would become “a Christian militia.”
The KDP’s motive is simple, says Michael Youash of the Iraqi Sustainable Democracy Project in Washington. “The KDP interests are outlined in a simple article of the KRG constitution. that says the Nineveh Plain shall be absorbed into the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.”
Instead of allowing the creation of an authentic local police force, independent of the KDP, Barzani’s party has sought to buy patronage through Finance Minister Aghajan and a cadre of “KDP Christian loyalists,” Youash and others believe.
The $4 million legislative earmark being sponsored by Rep. Kirk is aimed at “removing the political bottlenecks” created by the KRG that have prevented the creation of a local police force for the Nineveh Plains until now.
Just last week, the initial complement of 711 policemen were called up and began training, Youash tells Newsmax. Another 4000 policemen will be needed to fully secure the region and establish checkpoints on all highways and roads leading into the villages.
“Standing up a local police force will help with economic development as well,” said Joseph Kassab, secretary general of the Chaldean Federal of America who toured the region last month.
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