Christians living in the Nineveh Plains, who only just returned home after the defeat of the Islamic State, are once again on the move, forced to flee as Kurdish fighters clash with Iraqi government forces north of Mosul.
Fox News reports that between seven hundred and a thousand Christian families have evacuated from the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac Christian town of Teleskof after Kurdish Peshmerga forces stationed in the village exchanged fire with Iraqi troops.
“An emissary from the Iraqi government told the people of the village that they had until sunrise to evacuate. They were told that the Iraqi army and the Shiite militia have said they will forcibly evict the Peshmerga in the morning,” said a local source.
“The one success story in Northern Iraq and it’s about to be destroyed over a pissing contest between the Kurds and Iraqi central government. The whole thing is a mess,” another source told Fox News. Other towns in the region have been reduced to rubble or polluted with dangerous chemicals.
The Christian population of Iraq is down to about 200,000, a stunning drop from the 1.5 million who lived there before the fall of Saddam Hussein. Some Nineveh Christians quoted by Fox expressed weary dismay at the conflict between the Kurds and Baghdad, asking only for a little peace so they can rebuild after the horror of ISIS. Others worried that Christianity is on the verge of being driven completely from its ancestral home.
The Kurds, for their part, blamed the Iraqi government and its Shiite militia allies for starting the fight near Teleskof. The Kurdistan Regional Government is now offering to “freeze” the results of the September independence referendum to avoid “disarray and chaos” from continued fighting, asking Baghdad for an immediate ceasefire and “open dialogue” about the Kurdish region’s future.
According to the Near East Center for Strategic Engagement, a number of Assyrian Christians were wounded by mortar fire during the clash between Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi military. AINA was quite critical of the Peshmerga:
Kurdish commanders who decided to battle the Iraqi Army in the city would have known in advance that the fighting would put Assyrian Christian civilians at risk. This incident casts doubt on the sincerity of the Kurdish claims that the Kurds are the protectors of the Assyrian Christians in Iraq and that Assyrian Christians support Kurdish aspirations for statehood.
The Center writes of Chaldean Father Salar Kajo, who refused to leave Teleskof along with nine workers from his church. “Both Kurdish and Iraqi forces are aware of the presence of Father Kajo and his team,” the report insists.
“Iraqi forces had moved in heavy weaponry, including armored vehicles, up to the outskirts of Teleskof, and the Peshmerga had set up defensive positions inside numerous houses. Kurdish forces from Alqosh had been moved towards the town,” it continues. “With most other Peshmerga militias having reportedly stood down, local Church leaders have questioned why Kurdish forces apparently made a stand at Teleskof, where the majority of the homes damaged during Daesh (ISIS) occupation have been restored.”
The Assyrian American National Federation (AANF) issued a statement on Monday calling for Kurdish troops to withdraw from the Nineveh Plains. The statement accused the Kurdistan Regional Government and its majority Kurdish Democratic Party of making “misleading statements” that the people of the Nineveh region welcomed the presence of Peshmerga fighters. The AANF said:
We recommend that the United States support the withdrawal of Peshmerga troops from the remaining towns in the Nineveh Plain, which includes Alqosh and Teleskof; any partition of the Nineveh Plain undermines the will of its people. Currently, the Peshmerga’s unconstitutional presence in these towns severely compromises the safety of these residents and we fear further delays might result in residents fleeing the area.
The statement went on to express “hope that non-local Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) forces will be transitioned out of the Nineveh Plain” as well, a reference to the Shiite-dominated Iran-backed militia forces that have moved into the area.
Instead, the AANF asked for Iraqi military and police units to provide protection and asked that the Nineveh Plain not be used as a “bargaining chip” between Baghdad and the KRG “at the expense of minorities in the area.” The Kurds were asked to set aside their independence referendum until the region is fully resettled and secure.
“In the meantime, we ask the United States to recognize and support the Iraqi Council of Ministers January 2014 decision which authorized the creation of a Nineveh Plain Governorate administered by the Central Government in Baghdad. By restoring the federal authority in the Nineveh Plain will be a first step in uniting the country and a move in the right direction,” the AANF requested.