Iraq and Gulf Analysis

The Shabak React to the Atrocities of Khazna Tepe

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 10 August 2009 17:57

The latest series of violent attacks against Shiite targets in Iraq has prompted the usual outpouring of stereotypical readings by international media, with the dynamics at play invariably described as sectarian “Sunni-Shiite” or ethno-sectarian “Shiite-Kurdish” in character.

This tendency is at its most pronounced in the case of the Khazna Tepe village in Nineveh governorate, where the largely Shiite Shabak minority was targeted and suffered some of the heaviest human and material losses seen in Iraq since the withdrawal of American troops from urban areas on 30 June. The Shabak are a minority with a distinct language that combines elements of Kurdish, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic; in terms of religion they are majority Shiite with a minority of Sunnis. But while leaders of the Shabak aspire to treatment as a separate ethnic minority within Iraq, numerous other communities have tried to impose their own preferred narratives in dealing with them, and it is to these dominant discourses most journalists covering the latest developments now turn.

For example, there is the practice of labelling the Shabak as “Kurds”. This reflects a conscious strategy by the Kurdish regional authorities to assert control of the Shabak (who inhabit a series of villages in what the Kurds consider “disputed” parts of the Nineveh governorate), partly by assimilating them and partly by trying to co-opt their leaders. A competing narrative emanates from certain Assyrian Christian leaders inside and outside Iraq (not least outside it), who through highly imaginative readings of the Iraqi constitution of 2005 want to prepare the ground for the establishment of a federal “minorities region” in those parts of the Nineveh governorate that are known as the “Nineveh plains”. (The strategy refers to article 125 of the Iraqi constitution which guarantees the “administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents”; to read this as a green light for a second federalisation track is far-fetched in the extreme but some of these people are taken very seriously in Washington, D.C.) The idea of a separate “Assyrian” nation is in itself something of an imposition on the majority of indigenous Iraqi Christians (many of whom prefer to refer to themselves as “Iraqis of the Chaldean religion”) by an elite with ties to the Nestorian refugees from Hakkari in present-day Turkey who arrived in Iraq as late as during the First World War, but some of these leaders nevertheless think in even bigger terms by construing the demand for a “minority homeland” within Nineveh as a “shared project” between the Christians, Shabak and Turkmen of the region. Shiite Islamists of central Iraq, for their part, will doubtless portray the recent attacks as acts committed by Sunni al-Qaeda and/or remnants of the old regime against Shiite victims.

In this cacophony it may be useful to listen to what Shabak leaders themselves are saying about the attacks. So far, their key demands have been the restoration of control by the central Iraqi government, as well as the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the Nineveh governorate. Shabak leaders decry the lack of Iraqi government influence which has enabled the Kurdish Pesh Merga forces and secret police (asayish) to dominate; in the past the Shabak have repeatedly accused the Kurds of enabling these terror attacks, either turning the blind eye to the local situation or even by orchestrating the attacks themselves. A second feature of their demands has been a call for local forces to form part of the security arrangements, but in making this demand Shabak leaders are not resorting to the federalism model favoured by Assyrian activists in DC and their friends on Capitol Hill, but by evoking the concept of tribal “support councils” (majalis isnad) which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki introduced in 2008 as part of the domestic security agenda of the central government.

In these and most of their previous public statements, Shabak leaders seem to be at one with the dominant Sunni Arab forces of Mosul as represented by the Hadba list and its leader Athil al-Nujayfi – whose own demand that military forces of the (Shiite-dominated) central Iraqi government take control in all of Nineveh represents a remarkable rebuttal of the sectarian paradigm for understanding Iraqi politics. First and foremost, the Shabak are seeking to define themselves as an ethnic minority wihtin an Iraqi nationalist framework, with a neutral position on sectarian issues.

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