An Iraqi Christian militia leader threatened on Monday to ethnically cleanse Sunni Arab tribes from a district near the contested city of Mosul in Iraq’s northern Ninawa province in a video that has been widely reported by the Arab media.
Salman Esso Habba, who is the head of the so-called “Christian Mobilisation” militia, part of the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) paramilitary organisation, said that he would “dispose of” the Sunni Arab tribes living in the Tel Kayf area if they did not leave by this Friday.
Speaking in Iraqi slang that gave no room for misinterpretation regarding what he meant, Habba said that he was giving the Sunni tribes living in the area “72 hours” from Monday to evacuate the area, as he claimed that Tel Kayf’s homes belonged to Christians exclusively.
In his speech to some of his men sat around him in a square, Habba repeatedly mentioned that Iraq was now “a state” suggesting that the Christians’ homes and rights could no longer be usurped, as he alleged they had been since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled former President Saddam Hussein.
“Salman [Habba] is suggesting that Iraq is a state with democratic rights for all, including tiny minorities such as Christians,” Ahmad Al-Mahmoud, an analyst at the London-based Iraq monitoring organisation Foreign Relations Bureau of Iraq (FRB) told MEMO.
“In a democratic system, no city, town or village is closed off to any citizen, no matter their background. Apart from the fact that Sunni Arab tribes have been in and around Mosul for over a thousand years, no one should be able to dictate who lives where,” Al-Mahmoud said.
“I’m not surprised [Habba] has turned to sectarianism considering the company he keeps within the Hashd Al-Sha’abi,” Al-Mahmoud concluded, using the Arabic name for the PMF that serves as an umbrella organisation for several dozen Shia jihadist organisations, backed by Iran and sanctioned as a formal party of the Iraqi military by Baghdad.
A Sunni ‘genocide’
Habba’s comments have again raised the spectre of a genocide being perpetrated against the Sunni Arab population, who have been targeted specifically by the Shia-dominated and government-sanctioned PMF based on their identity and where they live.
“His statements are disgraceful, and what he is threatening is genocide,” Sabah Al-Mukhtar, head of the UK-based Arab Lawyers Network and a legal expert, told MEMO. “He is threatening [the Sunni tribes] not because of what they have done, but because of who they are. That is the definition of genocide from a legal perspective.”
Warning about the long-term consequences of the ethnic and sectarian cleansing of entire areas of their Sunni Arab populations, Al-Mukhtar said that it would be “the Christians who will suffer more than the Muslims if this goes ahead, because they are the minority [in the area].”
“The backlash from the [Sunni] majority will be negative” in the long-run, Al-Mukhtar argued, and the Christians as a whole will suffer for the actions of a few, as “even the Muslim minority in the UK is scapegoated whenever a single Muslim does something wrong. The same social effect exists in Iraq.”
Major Christian communities have already distanced themselves from armed Christian extremists, recognising that their actions could endanger future peaceful coexistence with Iraq’s other religious communities.
In a statement released last year, the Patriarchate of the Chaldean Church under the leadership of Patriarch Mar Luis Rafael said that they have “no near or far relations with the Babylonian Brigades [a Christian militia] or any other armed Christian factions.”
Targeting of Sunni Arabs
Atrocities against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have been widely documented by international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch during the Iraqi military’s campaign to recapture cities taken by Daesh extremists.
Ramadi was levelled almost entirely during the fighting to recapture it at the beginning of last year, with the United Nations reporting that the capital of Anbar province had 7,700 buildings damaged or entirely destroyed. The destroyed buildings included Ramadi’s main hospital as well as its train station, with local government officials saying that 64 bridges and the electricity grid was knocked out.
Months later in Fallujah, the city was also subjected to massive amounts of destruction, and hundreds of civilians were confirmed by the UN as having been abducted by the PMF. In Saqlawiyah alone, a town near Fallujah in Anbar province, 643 men were forcibly disappeared. Their fate is still unknown to this day, though they are feared to have been killed or detained in secret prisons where torture is rife.
More recently in Mosul, MEMO broke the news that children were being beaten to death with hammers, and tortured in the back of pick-up trucks at gunpoint. There were also multiple reports of people being executed in the streets as recently as a week ago.
As a result of these atrocities, Amnesty has warned that arms being transferred to Iraq by 17 different countries, including the US and Britain, which are then being illegally moved into the arsenals of the PMF could be fuelling war crimes in Iraq.
The international US-led coalition against the Daesh militant organisation has thus far failed to prevent these mass atrocities taking place, and have not censured their Iraqi allies. This trend of ignoring the alleged crimes of Shia jihadists and Iraqi military personnel has continued, even after the PMF were made a formal part of the Iraqi armed forces last year, and therefore making Baghdad directly responsible for any violations committed by these forces.