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Minority politics in Iraq

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Subject: Assyrian independence, Kawliya, Iraqi Turkmens, Yazidi
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Minority politics in Iraq

Minorities in Iraq include various ethnic and religious groups. The Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen, and Persians represent the four largest minorities in the country. Other smaller ethnic groups include Armenians, Circassians, Chechens, Palestinians, Mandaeans, Roma, Shabak, and Yezidi. There is also a Bedouin minority.

Religious groups include Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis, Yarsan, Shabak, and Jews.


The end of the Ottoman Empire

The British invasion of 1915–1918 during the First World War paved the way for Sunni Arab rule of Iraq. King Faisal, the son of the Sharif of Mecca and brother of Abdullah Hussein of Jordan became King. Turkomen were assaulted, perceived to have been leftover from the Turkish and Ottoman imperialism that controlled Iraq from the 16th century to 1917.

Baathism and minorities

The advent of Ba’athism did nothing to curb the loss of minority communities. Bedouins were rounded up and moved into developments to stop their nomadism. Communists were killed, and six of the last remaining Jews were hanged as ‘communists’ in 1967. A large number of Iraqi Persians were expelled from the country by the Baathists.

When Saddam Hussein embarked on a war with Iran he dredged the Shi'i and Mandaean inhabited marshes of Southern Iraq, causing damage to the ancient culture of the Mandaean people who have lived amongst the reeds since Sumerian times. Saddam also began a concerted campaign against the Kurds and other ethnic groups in the north, culminating in the gassing of Halabja in the Al-Anfal Campaign campaign and the destruction of hundreds of Kurdish, Assyrian, Turcoman, Shabak, Armenian and Yazidi villages and mass killings. Saddam set upon a policy of settling Arabs in the formerly Kurdish area, having read about Stalin’s resettling of peoples. Many Kurdish, Assyrian, Turcoman, Shabak and Yazidi villages and towns were destroyed or forcibly resettled with Arabs.

Post-Saddam Era

The end of Saddam’s rule in 2003 truly opened the floodgates to the creation of completely homogenous areas made up of Sunnis, Shiites or Kurds. The Assyrian (aka Chaldo-Assyrian), Yezidi, Mandean, Shabak, Armenian, Roma and Turcoman minorities, were singled out for attacks by Arab Iraqi Islamic insurgents and terrorists (both Shia and Sunni) and to some degree by Kurdish nationalists. Churches have been bombed through the Iraq war in Baghdad and Mosul.[1] In another case 30 members of a Yezidi community was slaughtered by neighboring Sunni Arabs after they were accused of stoning a Yezidi girl who wanted to marry a Sunni man. Shiite Arabs were targeted by foreign Sunni fighters who arrived in Iraq since 2003, under the umbrella of Al-Qaeda.

On August 14, 2007 four co-ordinated suicide bombings killed as many as 800 people and wounded over 1,500 in villages in the district of Kahtaniya and Jazeera. These people were members of the Yazidi ethnicity, an ancient race and religion often called "devil worshippers" by some Islamists.

Ethnic Iraqi minority groups make up a large percentage of the Iraqi diaspora. In the United States, Assyrians are concentrated especially in the state of Michigan, California, Illinois, and Arizona. Most Iraqi Jews reside in Israel. The Kurdish diaspora resides in Germany among other places. Some Mandeans have relocated to Sweden.[2]


Main article: Iraqi Kurdistan

Kurds are an Indo-European people of the Iranian branch. Ethnically and linguistically they are most closely related to Iranians and have existed in Iraq since before the Arab-Islamic conquest. They are possibly descended from the ancient Corduene.

The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, with Shia and Alevi Muslim minorities. There are also a significant number of adherents to native Kurdish/Iranian religions such as Yazidism and Yarsan. There are also minorities of Christians and Jews. Some Kurdish Communists and Socialists are Atheist.

Under the Kingdom of Iraq, Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani led a rebellion against the central government in Baghdad in 1945. After the failure of the uprising Barzānī and his followers fled to the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, when Iraqi Brigadier Abdul-Karim Qassem distanced himself from Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, he faced growing opposition from pro-Egypt officers in the Iraqi army. When the garrison in Mosul rebelled against Qassem's policies, he allowed Barzānī to return from exile to help suppress the pro-Nasser rebels. By 1961, Barzānī and the Kurds began a full-scale a rebellion.

When the Ba'ath Party took power in Iraq, the new government, in order to end the Kurdish revolt, granted the Kurds their own limited autonomy. However, for various reasons, including the pro-Iranian sympathies of some Kurds during the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s, the regime implemented anti-Kurdish policies and a de facto civil war broke out. From March 29, 1987 until April 23, 1989, the infamous Al-Anfal campaign, a systematic genocide of the Kurdish people in Iraq, was launched. For this, Iraq was widely-condemned by the international community, but was never seriously punished for oppressive measures, including the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, which resulted in thousands of deaths.

After the Persian Gulf War, the Kurds began another uprising against the Ba'athists. The revolt was violently put down. During the same year, Turkey, fighting Kurds on its on territory, bombed Kurdish areas in Northern Iraq, claiming that bases for the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party were located in the region. However, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam, brought renewed hope to the Kurds. The newly elected Iraqi government agreed to re-establish the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq. The Kurds have since been working towards developing the area and pushing for democracy in the country. However, most Kurds overwhelmingly favor becoming an independent nation. "In the January 2005 Iraqi elections, 98.7 percent of Kurds voted for full independence rather than reconciliation with Arab Iraq."[3] Almost no other political or social group in the region is agreeable to the idea of Kurdish independence. Iraq's neighboring countries such as Turkey are particularly opposed to the movement because they fear that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would strengthen Kurdish independence movements in their own territories.

Nouri al-Maliki was at loggerheads with the leader of ethnic Kurds, who brandished the threat of secession in a growing row over the symbolic issue of flying the Iraqi national flag at government buildings in the autonomous Kurdish north. Maliki's Arab Shi'ite-led government was locked in a dispute with the autonomous Kurdish regional government, which has banned the use of the Iraqi state flag on public buildings. The prime minister issued a blunt statement on Sunday saying: "The Iraqi flag is the only flag that should be raised over any square inch of Iraq." But Mesud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, told the Kurdish parliament the national leadership were "failures" and that the Iraqi flag was a symbol of his people's past oppression by Baghdad: "If at any moment we, the Kurdish people and parliament, consider that it is in our interests to declare independence, we will do so and we will fear no one." The dispute exposes a widening rift between Arabs and Kurds, the second great threat to Iraq's survival as a state after the growing sectarian conflict between Arab Sunnis and Shi'ites.[4]


Main article: Assyrians in Iraq
Further information: Assyrian independence and Assyrian homeland

The Aramaic-speaking Christian Assyrians (also known as Chaldo-Assyrians and Chaldeans) are the indigenous people of Iraq and descendants of those who ruled ancient Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia. More generally speaking, the Assyrians (like the Mandeans) are descendants of the ancient Mesopotamians (Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, Babylon, Adiabene, Osroene and Hatra). They are a Semitic people, and speak versions of the Aramaic of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and have their own written script. They began to convert to Christianity in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD formerly having followed the ancient Sumerian-Akkadian religion (also known as Ashurism). For a time some were Manicheans, following the religion created by the Assyrian prophet, Mani. There are an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Assyrians remaining in Iraq, the larger concentration of them is scattered worldwide (see Assyrian diaspora).[5] They are Iraq's third largest ethnic group after the Arabs and the Kurds.

Assyrians have been successful in Iraq in many fields, including Sports, the Arts, Academia, the Military, Business and Medicine.

The Assyrians rose up against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and fought alongside the British and Russians with the promise of an independent homeland. This was not to be, and the Assyrians were abandoned by both.

During the British Mandate the Assyrians were used as a well trained and highly effective military force by the British to put down Arab and Kurdish insurrections and protect British interests.

Persecution of the Assyrians began early in Iraq's history. In 1932, the British Mandate of Iraq ended and King Faisal I took the reins of power. In 1933, however, the Assyrians refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to King Faisal. This led to mass deportations and massacres of Assyrians in Northern Iraq. The death toll estimates at roughly 3,000. To this day, Assyrians mark August 7 as their martyrs day.

The Assyrians also came under persecution during Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. When Hussein first assumed power, the Assyrian population there numbered 2 million to 2.5 million. Many have fled to neighboring countries such as Jordan and Syria, or have emigrated to Europe and the U.S. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports that half a million Iraqi Christians have registered for temporary asylum in Syria.[6] Assyrians have traditionally made good soldiers, during the Iran–Iraq War, many were recruited to the armies of both sides. This resulted in Assyrians in Iraq killing Assyrians in Iran. It was estimated that 60,000 Assyrians were killed during the conflict). Many were purposely put on the front line by both sides as a way of reducing numbers.

With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some Assyrians felt a renewed hope at possibly being granted their own autonomy. However, many became targets for the Iraqi insurgency, ultimately reducing their numbers even more. According to local organisations, about 150,000 Assyrians are believed to have left the country since the US occupation began in 2003.[7]

Still, there is a push for Assyrian autonomy in Iraq, particularly in the Ninawa region where the biblical Assyrian capital of Nineveh was located. Although little has been done so far to establish this, some voices from within the new Iraqi government appear to welcome the possibility of Assyrian autonomy. For example, on February 24, 2006, Dr. Mohammad Ihsan, Minister of Human Rights in the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq stated "We don't mind Iraqi Christians concentrating anywhere they wish, and establishing a new province for themselves in the Nineveh plain, and bringing together Iraqi Christians from all over the world and their return to their houses and towns." On January 29, 2006, a set of car bombs exploded outside four Assyrian churches in Baghdad and Kirkuk killing four worshippers and injuring many more. This led to demonstrations by Assyrians around the world demanding Assyrian autonomy in Iraq.

More recently, Assyrian armed militias have been formed to protect Assyrian towns, villages and areas in the north from Islamic and Kurdish extremists. This policy has met with success thus far.

However deadly attacks against the community began again in December 2009 in Mosul and picked in February 2010. It led to the assassination of over 20 Christians and the bombings of churches in Mosul. The attacks led to up to 4,300 Assyrians flying Mosul to Assyrian towns in the Nineveh Plains. Since the 2003-invasion, many Assyrians fled from Baghdad, Basra and Mosul and went to majority Assyrian areas like in the Nineveh Plains and as well Dohuk Governorate.

Iraqi Turkmen

Main article: Iraqi Turkmen

The Iraqi Turkmen also claim to be the third largest ethnic group in Iraq,In the December 2005 elections, between five and seven Turkmen candidates were elected to the Council of Representatives. This included one candidate from the ITF (its leader Sadettin Ergec), two or four from the United Iraqi Alliance, one from the Iraqi Accord Front and one from the Kurdistani Alliance.[8][9] They reside exclusively in the north, particularly in areas such as Mosul and Kirkuk. They are predominantly Sunni Muslims and are mostly secular in nature. There are a minority of Christians. When the Ba'ath party took over Baghdad, it declared in the constitution that schools were prohibited from using the Turkish language and banned Turkish-language media in Iraq. By the 1980s, Hussein prohibited the public use of the Turkish language completely. After the toppling of the Ba'athists, tensions started to rise between the Kurds and the Iraqi Turkmen. Assignations and acquisitions between the two sides made Kirkuk the only violent non-Arab city in Iraq during the aftermath of the U.S-led war. The violence has slowly died down and on January 30, 2006, the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, said "Kurds are working on a plan to give Iraqi Turkmen autonomy in areas where they are a majority in the new constitution they're drafting for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq."[10][11] However, according to the last Iraqi census which was conducted in 1957, the Turkmens numbered 567,000 out of a population of 6.3 million; thus, they formed 9% of the total Iraqi population.[12][13]

According to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, at least 180,000 Turkmen live in the city of Kirkuk.[11]

However, the Diyala Province and Kifri which were once mainly Turkoman cities have been heavily Kurdified and Arabified.[11]

Iraqi Turkmen are most known for folk songs, especially the "qoyrats", long songs with nearly twenty different melodious voices forming rich literary texts are typical Turkmen musical works, and make up an important part of Turkish music. The songs often are protest-like, expressing sorrow and resentment over injustice. Hoyrats are a form of uzun hava built on quatrains which often contain allusions and plays on words. They are sung throughout Eastern Anatolia, Southeast Anatolia and Turkmeneli.

Iraqi Turkmen speak an Oghuz language that is one of the official languages of the Kirkuk region.[14] It is closest to the languages spoken in Azerbaijan.[15][16] Historically, some Iraqi Turkmen of the intelligentsia adopted the formal Ottoman Language as their written language during their rule by the Ottoman Empire.[16] Iraqi Turkmens use standard Turkish -official language of Turkey in writing.


Main article: Mandaeism

Mandaeans (also known as Subbi and Sabianism (Arabic: صابئية)) are one of the smallest ethnic and religious groups in the world with only about 75,000 followers worldwide. And historically speaking, the Mandaeism is one of the ancient religions of Mesopotamia and one of the earlier known monothestic religions, along with Abrahamic faiths, and Zoroastrianism.

Mandeans (like the Assyrians) are of indigenous ancient Mesopotamian heritage, and speak their own dialect of Aramaic, known as Mandaic. They are a Semitic people.

The Iraq Mandaean community, in the pre 2003 war period, was the most important in the world with 30,000–50,000[17] of the 70,000 total living in the country mainly in the area around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Given the peaceful ethos of Mandaeans and lack of missionary movement within the faith they had traditionally formed a successful community with their Sunni, Shia and Christian neighbors and were considered “people of the book” which Islamically speaking allows them to practice religion and integrate into Iraq society even though technically this is incorrect as they are neither Jews nor Christians.

Mandaeans although an ethnic and religious minority, consider themselves Iraqi and have supported the Iraqi nation patriotically, serving in the army during various conflicts. They were considered an economically successful community, and had achieved high levels in Iraqi society, and are held in high regard as silversmiths and goldsmiths.[18]

During the Saddam administration

For Mandaeans the rule of Saddam was a period of mixed fortune. From his rise to power in 1979 the Mandaean community was viewed with suspicion, as other non Sunni citizens, and were kept out of the political sphere. Mandaeans also suffered during Saddam's 1991–1993 purge of the marshlands between Basra, Amara and Nasiriya which reduced the Mandaean population there from about 6,000 to fewer than 2,000.[19]

The government of Saddam though oppressive was fundamentally a secular movement and had a degree of religious tolerance, and due to the strict rule of law this offered a degree of protection to the Mandaean and other minority groups.

"We will set up a temple for you," Saddam told head of the sect, Sattar Jabbar Hilo, and his followers in 2001. "Iraqis have religious freedom, whether they are Muslims, Christians or Sabaeans”.[20]

Post Saddam and the Iraq war of 2003

Following the removal of the government of Saddam Hussein the plight of the Mandaean community has been international news.

Being such a small community the Mandaeans do not enjoy the same militia protection and this has left them vulnerable to the extremist elements in both the Sunni and Shia communities. This has led to numerous instances of torture, rape, theft and murder.[21]

These very real threats coupled with the inability of the US and Iraqi government to offer protection has resulted in the Mandaean population falling from about 50,000 to less than 13,000 (September 2005) [21] and 5,000 (March 2007)[22] ethnically cleansing them from Iraqi society.

The Mandaeans face great religious persecution from other religious groups whose goals are to eradicate all Mandaeans from Iraq. "The Iraqi Islamic Mujahideen, a militant group, demands that all Mandaeans convert to Islam, leave the country or be killed. The BBC reports that a leaflet was distributed to Christian and Mandaean homes in Baghdad reading 'Either you embrace Islam and enjoy safety and coexist amongst us, or leave our land and stop toying with our principles. Otherwise, the sword will be the judge between belief and blasphemy'".[23] Although the Koran does state that there should be protection to Jews, Christians and Sabaeans, the Mandaean faith is often question as to whether it is a 'Sabian' faith. 'Sabian' "does mean the Baptized in Aramaic Mandaean... [and] the Mandaeans have survived through the centuries by identifying themselves as Sabaeans"...[23]

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, the persecution against the Mandaeans has increased. Mandaeans are pacifists who don’t believe in violence or the possession of weapons so therefore they are more vulnerable to attacks. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq’s Human Rights Report, there have been a "recorded 42 killings, including of women and children, 46 kidnappings, 10 reported threats and 21 attacks between January 2007 and February 2008".[24]

The goal of many hateful groups is the extinction of the Mandaean religion. The religious fundamental groups give the Mandaeans the option to flee, convert or die, as well as using other means to make the religion extinct. Many Mandaeans have been forced to convert to Islam as well as have forced circumcisions. “Mandaean women and girls have been forced to marry Muslim men. One cannot be a Mandaean without two Mandaean parents. Hence, the forced marriages are a means of forcing the religion out of existence”.[23]

There is no plan to protect the Mandaean community within Iraq with much of the remaining population expected to seek asylum, which at present is the only viable assistance the coalition can offer.

“Since 2003 more than 80% of the Mandaean community has fled Iraq: 10,000 Mandaeans have fled to Syria, 3,000 to Jordan and some to Yemen and Egypt. Currently there are some 5,000 Sabean Mandaeans in Kurdistan where many families have found shelter after being expelled from Baghdad, Basra and Baquba”.[24]

At present the Iraq Mandaean refugees are mostly located in Syria, Jordan and Turkey and many are expected to join other small communities in Europe and the US. But with the huge number of Iraqi fleeing the country, the endangered Mandaeans must wait for asylum in the West since the US has only offered a few thousand places and the British will consider each case “on its merits”.[25] This Diaspora coupled with the restrictive conversion and marriage traditions threatens to end the viability of the world’s oldest Gnostic religion.

Other groups


Main article: Persians in Iraq


Main article: Armenians in Iraq

The Armenians are Orthodox Christians. Their traditional homeland is immediately north of Iraq and contains the uppermost parts of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Armenians therefore have a long history of association with Mesopotamia, going back to pre-Christian times. The Armenians have historically been a thriving community in Iraq with football clubs (Nadi Armeni) and other establishments. Armenian folk music and dance is admired in Iraq. Most Iraqi Armenians live in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basrah and their population is estimated at around 70,000. They frequently intermarry with Iraqi Christian Assyrians.


Main article: Circassians in Iraq


Main article: Yazidi

Today, there are around 650,000 Yezidis in Iraq. They have their own distinct religion which combines aspects of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. Most speak Kurdish, but some speak Arabic.

Yezidis are mostly Kurds, although some scholars believe they may also have Assyrian heritage to some degree. Historically yezidism arose among the Kurdish people of present day Iraq.[26] Many Yezidis belong to the main Kurdish parties, KDP and PUK. These have funded major renovations of the Yezidi religious centre at Lalish and established a Yezidi cultural center at Dohuk. Still some yezidis in Iraq do not identify with the nationbuilding in the Kurdistan Region, seiing it as based om Sunni-Islam, and prefer to consider themselves a separate ethnic group.

Peshmerga troops have controlled Yezidi areas near Mosul since 2003. A predominant Yezidi politician that spoke out against Kurdish leaders was assassinated in the spring of 2005. In 2006 Yezidi representatives complained that the $12 million approved for projects in Yezidi areas in Sinjar had been blocked by the intervention of Kurdish political leaders in Mosul and instead was used for a smaller Kurdish village.


Main article: Palestinians in Iraq


Main article: Shabak people

There are about 60,000–400,000 Shabaks in Iraq. They are an ethnic and religious minority, retaining their own distinct Pre Islamic religion. They are an Indo-European (Aryan) people and speak an Indo-European language with elements of Turkish and Arabic infused. Despite having their own language and culture unique from other groups, Kurdish authorities have attempted to Kurdify the Shabaks by occupying Shabak villages and referring to them as "Kurdish Shabaks". In 2005, two Assyrians were killed and four Shabaks were wounded by the KDP during a demonstration organized by the Democratic Shabak Coalition, a group which wants separate representation for the Shabak community.[27]


The small number of Iraqis of largely African descent live mostly around the city of Basra, having been brought to the region as slaves over one thousand years ago to work the sugarcane plantations then in existence. Although they are Muslims and Arabic-speakers, Afro-Iraqis also retain some cultural and religious traditions from their ancestral homeland. They suffer considerable discrimination due to the color of their skin, and, as a result, are restricted to working as entertainers or menial laborers. Moreover, they are often addressed by other Iraqis as 'abd, meaning "slave".

In the mid-800s, black slaves around Basra rose in a rebellion, conquering their former masters and ruling the city for 15 years before being put down by forces sent by the Caliph in Baghdad. After the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, Afro-Iraqis have once again begun to struggle for an improvement in their condition.[28]


Iraq's Roma (Kawliya) ethnic minority was looked down upon as second-class citizens under Ba'ath party rule. Kawliya had some protection from being persecuted, however. Iraqi Roma speak a hybrid language containing elements of Roma, Hindi, Arabic, Persian, and Kurdish. They are not religious, some are either superficially Muslim or Christian, others practice Roma Folk religions.


Although historically significant, the Jewish community of Iraq today numbers fewer than 100 people. The vast majority of Iraqi Jews were transferred to Israel in the early 1950s in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.


Iraq also has a Bedouin minority. Marsh Arabs are sometimes regarded as a separate ethnic group, however this is more to do with their culture than any proven ethnic characteristics.

Assaults on minority Groups since 2003

  • In total 40 churches have been bombed since June 26, 2004
  • August 10, 2009: Truck bombs kill at least 28 people in the Shabak village of Khazna, in Nineveh governorate [29]
  • June 20, 2009: Truck bomb kills at least 70 people in a Turkmen village near Kirkuk [30]
  • Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was kidnapped on February 23, 2008. Three of his companions were also murdered during the kidnapping. His body was found in March and an Iraqi Al-Qaeda leader, Ahmed Ali Ahmed, known as Abu Omar, was sentenced to death in May for this crime.[31][32]
  • January 9, 2008, 2 churches bombed in Kirkuk.
  • January 6, 2008, 7 churches bombed: three Chaldean and Assyrian churches in Mosul and four in Baghdad.[33]
  • June 4, 2007, 2 churches attacked, Ragheed Ganni, a priest, and three men were shot dead in church.[21]
  • October 2006, Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, kidnapped in Mosul and subsequently beheaded, and his arms and legs were cut off.[21][34]
  • January 29, 2006, 4 churches bombed.
  • December 7, 2004, 2 churches bombed.[33]
  • November 8, 2004, 1 church bombed.
  • October 16, 2004, 5 churches bombed.[33]
  • September 10 and 11th, 2004, 2 churches bombed.
  • August 1, 2004, 5 Assyrian and 1 Armenian churches bombed.

See also

Assyrians portal

External links

  • Minority Rights Group International
  • Iraqi Minorities Council
  • Minority Rights Group International
  • Minority Rights Group International


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