Skip to main content

Iraq’s New Battlefront: The Struggle over Ninewa


MENA Report N°90
28 September 2009


Violence in much of Iraq is at lower levels than in years past but, in Ninewa, the carnage continues. In August and September 2009, large-scale, horrific attacks targeting minority communities took scores of lives. Arabs and Kurds are locked in a political deadlock. The bloodshed and institutional paralysis are symptoms of the country’s shifting battle lines: from an essentially Sunni versus Shiite sectarian struggle, mainly centred in the capital, to a predominantly Arab against Kurdish ethnic fight playing out along an extended axis of friction. It will be near-impossible to resolve the crisis without tackling outstanding nationwide political issues. But Ninewa cannot wait. Urgent interim steps are needed to achieve equitable local power sharing and joint security patrols between Arabs and Kurds in disputed districts, as well as to ensure better minority protection. All this requires a continued and active U.S. role. Washington might be on its way out, but its hands will be full even as it heads for the exit.

For Arabs and Kurds, the real prize remains Kirkuk, where emotions run highest and oil reserves are richest. But, precisely because of these stakes, Kirkuk also is where much national and international attention has turned and efforts undertaken to, if not resolve the conflict, at least freeze it. Not so in Ninewa, where local factors have brought the dispute to a head and which has become the focal point of the ethnic battle.

Ethnic relations in Ninewa have a chequered history. The struggle between Arab and Kurdish nationalisms has been especially acute, notably in the capital, Mosul, home to deeply rooted Arabist feelings. The Kurds have paid a heavy price. The state has made aggressive attempts to contain or suppress their national aspirations. The Baathist regime in particular engaged in forced displacement and discriminatory resource distribution. Kurds saw a chance for redress in 2003 and seized it, launching an offensive to rewind the clock and undo the effect of past practices. This too had a cost. Operating largely in an ad hoc manner, without due process and by dint of force, they took control of several districts, including many towns and villages, seeking to incorporate them into the Kurdistan region and, largely thanks to the Sunni Arab boycott of the 2005 provincial elections, they established political dominance in the governorate.

At the same time, Ninewa proved fertile ground for a Sunni-based insurgency, fuelled by the governorate’s strong Arabist, military and (Sunni) religious tradition and propelled by growing anti-Kurdish and anti-Shiite resentment. Groups taking up arms against U.S. troops and Kurdish fighters exploited the long, often unguarded Syrian border and a history of cross-border trade, while finding ready recruits among former officers, Baathists and an increasingly destitute youth to impose their rule over predominantly Sunni Arab areas. From 2003 to 2008, Ninewa appeared caught between Kurdish dominance and Sunni insurgents.

Gradually, the political landscape shifted. Insurgents – especially the more Islamist – overplayed their hand; U.S. and Iraqi forces re-energised efforts to stabilise Ninewa; and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought to push back Kurdish territorial advances. Perhaps most importantly, Sunni Arab leaders entered the political fray, coalescing around a resolutely nationalist, anti-Kurdish platform.

The 31 January 2009 provincial elections brought the new phase in the Arab-Kurdish tug-of-war to a head. Four years earlier, Sunni Arabs had boycotted the polls, viewing the entire political process as illegitimate. They were not about to repeat the mistake. United around the al-Hadbaa National List (Qaemat al-Hadbaa al-Wata­niya), they triumphed, waging a campaign focused on two key points: Ninewa’s Arab identity and the inviolability of the Baathist-era de facto boundary line that has separated the governorate from Kurdistan since October 1991. The elections were a demographic corrective. Kurdish parties won roughly a third of council seats under the banner of the Ninewa Brotherhood List (Qaemat Ninewa al-Mutaakhiya); this was as they had anticipated given their population share. But though they accepted their significant electoral decline, they feared al-Hadbaa’s virulently anti-Kurdish rhetoric, resented its efforts to diminish Kurdish military, administrative and cultural influence and insisted on sharing power. When al-Hadbaa rejected this demand, they boycotted the provincial council.

The resulting local government paralysis, coupled with al-Hadbaa’s decision to reassert provincial government rule over disputed territories heretofore under Kurdish control, has led to an alarming rise in tensions. Conflict chiefly has occurred where Arabs and Kurds vie for administrative control and where Iraq’s army and Kurdish peshmergas face off across an increasingly tense divide. On several occasions, these forces have come perilously close to head-on collision. Further contributing to the governorate’s growing instability and tinderbox quality is the vast array of official and unofficial armed groups: the national army and police; the Kurdistan regional government’s (KRG) security forces (peshmerga) and security police (asaesh); what remains of Sunni Arab insurgent groups; and tribal militias.

Caught between Arabs and Kurds are ethnic and religious minorities in whom the central government has evinced little interest. While Ninewa is majority Arab with a strong Kurdish minority, it also counts a number of smaller groups – Christians, Yazidis, Turkomans and Shabaks – that may comprise a mere 10 per cent of the population but are concentrated in disputed borderlands between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq. They have suffered a disproportionate share of the hardship caused by war, occupation and intercommunal violence and fight today for survival. At times co-opted, at others threatened by one of the camps, they have become vulnerable pawns in a contest that often sees them as little more than fodder. In August and September 2009, four bombings took over 100 lives and left many hundreds more wounded. For minorities, these have been among the deadliest of months.

There have been signs of late that the federal government and its Kurdish counterparts, with U.S. help and pressure, are seeking to address the problem. But dangers remain high, especially as U.S. military disengagement has begun, with unpredictable consequences on various actors’ calculations and the overall balance of forces. Although significantly diminished, insurgent groups also remain active. They could decide to focus on anti-Kurdish attacks or step up violence against minority groups in disputed territories in hopes of prompting greater unrest and encouraging Arab-Kurdish recrimination.

Any successful effort to defuse the crisis needs to be two-tracked. As Crisis Group has repeatedly argued, Iraq’s fundamental and festering problem concerns the allocation of power, land and resources. With national elections approaching in early 2010, it is hard to imagine the federal government, KRG or any domestic party engaging in politically costly compromise, however urgent the need. At the governorate level, however, steps could be more realistic. Arabs and Kurds should agree on an interim arrangement that gives the latter a legitimate share of power while allowing the former to govern; Kurdish military and police forces should be formally incorporated into federal army units and Ninewa’s security police, respectively, under joint command and with joint patrolling. Minority groups should be given far greater protection and subjected to far fewer attempts at manipulation. The idea, floated by some U.S. officials, of temporarily inserting American soldiers in joint army-peshmerga patrols is interesting and not only because it might produce immediate benefits. It would also send a message about Washington’s longer-term commitment that would be no less indispensable.


To the al-Hadbaa List and the Ninewa Brotherhood List:

1.  Negotiate a compromise deal including the following key elements:

a) recognition of Ninewa’s 19 March 2003 boundaries until such time as the status of the disputed territories may be altered by constitutional means;

b) a local power-sharing arrangement pursuant to which the Brotherhood List would receive at least one leadership position, such as council president or deputy governor; and a share of other key positions in local government;

c) integration of peshmerga units into federal army units to be deployed in rural parts of disputed areas, together with incorporation of Kurdish security police (asaesh) and intelligence (parastin) into Ninewa’s security agencies in urban parts of disputed areas;

d) appointment of Kurdish commanders to top positions in these security forces, alongside non-Kurdish commanders;

e) security coordination in disputed districts, including via joint army/peshmerga patrols and check­points in rural areas and joint asaesh/amn (Nine­wa’s security police) checkpoints and patrols in urban areas;

f) local recruitment into Ninewa’s security forces and especially integration of minority group members in security forces deployed in disputed territories; and

g) transfer of Ninewa-origin detainees from prisons in the Kurdistan region to Ninewa prisons supervised by local judicial bodies, and treatment of such detainees according to due process of law.

2.  Implement, as the new provincial government is formed, an ambitious economic recovery program focused on infrastructure repair and revitalising the agricultural sector.

3.  Negotiate a compromise on use of official languages of instruction in disputed districts’ educational facilities, including the following elements:

a) application of the constitutional principle of Arabic and Kurdish bilingualism in public schools and other educational institutions;

b) joint administration in educational matters through the creation of a committee comprising members of all ethnic communities in Ninewa’s Directorate of Education; and

c) protection of minority groups’ linguistic and cultural rights, including the right to teach in their own language in administration units in which they are concentrated.

4.  Transfer Kurdish teachers in the disputed districts who receive their salaries from the KRG to the authority and payroll of Ninewa’s education directorate.

To the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG):

5.  Take steps to resolve bilateral issues, including:

a) stepping up negotiations on disputed territories, power sharing and constitutional reform, security and the role of peshmergas and oil/gas; and

b) holding discussions on disputed territories as part of the task force established under UN auspices and instituting confidence-building steps in individual districts, as per the recommendations of the UN mission (UNAMI) in its April 2009 report on disputed internal boundaries.

6.  Avoid inflammatory rhetoric concerning mutual relations, the status of disputed territories and the issuance of oil and gas contracts in these areas, especially in the run-up to the January 2010 legislative elections.

7.  Pressure Ninewa political actors, notably al-Hadbaa and the Ninewa Brotherhood List, to reach agreement on a power-sharing formula and security arrangements as described below and pledge to release $500 million in unspent past budget funds to the local government if a deal is reached.

8.  Seek to minimise security risks by:

a) refraining from military manoeuvres in disputed territories without pre-notifying the other side;

b) integrating Kurdish peshmergas in Ninewa into federal army units deployed in disputed districts and appointing peshmerga commanders to senior positions in these units alongside non-Kurdish commanders; and

c) deploying such joint army-peshmerga units at checkpoints and in patrols in disputed territories, to be overseen by a joint security committee comprising political representatives of the KRG, the Ninewa government and the federal government.

To the Ninewa Local Government and the KRG:

9.  Ensure protection of ethnic and religious minorities in Ninewa through security measures, by ceasing discriminatory resource and service allocation to areas with heavy minority presence, halting efforts to manipulate such groups or enlist them to their side and providing fair political representation.

10.  Deepen economic and cultural relations between Ninewa governorate and the Kurdistan region and quickly exchange senior-level visits between Mosul and Erbil.

To the U.S. Government:

11.  Assist relevant Iraqi parties to reach the necessary compromises in Ninewa, in particular by:

a) pressing the Iraqi government to reintegrate certain members of the Baath party and the insurgency in local civilian and security institutions;

b) pressuring local allies that rely heavily on the U.S., notably tribal forces, to promote a power- and security-sharing agreement; and

c) insisting on the necessary protection of minority groups.

12.  Consider seriously adding U.S. military officers to joint Arab-Kurdish patrols as a transitional confidence-building measure to improve communication, coordination and cooperation.

Mosul/Washington/Brussels, 28 September 2009

from: International Crises Group Website