In 1988, Ali Hassan al-Majid, the secretary general of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party’s bureau in northern Iraq, condemned similar minorities for changing their identification, cursing Yazidis for supposedly considering themselves Arab one day and Kurdish the next. “Any Arab who changes his ethnicity to Kurdish is doing so to avoid serving in the army,” he said at a meeting on August 1st, 1988. “This is a big problem. What shall we do about it? Why did Mosul register them as Kurds? We asked them to deport every Kurd who lives there and send them to the mountains to live like goats.”
Like the Kurds, the Shabak were victims of Saddam’s Anfal campaign. They were massacred and deported alongside the Kurds of northern Iraq, and were driven away because they would not identify as Arab. Once Saddam was expelled and executed and the Kurdish region entered its heyday, the Kurdish people and their political parties turned on the Shabak, who had for so long suffered alongside them. Instead of making the Shabak call themselves Arab, the Kurds consider the Shabak to be Kurds, based on geography, according to one State Department report.
The Shabak face high levels of sectarian violence and ostracism in the region, but rarely does their plight rise to the attention of the KRG or the international community, families in East Mosul told me. In 2007, a Shabak MP claimed that Sunni militants killed 1,000 Shabak and displaced some 4,000, according to a report by Minority Rights Group International. Under the recent occupation of ISIS, 214 Shabak locals were captured and are still missing, according to Salim al-Shabaki, a representative of Shabaks in the Iraqi parliament. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the localized indifference to the Shabak than the 2008 assassination of Mullah Abbas, the head of the Shabak Democratic Gathering, mere feet from a Kurdish checkpoint. In a report, Human Rights Watch said that nothing was done to find the politician's killer nor hold anyone accountable.
A history of indifference to the Shabak beckons an uncertain future, regardless of which government they back. “The future of not just Shabak, but for all Ninevah, is a grey area,” Salim Shabaki, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, told me, referring to the disputed province where the cities of Mosul, Tal Afar and Bartella, among others, are located. “We don’t know what's going to happen … People are trying to stay away from Mosul and instead align with the KRG, not just because of rights violations in Ninevah, but because they are being oppressed by [the Popular Mobilization Forces],” whose brigades are composed primarily of Iran-backed Shiite fighters. They have sought to curb support for the referendum “by force and intimidation,” Shabaki said.
Analysts believe that how groups like the Shabak voted will matter little: Those who want independence will participate in the referendum, and those who don’t, won’t, for fear of legitimizing it. As a result, it is expected to pass.