ERBIL—When the Islamic State was ousted from Mosul in July, it was thanks to the joint efforts of Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Many expected that their cooperation would spur a nationwide healing process, in which sectarian and ethnic divides between Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd, might be bridged. But such hopes were soon dashed by Massoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader. After the liberation of Mosul, Barzani, emboldened by the success of his peshmerga forces against ISIS, announced that the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq would hold an independence referendum on September 25th.
Ahead of the referendum Monday, Iranian airspace was closed to flights originating and arriving in the Kurdistan region, according to airport officials; Turkish tanks conducted exercises on the country’s southern border with Iraq; on a recent visit, police forces backed by Baghdad had withdrawn from the city of Kirkuk as a peshmerga special-operations force, the Commando Battalion of the Zeravani Brigade, took up posts around the city.
Early results suggest a sweeping victory for Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), with e-voting for the Kurdish diaspora having opened Saturday. More than 40,000 Kurds in Europe voted for independence, with only about 80 voting to stay with Iraq, according to a KRG spokesperson. Polls throughout the Kurdish region close at 6 p.m. local time, barring a last-minute extension.
“The people of Kurdistan with all of its components who live here want to peacefully and democratically express their opinion about their future, and how it should look like,” Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told the press.
While the referendum is largely symbolic, the governments of Turkey, Iran, Syria and the United States, oppose it, fearing that it will destabilize the region. (Russia, quietly, supports it.) Also complicating matters are the disputed territories, where control has changed hands between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurds as the frontline against ISIS has shifted. But the issue of the disputed territories, and who will ultimately govern them, also throws the fate of Iraq’s myriad religious and ethnic minorities into question. These groups, like the Yazidis, Turkmen, Christians, and the Shabak, have been persecuted by ISIS in the disputed territories, and are now forced to choose which government—Iraq or the KRG—they deem less oppressive. “The competition between the central government and the KRG over the loyalty of minority groups in the [Ninevah] plain is one of the main drivers of conflict there, from Saddam's time onward,” Joost Hiltermann, MENA Program Director for the International Crisis Group, told me. Neither Baghdad nor Erbil, some say, is particularly appealing. Somewhere between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government in Baghdad, they believe, lies financial prosperity and survival.
What worries many minority groups in the disputed territories: the possibility of deliberate Arabization, or the forced incorporation of Arab culture and ideology into their identities, under Baghdad rule. But aligning entirely with the KRG may too be perilous. While the Kurdistan constitution states that “Kurdish society … prides itself on its ethnic and religious groups” and is “open to all,” the government considers all non-Kurds within its borders to be Kurdish by citizenship. So while the official policy is one that recognizes ethnic minorities, in practice such recognition is no guarantee. “The Kurdistan Regional Government’s anthem and the flag are Kurdish at the expense of others,” Kaldo Oghanna, the media director for the Assyrian Democratic Movement, told me. “It fails to reflect all ethnic groups.”
These larger disputes have very real, local consequences for groups like the Shabak, many of whom live on the Ninevah plains, an area to the east and northeast of Mosul predominantly settled by minorities. Influenced by Sufi, Shiite, and Yazidi traditions, the Shabak do not follow some of the main pillars of Islam, like fasting, prayer, and making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Their demographics in Ninevah change frequently in response to persecution. The group found itself caught between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the nationalist movement of the Kurds in the 1970s. Some who registered as Kurds were deported. A group of some several thousand who had registered as Kurds in 1988 were exiled to Sulaimaniyah and Erbil.
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.
Dr. Hanin al-Qadu, a member of the Iraqi parliament representing the Shabak community, told me he felt his people were under pressure from the KRG to participate in the referendum. He said he and his political party were against the vote. He considered himself neither Arab nor Kurd, choosing instead to call himself an Iraqi. “Our best interest is to stay with the Iraqi government,” Hanin said. “The referendum should not take place in disputed areas, especially ours.”
This fastidiousness can be felt everywhere in and outside of the Kurdish region. When I tried to return to see a Shabak family I met in Mosul—some of the 200,000 to 500,000 Shabaks living in the Ninevah plains according to official estimates, though figures and census data are sparse and often conflicting—Kurds were having a difficult time passing through checkpoints into the disputed areas that were once easily navigable. Some drivers said that Iraqi forces kicked at their Erbil license plates and told them they could not pass.
Bartella, a town east of Mosul, has seen roughly half of its Shabak population return since the end of operations in Mosul, according to Ali Mohammed Fathi, the town’s mayor. “Most of the Shabak are with the referendum,” Ali told me. He said the town had not seen any violence and that leading up the referendum, barring a last-minute postponement, he did not expect any clashes between the security forces there. Ali said the Iraqi army, Christian militias like the 30th Division of Hashd al-Shaabi, and local police, were protecting the town; they are all backed by the central government in Baghdad.
Mosul, too, is under firm Iraqi control. And those who have come home are not returning out of respect for the ruling government. If they were not bound to property or possessions, to lives established under Baghdad’s rule, they would choose to write a different homecoming narrative.
“The Shabak living in Mosul don’t want to give up their property,” said Mohammad Ibrahim Shabak, a retired accountant in Erbil, “but at the same time they want to be part of Kurdistan Regional Government.”
This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Zalala Ali contributed reporting from Erbil, and Dana Zangana from Kirkuk.