Inside the Christian Militias Defending the Nineveh Plains

Some work with the Peshmerga, some don’t—and they only trust their own

Inside the Christian Militias Defending the Nineveh Plains Inside the Christian Militias Defending the Nineveh Plains
Gen. Behnam, the leader of a new Assyrian Christian militia in northern Iraq, sits in the sparse barracks where his men train to defend... Inside the Christian Militias Defending the Nineveh Plains

Gen. Behnam, the leader of a new Assyrian Christian militia in northern Iraq, sits in the sparse barracks where his men train to defend their homelands from Islamic State.

In August, the jihadi militants forced Behnam from his home in the central Iraqi village of Hamdaniyah, 51 kilometers southeast of Mosul. “ISIS stole everything that I made, what my father made, what my grandfather made,” Behnam says.

“They took all of this from me in one minute. I only came here with my shirt and trousers, my son and my daughter.”

Above—an Assyrian Christian militia fighter wears the Arabic letter ‘N’ on his uniform. Islamic State painted the letter on the doors of Christian homes in Mosul. Standing for Nasara or Nazarenes, both derogatory terms for Christians, it has since become a symbol of solidarity within Iraq’s Christian community. At top—a member of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units stands guard in Alqosh, Iraq. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

Christian villages dotting the Nineveh plains fell to the Islamic State last summer when the Kurdish Peshmerga withdrew. More than 100,000 people fled from the jihadi group.

Now, seven months later, many of the villages are still under Islamic State control. Assyrian Christians have little faith in the Peshmerga—although they’re allies—and have decided to take the fight into their own hands, forming lightly armed bands of politically-aligned militias.

The Nineveh Plain Protection Units, or NPU, of which Behnam is a part, is one of the new Assyrian Christian militias.

In the unit’s temporary home near Kirkuk, more than 200 Assyrian Christian men are undergoing training in infantry skills, basic weapon handling and working as a unit—with help from former U.S. soldiers.

Gen. Behnam, leader of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, pictured at the base where his men were undergoing training. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Behnam served for several decades in the Saddam-era Iraqi army, but most of his men have little or no fighting experience, and some have never even fired a rifle.

Behnam looks over his men in the training hall as they sat and chatted. The sky outside was full of dark, winter clouds, and the weather had turned the hard Iraqi soil into slush. The militia couldn’t train in the bad weather, according to Athra, an NPU fighter.

“Our uniforms come from donators—we only get one [set] each,” Athra says.

The fighters’ guns are on loan from a Peshmerga base, and the militiamen also use the space to train. When their training comes to an end, the NPU will have to return the weapons to their owners.

Members of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units stand with borrowed rifles during their training. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Donations from Assyrian Christians living abroad pay for the militia’s uniforms and weapons. But commanders are trying to incorporate the NPU into a proposed Iraqi national guard. Under a new draft law, guard units would form at local levels, coming under the responsibility of provincial governments.

But the plans stalled, and the Christian fighters are still waiting.

Behnam looks stressed. “We have sent the papers to the central government, but we are waiting on their reply,” he says. “I want to go to Baghdad and sort it out soon with someone from the ministry.”

There’s not enough of money, weapons and uniforms—really, everything—that the militia needs to have a functioning unit. The Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government haven’t provided any aid.

Behnam says that the militia could receive weapons and money from Baghdad—but that’s only if the militia were part of a national guard.

Kurdish and American flags and a pistol cigarette-lighter on the body armor of a foreign Dwekh Nawsha volunteer. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Two other Christian militias have direct backing from other established Iraqi political factions.

Dwekh Nawsha, a militia group of as many as 250 men, receives weapons, ammunition and money from the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Dwekh Nawsha also includes several British and American foreign volunteers who drum up publicity and funding though social media and interviews.

Then there’s the Nineveh Plains Force. Unlike the NPU, the NPF works with the Peshmerga ministry. The Kurdish military force provides weapons and training to the NPF.

Romeo Hakari, leader of the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party, pictured in his Erbil office. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

“The NPF was formed in cooperation with the Peshmerga ministry—it is the only formally recognized unit,” says Romeo Hakari, the leader of the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party, one of the two Assyrian Christian parties responsible for the NPF.

But even so, the Kurdish withdrawal in August still leaves a bitter taste for Christians in Nineveh.

“The Peshmerga left without telling anyone,” Hakari says. “One hundred young Assyrian fighters are better than 1,000 Kurds, because it’s not their own communities [the Peshmerga] are protecting.”

The political party behind the NPU—the Assyrian Democratic Movement—agrees. That’s despite discord between the various Assyrian and Kurdish groups.

“We only trust our own men,” says Youra Moosa, an NPU political coordinator. “If someone from Zakho [a town in northwest Iraqi-Kurdistan] protects the Nineveh plain, he doesn’t care, because his family is somewhere else. Local people have family here, and they will not run.”

For this reason, Youra wants his men to remain independent from Kurdish control.

Youra is based in Alqosh, a Chaldo-Assyrian Christian town 51 kilometers north of Mosul. The town touches the hills that rise up from the Nineveh plains. The seventh-century Rabban Hormizd monastery—where generations of Christian monks have prayed—overlooks the town.

Alqosh emptied out at the beginning of August when Islamic State pushed forward, and Kurdish troops retreated. The majority of residents left the area.

Islamic State made it as far as Telskuf, 20 kilometers south. Some families returned three weeks later, and now most are back. But others fled for good, part of a wider trend of Christians fleeing Iraq.

In 2003, Christians in Iraq numbered 1.5 million. About 500,000 remain today.

Assyrian Christian graves are in Telskuf, Iraq. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Although life has more or less returned to Alqosh, this same isn’t true for Telskuf. Islamic State held the town for 10 days, and most families are too afraid to return.

The road to Telskuf is almost empty, and the only traffic is military. Lush, green and open fields flank both sides of the road.

Uniformed NPU fighters armed with a mix of different Kalashnikov-type rifles brave a cold wind as they sit in the back of a huge pickup truck.

Residents moving through the area have to stop at checkpoints guarded by Kurdish Asayesh officers. Before letting people go on their way, the guards phone their commanders and ask for authorization.

The town of Telskuf is quiet. Asayesh and Peshmerga cluster around a group of buildings being used by the KDP. Beyond this small area, Telskuf is completely deserted.

“We do not want them back yet, as the front line is close,” says Yalda, the Christian head of the KDP in Telskuf. “This is a military zone. We hope to let them back in a month to 45 days.”

Although a political officer, Yalda wears a Peshmerga uniform. Christian pictures dot the walls of his office along with a photograph of Kurdish Pres. Masoud Barzani.

Assyrian Christian NPU fighters sit in the back of a pickup truck on a trip to Telskuf. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Yalda explains that the area is still under threat from Islamic State. Fighting takes place once or twice a week at the nearby front line in Bakhufa, which means the town is still a military zone—much like the ghost town of Jalawla.

Relations with the NPU are cordial, Yalda says, but the Christian fighters are not allowed to go to the front-line three kilometers away. The NPF and Dwekh Nawsha can, because those two militias are affiliated with the Peshmerga.

The Christian militias in the town prefer to guard houses for their own community.

Residents had padlocked and chained the doorways into their homes—a mark of distrust. Islamic State insurgents left graffiti on the walls, which Peshmerga fighters scribbled over after they retook the town on Aug. 17.

Peshmerga fighters scribbled over graffiti left by Islamic State graffiti on a wall in Telskuf. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Although Islamic State held the town for 10 days and demolished 16 buildings, it didn’t appear that the jihadis looted the town. Since its liberation, residents accused the Peshmerga of looting homes.

“We want change,” Moosa says. “We cannot have the same situation with the Peshmerga protecting us. Our life is here. We have to stay.”

Yalda, the KDP representative, agrees the area should be under Christian administration.

Talk of a proposed, self-administered Yazidi “canton” in the Sinjar area surfaced in January. And some Christians also want more autonomy for themselves in Nineveh, which could mean further fractures within the Kurdistan region and the disputed areas.

Before Islamic State, Christians had long lived in the cracks between Kurdish and Arab Iraq. But despite future political plans, the Christians of the Nineveh plains just want somewhere safe to call home.

In Telskuf, a Christian home owner glumly surveys the recent looting of his home. He blames the Peshmerga. “When there are problems between Arabs and Kurds [In Iraq], we are the biggest losers.”