Living under ISIS: Iraqi civil society studies security, religion, and gender in Nineveh

Iraqi al-Amal Association in collaboration with Ala Ali (Independent Researcher/Analyst and Peace Activist) conducted a focus-group based conflict analysis of the Iraqi province of Nineveh. The findings provide important insights into recent developments in Iraq, and the advancement of ISIS.

Several key issues contributing to and sustaining conflict were identified through this research, as were points of entry for peacebuilding, which can be capitalised on to reduce tensions.

Information about Nineveh Province, Iraq

Nineveh Province is Iraq’s third largest province, located in the northwest of Iraq. Its economy is based in agriculture, industry and commercial retail sector, also Mosul city is famous for the most important oilfields in Iraq. Twenty six per cent of the population in Nineveh lives under the poverty line of $2.5 per day (2011).

The majority of its population (3,041,940 hab) is Arab Sunna also Nineveh is home to a significant population of Iraqi minority groups, such as Turkomen, Shabak, Christians, and Yazidis, in addition to Kurds.

The primary political party in Nineveh now is the Hadbaa National List, and part of it, al-Mutahedoun, controls most of the power in Nineveh province, There are other parties, such as the National Coalition list, who are affiliated with the federal government’s policies, and have a serious dispute with the al-Mutahedoun list. Crucially, though, until now the Ba’ath Party has enjoyed wide public support in Nineveh and other Sunni provinces of Iraq, but it is illegal and not registered as an official bloc. The Iraqi Islamic party still has a strong foundation in Nineveh and it is considered among the most popular political parties in Nineveh. There are also several smaller political parties, which represent other groups, such as Christians, Shebak, and Yazidi, such as the Assyrian Chaldean Party and the Turkomen Front Party. The Kurdish political parties, the PDK and PUK, had a crucial role in shaping the political map of Mosul since 2003.

The fragile security and political situation started in Nineveh Province in 2003 with the US invasion of Iraq and it worsened later. Religious disputes were an issue in Nineveh, including those between the Sunni Muslim extremist groups and the Shia’a extremist groups on one hand, as well as between Sunni Muslim extremists and other religious groups. Furthermore, political dispute war against ‘American occupation’ and Shia’a dominance gradually escalated and became even worse after the control of the Iraqi army post-US army withdrawal in 2011.

Almost twelve years have passed since the 2003 invasion of Iraq by US and coalition forces and the toppling of the dictatorial regime of Iraq, but the country still struggles with an unstable security situation, mainly in the Sunni triangle area. The recent advancement of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or Daesh) forces in Mosul and other areas in Iraq is of great concern to peacebuilders and others. Studying patterns in these areas may help in identifying strategies on how to move forward to build a lasting peace in Iraq and in the region.

Political, religious and sectarian tensions

Identity is one of the buzzwords worldwide and, in particular, in Iraq. After the 2003 invasion, it became the essential element that people use for categorizing, labelling, and describing themselves and others. Data generated in the focus group sessions and the interviews reinforced the idea that part of the conflict in Nineveh is over identity, “political, religion, and sectarian,” and that Iraqi society is divided into different groups based on political sectarian orientations and religious doctrines – Arab Sunni, Kurd, Christian, Shebak, Kakai, Turkomen, Shia’a, and Yazidi. People have opposing orientations and perspectives, resulting in communities that currently cannot live together peacefully or accept others without tensions and conflict.

The political parties in Iraq are usually affiliated with ethnic, sectarian, and religious perspectives. Thus, Nineveh’s societal identity can be classified as Iraqi, multiethnic, and multi-religious. Furthermore, in regards to political Islam, there are two dimensions in which religious leaders and clerics seem to operate. Firstly, the clerics and tribal leader groups affiliated with terrorist groups try to mobilize and provoke communities toward violence. The other group of clerics and tribal leaders work toward peace, encouraging nonviolence in the area, and cooperating with some of the local authorities in Nineveh and the federal government. Unfortunately, it was obvious and confirmed by the collected data that the majority of the community leaders are from the first group. Moreover, collected data confirmed that this is because some of the religious leaders have been murdered as a result of their positions supporting peace.

Census, Article 140, and legal issues

No real census has been conducted in Iraq for decades and this is a critical issue, especially for Nineveh, because it is within the disputed boundaries areas, which are at the core of the conflict between the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government. The disputed boundaries areas are themselves considered to be a small Iraq, a community of multi-ethnic and diverse religious groups, reflecting all the diversity of Iraq.

Another critical issue concerns property disputes. The Property Claims Commission was established in 2004 to compensate those whose property was confiscated before 2003. But it was clear from the collected data that this commission was not very active in solving property issues. Moreover, demographic changes are one of the crucial issues for minorities in Nineveh Plain, especially among Christians, because they believe this will lead to the extinction of Christianity in Iraq.

Security, sense of citizenship, and patriotism

Growing sectarianism in Iraq exacerbated a fragile political and security situation, especially in Nineveh and all the Sunni areas of Iraq. Nineveh is a Sunni Arab majority society consisting of several different tribes, in addition to Kurdish, Christian, Shebak, Kakai, Turkomen, and Yazidi minority groups. The Sunnis have a local sense of citizenship to Nineveh, mainly as a Sunni province and, in general, to the Sunni Triangle of Iraq, rather than a national sense of Iraqi citizenship. This contributed to the breakdown of centralised authority. Moreover, this has long-term consequences, causing distrust, fear, and a lack of patriotism, which leads to a lack of trust between citizens and government officials on one hand, and similar distrust, on the other hand, between the local authorities and the federal and regional governments, all of which fuel conflict. Another crucial reason for the lack of a sense of patriotism among the security forces and the National Army is that they are not from Nineveh. They are Shia’a from the rest of Iraq, mainly from the south. It also important to refer to Nineveh society’s position toward the Kurdistan Regional Government’s authority, the KRG was not welcomed by the majority of Arabs from Nineveh, especially in Mosul city and western Nineveh. Also, as a result of the years of dictatorship there is a lack of a culture of dialogue in Iraq.

Role of the local civil society organisations

Although civil society organisations are not that active in Nineveh, they had a few significant peace initiatives promoting the human rights situation. These include their March 2011 statement on human rights violations in Nineveh, especially in regards to Article 4 of the Iraqi constitution, the anti-terrorism law. This statement was addressed to the central government in Baghdad. Civil society organisation staff and activists are not safe enough, though, as Nineveh and especially Mosul city witnessed several tragic incidents against activists.

The role of the international community

The international community actors relevant to the Nineveh conflict can be divided into two groups. On one hand are the international NGOs, UN, and the embassies, especially the European and US embassies. On the other hand, are the neighbouring countries and their largely negative role in driving the conflict toward violence through financial and logistical support to the armed groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS (Daesh). Moreover, some government officials and tribal leaders in Nineveh province fuel the conflict and fabricate crises, Iran is the biggest supporter of the Shia’a government of Baghdad and influences the government’s agenda and policies. Turkey and its destructive role was also a concern of many participants. Turkey could influence local-level decisions, mainly economic and political decisions, through local government. UNAMI, relevant UN agencies and the UN country team’s interventions in the Nineveh crises were limited to the immediate action phase, including humanitarian and material aid. And it seems that there is no clear medium-term or decade-long thinking or planning.

Rule of Law, structural violence, and social violence

 There are numerous instances of structural violence. These include corruption, lack of services and infrastructure, lack of proper education, especially in the rural areas of Nineveh, where education is almost non-existent. In support of this view, unemployment among youth and women, poverty due to corruption and wealth inequality, discrimination and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities, random detention and limited freedom of expression – all these are examples of structural violence perpetrated by the federal government, particularly former Prime Minister Maliki, against the citizens of Nineveh, particularly the Arab Sunni of Mosul and western and southern Nineveh. Social injustice and conflicts of power – regarding both position and finances – among the political parties in Baghdad, Nineveh, and Kurdistan Region is another critical issue that fuels conflict.  A critical point raised in some interviews concerns the structural violence embedded in some of Iraq’s laws, specifically the anti-terrorism law, as well as former Prime Minister Maliki’s biased use of the law against Sunni groups.

The armed groups

The three main armed groups in Nineveh are al-Qaida, the Islamic States in Iraq and Syria (Daesh), and the Naqshbandi Army. The people of Nineveh, especially in Mosul city and the western part of Nineveh, have diverging views of them, especially toward al-Qaeda and the Naqshbandi Army. There is no clear rejection or acceptance of the presence of al-Qaeda in Nineveh by some people. According to the opinion of an activist, before June 2014, a significant percentage of Nineveh society supported al-Qaeda and Daesh. He added that al-Qaeda changed their hostile policies to gain societal support.

In addition, the Naqshbandi Army, who are more affiliated with Baath party members, is active in Nineveh. Again, the people of Nineveh have diverging views of them. Some see them as protectors, defending civilians against any violation committed by any Shia’a party, including the National Army. The other group, especially intellectual groups, women, and some individuals, neither support nor fight against the Naqshbandi Army. They also do not accuse them of being extremists or terrorists because they are not involved in killing and/or kidnapping people.

The National Army should not be labelled under this category of armed groups, but, unfortunately, for many, it is perceived as an armed group. A majority of people in Nineveh, especially the Arab Sunni in Mosul city and the western part of Nineveh, hold this view. The National Army is seen by Nineveh society as an armed group that is driven by Iran and Shia’a interests, directed by former Prime Minister Maliki against the Arab Sunni.

Gender-based violence and women's rights

Women’s rights are violated because of many problems around widows, divorce, early age marriage, polygamy, forced and illegal marriage, unequal job opportunities, and women’s limited involvement in the political process, which subsequently causes the marginalisation of women’s roles in the community. Furthermore, the armed groups have an extremely negative impact on women’s daily lives. They have limited women’s freedom in several aspects, such as forcing the traditional Islamic outfit on even non-Muslim women and girls, and restricting education and work opportunities, mainly after al-Qaeda extended their influence and operations in Nineveh in 2005-2006. It is also important to refer to the issue of honour killing among populations in Nineveh, mainly among the Yazidis. When it comes to media, women in Nineveh are involved, but they pay a high price. Many female journalists from Nineveh have been killed in the last 10 years.

The role of youth

According to participants in the focus groups and validation session, the youth of Nineveh have limited interest in engaging in the political process. The University of Mosul is a place for education only - youth cannot be involved in political movements and processes as the University of Mosul campus is controlled by the National Army. No freedom of speech and expression is allowed among students.

Men and dignity

Numerous scholars have written about the essential role dignity can play in resolving conflicts. This was confirmed through the research, which uncovered many cases of indignity, as we heard stories of men in Nineveh who suffered from the central government’s discriminatory policies against Sunni groups. Manhood and masculinity in eastern society is linked to protection and security. Furthermore, the stories of thousands of former Baath army officers from Nineveh are another critical issue relevant to men’s concept of dignity. Loss of dignity consequently shaped their aggressive behaviours and pushed men to be involved with terrorist groups in order to gain revenge and restore their sense of dignity. Almost all the collected data agreed that women’s honour is another critical subject and that it is the most important issue linked to men’s dignity in Nineveh. Men are ready to fight and kill if their family’s (women’s) honour were threatened.

Climate change

Since 2007, climate change is one of the major challenges that Iraq faces. It has had disastrous environmental and economic impacts, particularly in the agricultural sector. This issue was raised in several interviews, including the role of climate change in forcing tribes in western Nineveh to move to Ba’aj, Talafer, and Sinjar districts and sub-districts. Unfortunately, there is no specific study so far to assess the likely impact of climate change on Iraq, including its effect on demographic changes, which were identified as one of the reasons for conflict in Nineveh. No regular humanitarian aid or support was provided to families displaced by drought, or resettlement programmes, which in turn has made their youth and men easy targets for recruitment by terrorist groups.


To the governments of Iraq and Kurdistan Region: 

  • Develop the legal framework. Promote the current regulations, laws, and other mechanisms to protect human rights principles. Consider the structural violence embedded in and advanced by current Iraqi laws, including the constitution and criminal code.
  • Develop an urgent and clear end-violence scenario with the active involvement of all parties, (excluding the offenders and the parties and individuals who were involved in war crimes)
  • Promote economic development programs in cooperation with private sector actors.
  • Increase security at the borders and enhance the existing internal security system.
  • Establish rehabilitation programs for victims of the conflict and violence, with a focus on women, children, and youth.
  • Government should partner with relevant local NGOs and community leaders to build trust.
  • The Iraqi government and the KRG should seek the UN country team’s technical support and advice on needs and gaps, including information on where services are needed.
  • The de-Ba’athification problem has to be solved by the government, in cooperation with relevant parties.
  • All militias must be dissolved by the government and in coordination with the relevant parties.
  • The Government of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Council of Representatives, and the relevant entities should implement a national plan to implement and support Security Council Resolution 1325, the recommendation of the CEDAW committee.

To Iraqi NGOs & civil society:  

  • Build capacity to support research and studies on conflict analysis/assessment and conflict prevention.
  • Encourage and support the Iraqi and the KRG in starting transitional justice processes.
  • Build and strengthen relationships with tribal leaders and clerics by finding a mechanism for cooperation and engaging with them in peace interventions, activities, and programmes.
  • Build the capacity of civil society organisations in monitoring, evaluation, and documentation in order to catalyse their role in monitoring government performance on all levels.
  • Follow-up the letter of solidarity, “Toward the Protection of Diversity in Iraq and the Preservation of Cultural Heritage and National Identity,” that was addressed to the Iraqi Council of Representative by the Civil Initiatives of the NGOs.
  • Build the capacity of the local media, especially in subjects related to peace journalism.
  • Support youth in Nineveh in establishing specific platforms, such as unions, to address their needs, organise young workers, and to foster young leadership skills.

To the international community:

  • The international community should work together with the government and civil society organisations to ensure effective rule of law in Nineveh.
  • The UN Country Team and the Iraq political mission should commit their ongoing support to actively monitoring and reporting any future violations against civilians in Nineveh.
  • The UN should develop transparency and accountability mechanisms that meet the exceptional circumstances of corruption and conflict in Iraq.
  • For a period of time, stop enforcing distinctions against Ba’ath Party members, extremist clerics, and tribal leaders affiliated with al-Qaida, instead include them in peace talks (excluding the offenders and the parties and individuals who were involved in direct crimes).

To the local authorities in Nineveh:

  • Initiate capacity building programs to improve communication, dialogue, and conflict transformation/management skills for local authority officials.
  • Raise awareness among grassroots groups in cooperation with tribal and religious leaders.
  • Local authority officials have to work and act more as an independent party to serve community interests and needs without discrimination.

To the Nineveh community leaders:

  • Promote individual responsibilities. Nineveh moderate tribal and religious leaders should increase their efforts in developing a sense of citizenship and patriotism among Nineveh society through their statements and speeches.
  • Urge all the armed groups, political parties, and the National Army to refrain from attacking schools, infrastructure, healthcare centres, and households.
  • Moderate tribal leaders and clerics have to call on extremists to start a dialogue for peace and they should work as mediators.
  • Cooperate with the government to dissolve all militias.
  • Clarify religious leader statements and speeches, especially during Friday prayers, to avoid misunderstanding and misreading by other religious groups.

Source: Iraqui-Al Amal Association.