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Reflections on a Year in Northern Iraq: An Interview with Bradley Brincka.

Bradley Brincka is a former US Army officer who previously worked with Yazda, a Yazidi NGO in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2016 as well as the Free Burma Rangers in Mosul from January to May 2017. During that time, he witnessed the aftermath of the Yazidi genocide and the re-emergence of old political competition in northern Iraq.

Free Burma Rangers shot to international prominence during the battle to liberate Daesh’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, being filmed rescuing wounded civilians under fire. From Brincka’s vantage point, he was uniquely positioned to observe some of the complex dynamics in northern Iraq as the conflict drew to a bloody end. We were interested in interviewing him not only because of his NGO work, but because of his former military experience and travels with Iraq’s main armored division, the 9th, in the Mosul battle. He is currently majoring in Arabic at Ohio State University in the US.

Brincka: Living in Iraq for a year was an eye-opening experience for me in many ways. It’s unfortunate that after so many years of Iraq holding center stage in American policy debates, most of us know very little about its culture or people. A lot of contemporary Western literature on Iraq tends to either be very broad in scope or focus heavily on foreigners; general histories or books covering the Iraq War, soldier memoirs, etc. So without going there or seeking out immigrants in the diaspora, it’s hard to get a real sense of the culture.

For me personally, that turned out to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of living in Iraq; getting to know average Iraqis as ordinary human beings, rather than just abstractions one reads about in the news. In almost all cases, I found Iraqis to be an affable and gracious people; smiling, fun-loving and curious. If you are a foreigner who shows a genuine interest in getting to know them and their culture, they are thrilled. Their hospitality is overwhelming, and they aren’t shy to broach any subject with you.

This was especially the case with Iraqi soldiers I had the pleasure of working with. Given the often tragic personal histories that so many of them bear, it’s all the more remarkable that they exhibit such an outwardly kind and cheerful demeanor. One soldier I became close to had lost an older brother under Saddam’s regime and later, his sister was killed by insurgents during the Iraq War. But life for him continued; he was an informant against Al Qaeda as a teenager and went on to join the Iraqi Army and fight in every major military campaign since 2006.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that for many Iraqis like him, they’ve known nothing but war their entire lives. Yet in spite of all that, they carry themselves with a real sense of stoicism and humor. Every person you meet over there has this unique story to tell whether it’s about Daesh, Saddam, or the Iraq war—what they would consider a mundane life would be something extraordinary for any of us who grew up in the West.

The Free Burma Rangers, if I am not mistaken, are a faith-based organization. Did you have any personal or ideological beliefs that made you want to join?

Brincka: I did not join FBR out of any sense of religious motivation. I had originally gone to work to Iraq as a researcher with the Yazdi NGO, Yazda, in Kurdistan. I worked on the genocide documentation for six months there. After our work was shuttered by the KRG in early 2017, I contemplated leaving the country. It was only by chance that I was put in touch with FBR by a translator friend who worked for them.

The motivations of volunteers at FBR ran the gamut; the founder Dave Eubank for instance, is deeply religious and described his work in Iraq as a kind of sacred calling to assist the most destitute. He’s a larger-than-life personality with an even more colorful background; he was raised by missionary parents in Thailand, speaks Thai fluently, was a Green Beret for many years, and built a humanitarian organization from scratch to support ethnic minorities targeted by the military junta in the jungles of Burma (hence the organization’s name).

In 2014, a friend suggested that his humanitarian model could be very useful in a place like Iraq, and soon after, he was in Kurdistan, providing medical support to the Peshmerga in Sinjar and Bashiqa. And whenever there were lulls in the fighting, his organization would build playgrounds, distribute food and fuel, and put on live performances for children.

In late 2016, FBR’s mission seemed like it had reached its natural end after Bashiqa was liberated. But an Iraqi Army general in 9th Armored Division had heard of the organization’s work, and he wanted them to accompany his unit during the Mosul Offensive.

Dave was open to anyone working with FBR so long as their heart was in the right place. A lot of other volunteers, myself included, were former military of varying religious backgrounds. Our translators were Sunni Kurds and Yazidis and our medics were ethnic Karen and Kachin from Burma, so it was a very diverse mix of people. Everyone had their own personal reasons for being there. For myself, I saw it as a unique opportunity to work with Iraqi Arabs and contribute in some small way to the humanitarian effort in Mosul.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) back in 2008 were estimated to have a 75-25 “tooth to tail” ratio (fighting men/tooth to supply and support personnel/tail). So, they could overwhelmingly get a lot of men into the fight. Very few would be involved in support. It’s generally thought that this is because it takes a long time to generate a strong officer corps for logistical capacity, quite complex planning, especially over longer distance operations, and Iraq didn’t have that time post 2003. With your experience in the U.S. Army, the tooth to tail ratio is the other extreme. So what did you see from the 9th IA, compared to 2008, were things vastly different?

Brincka: It’s difficult to compare, having never observed the pre-2017 Iraqi Army. I suspect though that the 75-25 ratio has remained roughly constant. In many respects, the IA was surprisingly well-supplied; 9th Division had a large fleet of armor, the soldiers were well-armed (all American-issued M-16s), mortar crews fired consistently, and the units always had enough ammunition for sustained combat. What’s more, they kept their vehicles in relatively good fighting shape which is no small feat. I am a tanker by training, and I know how complex machines like tanks can just fall apart on their own without rigorous care. That’s not to say that an American tank crew wouldn’t balk at the Iraqis’ maintenance procedures, but at the end of the day, the armor worked and the guns fired when they were needed.

In other respects, the paucity of individual equipment for regular troops was startling. Soldiers wore a hodgepodge of uniforms, some had boots that they’d bought on their own, while others went into combat with sneakers or God forbid, even flip-flops. Some soldiers wore body armor, and others did without it. (It was rare to see anyone wear a helmet.)

How much of this is attributable to a lackluster supply system versus how much of it is just institutionally ingrained is hard to say, although I lean towards believing it’s more the latter. The Iraqi Army has a very different concept of campaign essentials than the US Army. American combat troops, for all the funding and logistical support, are accustomed to a certain kind of Spartan austerity in the field; tasteless rations, sleeping in the elements, and rigid uniform standards. The IA couldn’t have cast a stronger contrast. They ate three cooked meals a day regardless of the operational pace, slept inside buildings, paused movement for tea breaks and hookah, and lugged generators around to always keep their cell phones charged.

Occasionally, civilians in the liberated areas would gift goats and other livestock to the troops, so needless to say, we always ate well with the IA. And soldiers who were so inclined, regardless of piety, drank liquor liberally, if discretely near the front. I found all these odd luxuries alarming at first, but later found them endearing. It was as if not even the horrors of combat could keep them from engaging in daily routines they were accustomed to in peacetime.

Some of what you describe reminds me of what US advisers often called it “Iraqi good enough,” and I often wondered if this was a way of avoiding uncomfortable truths to hit the deadline of having units “ready” so the U.S. could leave at the end of December 2011. In retrospect, your account suggests to me that the popular view of the Iraqi army collapsing completely in 2014 (and at least for much of northern Iraq, it was a multi-division collapse) is a little misleading. Large elements of the IA, like the 9th and at least elements of the 7th, did not fall back.

And actually, the army went back into the fight with the PMU relatively quickly for a “collapsed” force. The 9th were deployed with the Abbas Combat Division, correct? Did you think there was respect for the IA?

Brincka: The PMU participation was mostly limited to the peripheries of Mosul, especially in the rural mountainous areas west of the city. 9th Division worked jointly with the Abbas Combat Division on several occasions to clear places like Sehaji, Tel Kaysoumah, Badoush and the Atshana mountain range. Afterwards, the PMU typically acted as rearguard elements in the liberated villages as the IA pushed forward.

There was a fairly noticeable difference between the IA and PMU. The latter were not as well-armed; old Soviet weapons, pickup trucks, and vehicles that looked like they were out of a Mad Max movie. The regular soldiers interacted in a friendly manner with them, even if some of the IA officers regarded the PMU as undisciplined and wild.

During the campaign, were you aware of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) being a problem? There was concern because Daesh had got hold of these weapons from the Iraqi army in 2014, the Syrian army and Syrian rebel groups that had been supplied TOWs, Kornets and other ATGMs that are lethal to modern tanks. This could have been be a tank massacre before they even got to Mosul. Was there a lot of discussion about that?

Brincka: The fear of ATMGs was a constant preoccupation for commanders during the Mosul Offensive and one not without justification. Shortly after East Mosul was liberated in 2017, we saw the aftermath of an ATGM strike outside the Rashidya suburb. Daesh had fired a missile from a distance of several kilometers across the Tigris and blown a parked T-54 to pieces. Luckily the crew was dismounted at the time, but the incident showed just how vulnerable armor was to well-placed missiles. That fear had a real effect on the psyche of the commanders. It all contributed to a certain hesitancy in the following months, where our brigade (36th) was very cautious in how it employed its tanks in the open, especially the American Abrams.

In practical terms though, VBIEDs were a much bigger threat to 9th Division’s tanks than anything else. They could emerge from anywhere and do tremendous damage to vehicles and infantry. In December of 2016, the Division suffered its worst losses of the battle at Salam Hospital in East Mosul, where 36th brigade had been surrounded by Daesh for two days and been nearly overwhelmed by the waves of VBIEDs. I visited the site two months after the battle, and even then, it still looked like a graveyard; bomb craters, mangled pieces of tanks, and bullet holes covering every inch of the buildings. 9th Division had suffered upwards of eighty casualties there, and the survivors of siege spoke of it in apocalyptic terms.

So there was no question that was an ambush and then after, the coalition hit the area with air strikes. I spoke with a journalist, who spoke with a member of staff at the hospital who said it was an airstrike first, although footage posted by Daesh clearly showed them in control of the area following the ambush. I thought the journalist’s source was suspect, in suggesting that a member of hospital staff could survive two major firefights, multiple car bombings, the takeover of the area by Daesh and coalition air strikes. The hospital staff member’s account contradicted Daesh’s footage of the ambush area which showed only military casualties and soldier accounts describing the ambush.

Brincka: One of the reasons for the prolonged encirclement was due to confusion between the Iraqis and the Coalition. To the Americans’ ears, the Iraqis were calling for airstrikes on a hospital in an urban area. This was just a little over a year after the US mistakenly bombed a Doctor’s Without Borders clinic in Afghanistan, so there was a lot of reticence at first. The airstrikes came eventually and provided the necessary cover for the brigade to extract itself, but it was a delay that probably cost lives, and there was still residual bitterness about the affair among the Iraqi officers.

As a tanker, how did you feel about the performance of the 9th division?

Brincka: It was fascinating to compare their tactics to ours. U.S. doctrine preaches speed; don’t worry about digging in, don’t worry about static positions. It’s all about fire and maneuver and encirclement to disrupt and demoralize the enemy.

The Iraqi approach has much more in common with Soviet doctrine. 9th Division is a diverse mix of Russian and American hardware, and when a brigade would assault a town or village, the vehicles would all assemble on a large line and move forward in a kind of sweeping motion. If it was a joint-operation, the PMU infantry would run right behind the tanks. In the rural areas especially, they weren’t trying to encircle Daesh or even pursue them after the battle. The intent was to deny them terrain and box them into an increasingly smaller area.

Like that scene in that movie, Fury, when the Shermans are advancing in a line with the infantry behind?

Exactly like that.

What was the Iraqi perception of the M1A1 compared to the Russian-designed T-54, T-72?

Brincka: The M1A1 Abrams was held in very high regard. As far as the commanders were concerned, the M1A1 was their most important tool, so they committed them carefully. When the fighting was static, the Abrams was often held back a little bit, especially if the commanders were worried about ATGMs. It was more

common for the BMPs, T-54s, and T-72s to take the lead in movement and static defense. Given their expense, limited numbers, and attrition throughout the battle, the Iraqis would have considered it reckless to expose the Abrams any more than it had to be.

Talking about your experiences with the different communities in Iraq. You spoke with Yazidis who felt bitter about the Peshmerga and had decided to join the Lalish, Khocho battalions in the PMU. How do you feel about the popular “triangular” Sunni-Shia-Kurd view of Iraq?

Brincka: I would say my view of Iraqi society before living there mirrored that of many other Westerners; namely that the country is neatly divided between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia. I don’t think it’s a particularly useful way of looking at the country anymore. It ignores the internal divisions that exist within these communities and also ignores the multitude of other ethnic and religious minorities, each with their own complex relationship to the governments and to each other.

A brief exposure to the society quickly disabuses you of the notion that any of these groups are monolithic in their views. It’s like anywhere else; people of the same ethnicity or sect don’t all think alike, and they have competing motivations and ideologies. This was especially apparent while working in Kurdistan, where the political views of Kurds really vary. Just to name a few; there are nationalists who want independence from Iraq, Kurds who want to remain part of Iraq, and supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who reject the notion of a nation-state altogether. All of these views find purchase across a wide spectrum in the same society.

A similar dynamic plays out with other ethnic groups as well. In the disputed Sinjar district, which was a KDP stronghold before 2014, many Yazidis became disillusioned by the KRG’s governance after the failure of the Peshmerga to defend them from Daesh and the resulting genocide. When the Peshmerga did return to Sinjar, they found a Yazidi community largely ambivalent, if not hostile to them, and with allegiances split between the KDP, PKK, and PMU.

One can find similar divisions within the Assyrian, Arab, and Shabak communities in the KRG and its sphere of influence. The reality on the ground is always more complex than what one reads about on the news. In the case of the Kurds, the foreign ignorance partly stems from poor reporting in which news agencies often confuse the names of various Kurdish factions and militias (The Peshmerga and YPG being used interchangeably in reporting on Syria and Iraq for instance).

There is a real disconnect between outside perceptions of Kurdistan and reality. For various reasons; partly romanticism I think, it has been spared the same cynicism that Westerners apply to surrounding societies and governments. But Kurdish politics are no less susceptible to malfeasance, authoritarianism, and violent division than their Arab counterparts. In the 1990s, the KDP and PUK fought a brutal civil war against each other. Lumping all Kurdish [or Arab] groups together from Iraq, Turkey, and Syria is unhelpful in understanding the social and political dynamics, and at the policy-making level, can only lead to confusion.

It is as true in Kurdistan as it is anywhere in Iraq that the more you learn about the culture and politics, the more you realize you don’t know. Better to always be skeptical whenever a self-proclaimed expert says that “The Kurds think x” or the “Arabs believe y.”

Expert is a term thrown around a lot but Iraq does seem like a country where you can say there are very, very few people who are genuine experts.

In UK, US, there have been debates in the past about directly arming Kurds and in US, talk of directly helping Christians with aid. And when you look at the Middle East there is a long history of this going terribly wrong. In most cases, I feel this creates more division and more communal tension. As much as I am concerned about minorities in Iraq, I feel that to directly support that community, could make them more vulnerable. And I get the feeling from the FBR that they were inter-faith in their outlook. What do you think?

Brincka: There is a pretty long history in Iraq of Western powers relying on minority groups to advance their strategic interests. The British depended on Assyrian Levies during its colonial administration. And yet this patronage did not prevent the mass killings of the Semele Massacre in 1933. If anything, the British reliance on Assyrians made it that much easier for the Arab and Kurdish perpetrators to paint the Assyrians as collaborators and fifth columnists.

Similarly, during the Iraq War, Yazidis signed up in large numbers to serve as interpreters for Coalition forces. And yet not even the large presence of American troops could prevent the widespread pogroms carried out against Yazidis by Al Qaeda in 2007 and afterwards, to say nothing of the genocide in 2014. The sad reality is that these relationships are rarely reciprocal in nature. However sterling the contribution might be by the minority to the dominant power, it is not a guarantee of protection. If anything, temporary patronage without long-term support exposes these groups to more danger.

I gathered though in speaking with Assyrians in the Nineveh Plains that their desire was emphatically not to become mere protectorates of Western military power. Instead, they wanted to be given the resources and political freedom to protect their communities themselves without having to rely wholly on either the Peshmerga or Iraqi Army. The Nineveh Plains Protection Units, an Assyrian force in villages north and east of Mosul, is a positive model in this respect. They’ve received salaries through the PMU, specialized training through the US military, and worked in tandem with the Iraqi Army to liberate their historic villages during the Mosul Offensive. And they have done all this while being staffed entirely from locals and not being subordinated to external non-Assyrian parties. Unfortunately, fierce political competition in Sinjar doomed similar attempts amongst the Yazidis. And it remains to be seen whether the ascendant Yazidi PMU battalions will be durable, long-term solution in the wake of the Peshmerga’s eviction last fall.

With respect to non-military aid, I don’t think it’s necessarily inappropriate to prioritize support to communities most devastated by ethnic cleansing and genocide. It is a popular and easy proposal to make, but it is more difficult to do than proponents would imagine. Simply giving more money to either the Iraqi or Kurdistan government, or for that matter the UN to spend on minority communities, is not a useful strategy. At the same time, it’s not something that policymakers need to reinvent the wheel on either. There already exist a number of very effective NGOs in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region that provide services and aid to affected communities. If foreign governments do wish to prioritize these groups, their money would be best spent allocating funds to these humanitarian organizations; ones which are made up of members from the same community and who would know best how to apply them.

The important thing for governments would be to first articulate exactly what it is they mean when they say they want to support this or that community. Does it mean the foreign government will prioritize members from specific communities for asylum or immigration? Does it mean the government will directly sponsor reconstruction of infrastructure and permanent housing for these communities? Does it mean the government will provide direct logistical support for organic community protection forces? All of these proposals have their merits, but anything less specific is just playing to a political base and setting up these communities for disappointment when effectual support is not forthcoming.

Iraqis from many different communities were fighting a uniquely terrible organization. We might compare Daesh to the Khmer Rouge or the Nazis. What effect did that have on these different communities, do you think that kind of enemy had a unifying effect?

Brincka: When I was a young officer in the US Army, I served with a lot of older soldiers who had done tours in Iraq during the war. I imbibed from them a very negative view of the Iraqi Army and of the Arab soldier in general. The crisis in the summer of 2014 only reinforced my view that the Iraqi Security Forces were hopelessly incompetent and sectarian. I still harbored those biases when I began working with 9th Division, but at the same time, I was open to having my mind changed in case the soldiers proved me wrong. To my surprise, they really did.

On the first day in the field, I met the commander of 36th Brigade, who was himself a Sunni, leading mostly Shia soldiers. He was highly-respected by his troops to the point of being adored. Among the enlisted soldiers, it was a point of pride for them that they could point out the ethnic and religious differences among themselves. And when 9th Division liberated the Assyrian village of Tel Keppe, soldiers climbed the church towers to ring the bells, and they took great care in returning crosses back to their place that had been discarded on the ground by Daesh.

Whatever sectarian struggles there were in the political arena in Baghdad, the differences mattered much less at the frontlines. Often the answer I received when asking soldiers about their sectarian identity was for them to dismiss the question; “I am just Muslim” or “I am Iraqi.” It might sound clichéd, but there was a real transcending unity of purpose that animated them that went beyond words. I saw Iraqi soldiers of various backgrounds and religions, put their lives on the line, and sometimes give their lives to protect people, either other soldiers or civilians of a different sect.

I think the shared ordeal of Iraqis’ war against Daesh does have the potential to be a long-lasting unifying experience for the country. That’s not to say that it won’t lessen or be squandered by future events. But Iraqis can and do take pride in the fact that their country has won existential conflict against a brutal organization; not a war of aggression or a war in service of a dictator, but one that protected the very existence of their country.

I think anyone familiar with the events prior to 2014 would be surprised to see how closely some communities have come together. We have had instances of inter-communal violence of course, some of it very troubling, but much, much less than what people expected, given how appalling Daesh and thankfully, no repeat of the 2005-2008 period, which many feared. But interestingly, what we have seen recently is intra-sect violence, for example, some communities in Nineweh, Anbar and elsewhere, have been reportedly killing Daesh suspects and blocking returnees. And this can create its own problems within the Sunni tribal system.

Brincka: Retribution killings were a very real concern and something we saw evidence of. When I left Mosul for the last time, we came upon dozen or so bodies left on the side of Baghdad-Mosul Highway. The dead men all had their hands tied behind their backs and had been shot execution-style very recently. We inquired about it with local PMU checkpoint not far away, and they seemed genuinely surprised to hear about it and wanted to go investigate.

One of the PMU soldiers said something interesting, which was that local Arabs from Hamam al-Alil had been allegedly targeting suspected Daesh collaborators in the weeks before. An outsider might assume the Iraqi Army or PMU was responsible for the extrajudicial killings, which was possible, but it can’t be understated how much desire there was for score-settling by locals in the wake of Daesh’s eviction from these areas. Given the brutality of the caliphate’s rule, there were a lot of grudges left-over amongst the locals; grievances that soldiers from the south would not be as perceptive to and which they would be reluctant to intervene in. It’s likely something that will continue to happen in the near future.

What are your memories of the Yazidi community?

Brincka: Until living amongst them, I did not realize the extent to which the question of ethnicity plays in the Yazidi community. If you speak to Yazidis from Syria or Turkey, you’ll find that they are historically much more integrated into those countries’ Kurdish communities and often identity as Kurdish. But in Iraq, the issue of identity is more complex and controversial. Yazidis from Sinjar especially regard themselves overwhelmingly as an ethnic group distinct from Kurds or Arabs; even more so in the aftermath of the genocide when they were explicitly targeted for their religion.

Far from being an academic issue, the question of ethnicity has far-reaching implications. Since 2003 and even before, the KRG has regarded Sinjar as part of Kurdistan and the Yazidis as fellow Kurds. But many Yazidis chafe at this find the latter claim particularly offensive. They often display much more political affinity for the government in Baghdad than they do Erbil. They will counter any claims to the contrary that while their language is a dialect of Kurdish, their ethnicity is separate. Doubly so with Yazdis from Bashiqa and Bahzani in the Nineveh Plains, whose first language is Arabic rather than Kurdish.

The feeling of ethnic separateness is further exacerbated by religious bigotry that they routinely face in Kurdistan. To give a few examples, one of the Yazidi women on our staff in Duhok came in very upset one day. She had just come from university, where her teacher was complaining about her being one of the only women in class to not wear a veil. To make matters worse, the teacher had ranted about how Yazidis were unclean devil-worshipers (an old libel against them) and that genocide by Daesh had been a kind of just punishment for them.

I heard similar anecdotes a lot actually. Another colleague spoke of being present in the market when an elderly woman complained that her two sons in the Peshmerga had been killed in Sinjar. The woman was upset that her sons had died defending “devil worshipers” against “fellow Muslims” (Daesh).

Most Yazidis living in Kurdistan could share stories like these. It’s in large part why the claims of being fellow Kurds rings hollow to them. In practice, the conservative religious elements within society do not regard them as equals, so it is really no surprise that that the Yazidis would see themselves as apart.

Is it fair to say that some Yazidis thought of the Peshmerga as occupiers in Sinjar?

Brincka: More so after 2014. KDP control of the district was near-total before the invasion by Daesh that year. The PUK had little to no footprint there, nor did the PKK or the Iraqi government for that matter. But the sudden abandonment of Sinjar by the KDP meant that the party could never reassert its authority the same way again.

The political and military vacuum created by the withdrawal opened the door for other groups to fill the void. The PKK, which previously had no influence in Sinjar, was the only ground force to come to the defense of the Yazidis that summer. The ideology of Abdullah Ocalan may have been alien to the Yazidi culture, but the moral legitimacy the PKK won in Sinjar was profound. They saved the lives of tens of thousands of stranded Yazidis.

This turn of events left the KDP Peshmerga in an awkward position when they returned to norther Sinjar later that year, because they were now widely regarded as being responsible for the catastrophe to begin with. In the long run, the KDP’s withdrawal was fatal to its own ambitions in Sinjar, as most strongly evidenced by the Baghdad’s reassertion of federal control after the Kurdistan Referendum.

Do any of the minorities you have spoken to feel like there has been a tug of war over their loyalties?

Brincka: Nowadays, I’d say Yazidis in Sinjar look more favorably upon the central government than they do the KRG. A subset of them would go so far as to call themselves Iraqi nationalists who harbor a deep animosity to the KDP in particular. But the vast majority of Yazidis are resigned and cynical. To those living in IDP camps for four years, it matters very little in practical terms whether the Iraqi or Kurdish flag is flying above their still-destroyed homes and villages. Most of them, especially the youth, don’t see a future for themselves in Iraq. They’ve seen the success of their relatives in the Diaspora and believe staying where they are at is a dead end.

Would you say it is it a similar situation in the Christian community? There are the Babylon Brigades and the NPU, different Christian groups that had arguably different objectives for example.

Brincka: Like in Sinjar, the Assyrians of the Nineveh Plains have similarly seen their homeland be the site of stiff political competition between Baghdad and Erbil. At the present, the territory is roughly divided in half between KRG and Federal control. The situation is further complicated by the presence of an array of different militias in the area, each seeking legitimacy from the wider Assyrian population. There is the NPU as I mentioned as well as the smaller Nineveh Plains Forces (NPF), which receives patronage from the KRG and operates under the Peshmerga’s chain of command.

The Babylon Brigades, which belongs to the PMU is another group competing for legitimacy in the Nineveh Plains. By contrast to the other security forces though, they are comprised almost entirely of non-local Arabs and Shabaks rather than Assyrians. In the summer of 2017, they engaged in a small clash with the NPU, during which they stole weapons and artifacts from the city of Bakhdida. After an investigation, the Babylon Brigades were barred from operating in the district, although they still maintain a presence in other towns around the Nineveh Plains.

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