If anyone imagined that the militia of the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate would be satisfied when it pushed all the Christians and Shiites from the city of Mosul, think again.
According to the Fides news agency, Islamic State militants launched a mortar attack against the village of Tilkif in an attempt to break into one of the towns in the Nineveh Plain, where Mosul families found refuge.
"The attack started from a village controlled by jihadists,” Father Paul Thabit Mekko, a Chaldean priest, told Fides, “but was rejected by the Kurdish Peshmerga troops. In the night, panic had driven dozens of Christian families to flee to Dohuk, but the Kurdish soldiers who were controlling a checkpoint told them that the situation was under control and could return home."
Both towns lie north of Mosul, where an ultimatum from the Islamic State last wee--to convert to Islam or die--left the ancient city devoid of Christians.
The Peshmerga are known to be fierce troops, fighting for a Kurdish independence movement in the north of Iraq.
The episode highlights the uncertainty that hangs over the whole area, as the Fides report put it: on the one hand, the attack represents proof that the militia of the Islamic Caliphate are not content with controlling Mosul and would like to extend control over the Nineveh Plain.
But the reaction of the Peshmerga, notes Father Thabit Mekko, confirms that the Kurds are determined to protect this area from jihadist militants.
“Here, now, there are only Kurdish military forces that ensure the safety of the population," he said.
While the United Nations has expressed deep concern about a genocide of Christians in the region, Christians in the country cannot wait for help from the international community. Senior U.S. officials and lawmakers butted heads Wednesday over the American response to Iraq's expanding Sunni insurgency, with Republicans saying drone strikes should have been authorized months ago and even Democrats questioning the Obama administration's commitment to holding the fractured country together, AP reported today.
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the State Department's Brett McGurk and Defense Department's Elissa Slotkin said the administration was focused on improving U.S. intelligence, securing American personnel and property, guiding Iraq toward a new, more inclusive government and helping its forces strike back against the al-Qaida offshoot that has seized much of the country.
The U.S. is now conducting about 50 intelligence sorties over Iraq a day, they said, from about one flight a month a few months ago. Both stressed they saw no military solution to patching up Iraq's political and ethnic divisions or to peeling off moderate Sunnis from the Islamic State. Republicans and Democrats accepted that point, but questioned why the administration wasn't doing more.
Amid all the internal strife, Iraq's Kurds have pushed into disputed territory including the oil-rich area of Kirkuk and moved closer to a decades-old dream of independence. The U.S. has been trying to keep Iraq whole. Democrats and Republicans wondered why.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the panel, questioned why the Kurds as a distinct people aren't entitled to the same rights of self-determination the Palestinians enjoy. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, a Republican, said the United States shouldn't be limited by Iraqi borders drawn up by the British Empire a century ago. He suggested an independent Kurdistan and a sovereign Baluchistan ought to be considered.
The Defense Department's Slotkin said a strong, capable government in Baghdad — and not an Iraq divided into smaller countries — posed the best defense against the extremist insurgency. She implied that what lawmakers proposed might mean the abandonment of territories currently controlled by the Islamic State. "Who's in charge of that western and north part of Iraq in that model?" she asked.
In Iraq yesterday, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako and other Church leaders called on the Iraqi government to ensure "necessary protection" for Christians and other minorities, provide "financial support to displaced people who have lost everything," pay the wages of state employees "immediately," compensate those who have suffered material losses and ensure continuity in the provision of housing and social services and education for families who may have to spend a long time away from their homes.
This appeal was issued after a meeting Patriarch Sako had with Chaldean, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic and Armenian bishops Tuesday in Ankawa (a suburb of Erbil).
The bishops also invited "people of conscience in Iraq and around the world" to put pressure on militants to stop "the destruction of churches and monasteries, manuscripts, relics and all the Christian heritage, priceless Iraqi and international heritage.
That destruction has already been extensive, according to a report issued today by the Christian Aid Program of Northern Iraq, or CAPNI. In it, Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana says that all churches and monasteries in Mosul—about 30—have been are seized by ISIS. Crosses and crucifixes have been removed from all of them. Many of the buildings have been burned, destroyed and looted. Others are being used as ISIS centers. Mar Ephraim Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in eastern part of Mosul has been converted into a mosque.
In addition, he confirmed earlier reports that Sunni, Shiite and Christian tombs and shrines have been destroyed, including the tomb of the prophet Jonah.
Father Youkhana said that in addition to the bishops’ meeting in Erbil, there was also a meeting of Christian political parties, who planned to go to the UN office in Ankawa today to demand that the international community protect Iraqi Christians.
He said a solution to the current crisis can only be achieved through reviewing and restructuring Iraq. It’s important, he added, to convince Christians to say.
“According to a majority of Iraqi Christian politicians and people, the starting point is to grant the province (governorate) status for Nineveh Plain where the intensive Christian, Yezedian and Shabak demography exists.”
Father Youkhana also reported on the situation in Qaraqosh (Hamdaniya), where 97% of the 45,000-50,000 residents are Christians. ISIS tried to take over this town too, but the Peshmerga militia fought them off.
Still, Hamdaniya and other nearby villages are suffering from a lack of electricity, water and medicines, thanks to ISIS. The towns were connected to Mosul's electric grid and a water pipeline from Salamiya , but ISIS has cut them off from those. The towns are relying on wells and generators, but the cost of diesel is high.
“Of course, ISIS is not providing the hospital of Hamdaniya with medicines,” Father Youkhana said. “There is a huge shortage and great need for medicines.”
The priest predicts that the Peshmerga and the Iraqi military will keep ISIS from expanding its control to the Nineveh Plain. In addition, he said, the region is not Arab or Sunni and therefore will not accept or cooperate with ISIS.