Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Christians flee Mosul, and other news from Iraq

It's been a tough week for Iraq's Christian minority. A wave of attacks that killed more than a dozen people last week have now prompted more than 8,000 Christians to flee the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Mosul is the home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, but times have been tough for Iraq's nearly one million Christians since the start of the war in 2003. It's estimated that a third have fled the country in the past five years, and in March of this year the Archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and murdered. Before the war began, the Christians and Muslims of Mosul had lived together peacefully for centuries.

Not surprisingly, the US/UK coalition forces are blaming the recent attacks against the Christian population in Mosul on al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Coalition said that al-Qaeda forces that have been driven from other parts of Iraq have set up operations in Mosul, the only city in Iraq where al-Qaeda is still operating freely (they say).

But at least one report blames Iraq's Kurds for the recent attacks. An Iraqi member of parliament from Mosul, Osama al-Najifi, said that the peshmerga (the Kurdish militia) is responsible for the killings, and that the attacks were being done to drive the Christian population from Mosul to swing the demographics of the city more in the Kurds favor.

Tensions have been growing between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq over claims of land and the country's oil reserves. The biggest hotspot has been the northern city of Kirkuk. Historically, the Kurds claim Kirkuk as theirs, but during his reign, Saddam Hussein moved tens of thousands of Arab Iraqis into the city, trying to break Kurdish influence over the place. The Kirkuk region is home to a sizable chunk of Iraq's oil reserves, so both the Arab Iraqis and Kurds want to control it. And just to make things more complicated, there is also a population of Iraqi Turkmen who also call Kirkuk home.

If a report from the Guardian is correct though, the Iraqis will have to solve these problems without the help of the Americans after 2011.

A deadline for the withdrawal of coalition forces by the end of 2011 is said to be a key part of a draft "Status of Forces" agreement between the US, UK and Iraq. All sides have to agree to a SOF by the end of the year when the UN mandate that authorized the 2003 invasion expires. Once that ends, assuming there is no new SOF, the coalition forces technically would have no legal grounds to remain in Iraq.

The Iraqi government has been standing fast in their negotiations with the coalition forces, and according to the Guardian report, has gotten some big concessions. Off-duty troops who commit crimes would face punishment under the Iraqi system, according to the draft. Usually an SOF only allows American personnel to be prosecuted by the US military, no matter where or when they are alleged to have committed crimes (for example, an off-duty soldier assaulting a civilian, at an off-base bar would still be prosecuted by a US military court (if at all) and not by local authorities) the Iraq SOF then would be quite a departure from the norm. Another provision would bar US forces from holding Iraqi citizens without charging them with crimes under Iraqi law. Right now it's estimated that the US is detaining 18,000 Iraqis not charged with any crimes.

If the Guardian is right on the details, the Iraq SOF contains a lot of concessions that the US previously refused to make. Whether it's the final version though, and if the Iraqis will even agree to it, concessions and all, remains to be seen.
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