Christian Minorities and the Struggle for Nineveh: The Assyrian Democratic Movement in Iraq and the Nineveh Plains Protection Units

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Virginia Tech


Northern Iraq's Christians are a second-order minority. That is, they are a minority within a minority. They occupy a tenuous position between the Arab-dominated central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. All Christians in northern Iraq desire to remain in their historic homelands. Yet efforts to advance a common political goal have been rare. Differences within the Iraqi Christian community center on three interrelated points: 1) the adoption and advancement of the Assyrian ethno-nationalist identity; 2) the struggle for leadership of the community between secular parties and church officials; and 3) the securing of group rights through either Baghdad or Erbil, which is typified by the debate over a province for minorities in the Nineveh Plain. The Islamic State's invasion in June 2014 made this dynamic even more complex.

This dissertation explores how a second-order minority mobilized to protect its homelands during state breakdown and state recalibration. It examines how an Iraqi Christian political party, the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), responded to the rise and spread of the Islamic State. More specifically, it analyzes the ADM's creation of a self-defense force, the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU), and how the party positioned itself for the post-conflict state. Data generated through ethnographic fieldwork, combined with existing primary and secondary sources, reveals a detailed process whereby security threats shaped mobilization. Notions of historic homelands and distrust of both the central government and KRG were the central factors shaping this outcome.

The ADM created the NPU to liberate occupied lands. More importantly, the NPU was created to ensure Christians retained a place in their historic homelands after the Islamic State was evicted. The use of the name "Nineveh Plains Protection Units" held strategic importance. The binding principle of the NPU was an indigenous-based attachment to the Nineveh Plain, including the right to defend it, and Christianity in Iraq. Both elements captured the common threads among all Iraqi Christians and the claim they make on the state. The ADM, therefore, was particularly attuned to Iraq's pre-Islamic ancient Mesopotamian heritage. This ironically echoed earlier efforts by the Ba'ath regime to instill a Mesopotamian identity among citizens by glorifying a common Assyrian and Babylonian heritage all could presumably share.

Second-order minority status meant the ADM had to eventually align with either Baghdad or Erbil. The ADM chose Baghdad, effectively balancing against ISIS and the KRG in the Nineveh Plain. Baghdad proved a willing partner for a time. The ADM, however, was left alone to navigate the Nineveh Plain's position in the September 2017 Kurdistan referendum on independence.



Second-order minorities, self-determination, collective action, Iraq, civil war, mobilization, homeland, Assyrians