Proxies, Pawns, and Spoilers: How Pro-Iranian Elements in Iraq use Christians and What that many Mean for Democracy

27 March 2024, 1151 EDT

On February 21, the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq ruled on a set of cases pertaining to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) electoral law. The Court declared that the 11 parliamentary reserved seats for minorities were unconstitutional. So too was the KRG’s single electoral district model. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) officials and their opposition supporters hailed the move. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) rejected the decisions. Washington dithered, emphasizing that the upcoming Kurdish elections should be free, fair, and timely.

The Court’s decision is not actually about Christians—and neither were the responses by the KDP and PUK. The decision reflects the country’s pro-Iranian elements attempt to use Christians and other minorities as pawns in a powerplay between the autonomous Kurdistan Region, dominated by the KDP, and the federal government in Baghdad.

The situation facing Christians in Iraq is dire. Sectarianism and extremism are on the rise. Washington needs a united and stable KRG in the fight against both and Iranian expansionism. But political paralysis grips Erbil and tensions between the KRG and Baghdad get worse every day. Washington’s need for a strategic partner need not override its stated foreign policy objectives of promoting pluralism and democracy. In fact, Iraq’s Christians may be the key to accomplishing both.

The Christians of Northern Iraq

Christians have lived in northern Iraq for millennia. In modern times they concentrated east of Mosul in the Nineveh Plains, which lies in the heart of Iraq’s resource rich disputed territories. Kurds claims this land as part of their historical homeland. In the 1970s and 1980s the Ba’ath Party sought to Arabize the region.

Christians desire to remain in their historic homelands. Yet political unification in pursuit of this goal and others is rare due to intragroup friction over three issues: the adoption and acceptance of an ethnic Assyrian identity before a sectarian one, the battle for political leadership of the community between clergy and secular leaders, and whether group rights are best achieved by aligning with the Iraqi central government or the KRG.

Christians in Post-Ba’ath Iraq: Between a Rock and Hard Place

The Nineveh Plains’ strategic importance to Erbil and Baghdad provide the motive and means to exploit Christians. Intra-Christian cleavages, power dynamics, and security vulnerabilities provide the opportunity to do so. Iraq’s Christians and are thus often forced to ally with a stronger actor knowing full well that no option is good.

The Court’s decision is not actually about Christians—and neither were the responses by the KDP and PUK. The decision reflects the country’s pro-Iranian elements’ attempt to use Christians and other minorities as pawns in a powerplay between the autonomous Kurdistan Region, dominated by the KDP, and the federal government in Baghdad.

The areas of northern Iraq where Christians and other indigenous minorities like Yazidis, Shabak, and Turkmen are most visible remains a seam in the line of control between the KRG and Baghdad. The KDP courts Christians and other minorities to secure the disputed territories, strengthen its grip over the KRG, and buttress its image as an island of pluralism and democracy vis-à-vis Baghdad and the Muslim Middle East. This helps strengthen ties to the United States and the economic and security assistance that comes with it. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan needs Christians and other minorities to undermine the KDP’s power in Erbil, even if that means undermining Kurdish autonomy by aligning with the country’s pro-Iranian elements also seeking a foothold in the northern corridor. Sunni Arabs value minorities as tools to balance against Kurdish statehood ambitions and those that lean towards Tehran.

Indeed, after the 2003 US invasion the KDP used “carrots and sticks” to sway the loyalties of Nineveh’s Christians fleeing violence in southern and central Iraq in preparation for the 2007 disputed territories referendum that never happened. The 2009 KRG draft Constitution further staked a claim over these areas. Like the 2005 Iraqi constitution, it also provided Christians with a measure of political autonomy should they be the area’s majority population. But this was seen as another tool to court loyalties. The PUK pushed for an expansion of quotas in the Kurdish parliament to include one seat for Armenians and five seats for Turkmen to account for the potential to control Kirkuk.

By 2013 the Sulaymaniyah-based PUK realized that the Kurdistan Democratic Party was successfully coopting minority seats due to the larger population base in Erbil and Dohuk and the simple fact that more minorities lived in those areas. Since then, the PUK has pushed to reform the quota system. In 2014 Baghdad pledged to create a Nineveh Plains province where Christians and other minorities would hold larger demographic weight. These plans were aborted, though, with the rise of the Islamic State. Christians were left exposed and accused Baghdad but especially the KDP of abandoning them. In 2017 northern Iraq was liberated. Baghdad, buttressed by pro-Iranian militias, rolled back Kurdish territorial gains in Nineveh after that year’s failed Kurdistan independence referendum. Power-sharing between the KDP and PUK broke down. The pro-Iranian militias that helped Baghdad reclaim territory in Nineveh saw an opportunity.

A key figure of the pro-Iranian militia network that stepped into Nineveh’s power vacuum is Ryan al Kildani. Al Kildani is the head of the ostensibly ChristianBabylon Movement” and its armed militia, Brigade 50. While Al-Kildani himself is a Christian, the party and militia he leads are overwhelmingly made up of Badr Organization-affiliated Shia Arabs. In 2019 the US Treasury Department labeled al-Kildani a “human rights abuser,” noting that, “(T)he 50th Brigade is allegedly the primary impediment to the return of internally displaced persons to the Nineveh Plain…and the local population has accused the group of intimidation, extortion, and harassment of women.”

Al-Kildani and Babylon Movement mimicked the KDP strategy of capitalizing on the fact that voting for reserved minority seats was not restricted to these communities, securing most or all reserved seats in the 2018 KRG elections as well as the 2018 and 2021 federal parliamentary elections. The 2023 Iraqi provincial elections saw Babylon candidates again coopt reserved Christian seats in Baghdad, Basra, Nineveh, and Kirkuk.  

Al-Kildani also effectively neutralized the rival Assyrian Democratic Movement, forcing its militia to consolidate into a sub-unit of Brigade 50. In 2023, it was al-Kildani and his allies in Baghdad that were allegedly behind the central government’s decision to strip Patriarch Louis Sako, an outspoken critic, of institutional recognition as the head of the Chaldean (Catholic) Church.

The Supreme Court, Federalism, and the KDP-KUP Rivalry

During the 2021-2022 nationwide political crisis, the PUK aligned with the pro-Iran Coordination Framework to counter the KDP’s backing of the Sadrists and Sunni factions. The Coordination Framework eventually won control of the government. It has since been accused of turning the Supreme Federal Court into a tool for consolidating its grip over the state. For example, the Court’s 2022 decision to overturn the KRG’s natural resource law and thereby cripple its oil and gas industry, a major source of revenue and a pillar of federalism, is seen as an act of retaliation against the KDP. Another key ruling seen to target the KDP and federalism occurred in mid-2023 when the Court declared that the Kurdish parliament’s one year mandate extension illegal and ordered the Iraqi Electoral Commission to supervise Kurdish elections.  

One of the main reasons for the Kurdish parliament’s mandate extension was the failure to agree on how minority seats were allocated. The KDP wanted to retain the status quo while the PUK sought reform, hoping to allocate some minority seats to Sulaymaniyah. The PUK, opposition supporters, and some PUK allied Christian politicians appealed to the country’s highest court, which responded by eliminating the seats and the KRG’s electoral district model. That must now expand to at least four.

The KDP called the decision unconstitutional. It has since threatened to boycott the upcoming elections and withdraw from the State Administrative Coalition formed to govern Iraq in the wake of the 2021-2022 political crisis. Some analysts felt the Court overstepped its bounds. PUK and opposition officials still hailed the decision and expressed support for not delaying Kurdish elections any longer. The ruling served their interests. It removed seats that were historically coopted by the KDP, forced a favorable electoral map and, by extension, increased the prospects for a more balanced distribution of power and resources. These reasons aligned with the Coordination Framework’s goals of undermining the KDP, federalism, and the united, stable, and democratic KRG that Washington desires.

What the Court’s Decisions Mean for Christians and Democracy in Iraq

Most mainstream Iraqi Christian politicians rejected the Court’s moves. Officials from six Christian parties blamed the PUK and KDP for exploitation, declared the rulings as unconstitutional, and called for a return to elections where minority candidates select their own representatives, the format that was used in the 1992 KRG elections. Some Turkmen political leaders echoed these concerns. On March 13 most Christian and Turkmen parties announced they would boycott elections. 

The Nineveh Plains’ strategic importance to Erbil and Baghdad provide the motive and means to exploit Christians. Intra-Christian cleavages, power dynamics, and security vulnerabilities provide the opportunity to do so. Iraq’s Christians and are thus often forced to ally with a stronger actor knowing full well that no option is good.

The loss of reserved seats will contribute to further marginalization, alienation and exodus, which will only further weaken the standing of Christians and other minorities. Prior to the rulings, Christian candidates typically had to make an alliance with a stronger political actor. This of course made them vulnerable to cooptation, which de-legitimized them in the eyes of many of their own community. Removing quotas and moving to at least four electoral districts does not mean that minority candidates will not have to make alliances with a stronger actor. Both rulings and the demographic problem may make that need, and opportunities for cooptation from larger forces that come with, greater. If electoral cooptation does not work, both Erbil and Baghdad have never been shy about pursuing a demographic makeover.  

If Christians and other minorities stop leaving Iraq today, an unlikely scenario, the power of their voices within each new and smaller Kurdish electoral district would potentially grow, especially in areas they are concentrated in. But this will not stop marginalization. Intra-group cleavages aside, Christians and other minorities still must run against better funded candidates from the region’s stronger Kurdish political parties unless every person in an electoral district belongs to the same community and has similar preferences. This is not reality.

In cases where they would potentially constitute a plurality, such as the Nineveh Plains, it bears repeating that land grabs are not uncommon, one should not expect them to stop anytime soon, and security concerns are why most Christians remain displaced or have left Iraq. Crucially, every election in KRG history, let alone Iraq, has been rife with allegations of significant electoral fraud. Stories of harassment to ballot stuffing to pay-offs to “missing” votes or sudden disqualifications are common. Occasionally, votes go up in flames. These allegations are something Washington is aware of but has done little to deter due to the KRG’s status as a strategic partner amid more pressing regional concerns. 

The KRG’s reserved seat model was not perfect. But it did provide some form of representation. Consistent themes among many Christians is that they favor quotas and elections where minorities vote for their own representatives. This could go a long way towards legitimizing community leaders and securing rights by forcing the KDP and PUK to work harder to build political bridges.

But again, Iraq’s larger political forces do not make decisions to benefit minority communities. They make decisions based on their rivalries with one another that often have a detrimental effect on Christians and other minorities. Considering the Court’s politicization and the history of how Erbil and Baghdad have treated Christians and other minorities, one should not get their hopes up that the quotas will be restored. The same can be said about a law that permanently changes how minority elections are conducted, be it in the KRG or the central government. If any or all these things do happen, one should question the larger motives at play.  

Christians are a distinct and inseparable part of Iraq’s ethno-sectarian mosaic. They played a key role in the establishment of the autonomous Kurdish region and as peacekeepers during the Kurdish Civil War. During the 2003 US invasion, Christians fought alongside Kurds and US troops to secure northern Iraq. Like their Arab and Kurdish co-citizens they suffered under the Islamic State but then helped liberate the country. Yet Iraq’s Christian population numbers approximately 200,000, down from 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S. invasion. Pro-Iranian elements in Baghdad continue their efforts to capture the state. Iraq once again needs Christians. The US does too. The future of Iraq as a stable, pluralistic, and democratic state may hinge on it.