After the bloodbath

"After the bloodbath" Continued...

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

Article 50 called for seats on provincial governing councils to be apportioned according to demographic makeup. Because no census has been conducted since the war and terrorist activities uprooted millions, there's no way to accurately show how many seats should go to which group. Many believe a census should be taken not only in Kirkuk but nationwide before elections are held.

In Nineveh a census likely would show that more Christians live here than ever before, as Assyrians and Chaldeans who lived in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra are taking refuge in the province's historically Christian villages. Some Assyrians say they are underrepresented on the Nineveh provincial council already: Currently only three of 41 members are from what are considered Christian parties.

And that is a reason Assyrian and Chaldean leaders also are pressing for a Christian autonomous region modeled on the Kurdish regional government to the north-with its own parliament, constitution, budget, even flag. They feel the only way to solve many of the injustices they face is to create a region in which they are guaranteed a majority in government.

An autonomous region has advocates in Washington among Christian human-rights groups and some lawmakers. But it seems doomed to fall on deaf ears in Baghdad except that it has received endorsement from key Kurdish leaders and is pushed by Kurdish regional government finance minister Sarkis Aghagon. Aghagon himself is Assyrian but has been a member of the Kurdish government since 1992, serving as its deputy prime minister from 2004 through 2006. In a Sept. 29 interview in his Erbil government offices, Aghagon said the autonomous region he envisions would stretch from the Syrian border to the north at Fishkabor (currently part of the Kurdish regional government) to Hamdaniyah. "We are trying to secure our people in an area where they currently live," he said.

Aghagon, who has used undisclosed funds to rebuild hundreds of historically Christian villages across northern Iraq and down to Nineveh Plain for returnees, sees the new zone as an administrative region controlled by Assyrian-Chaldean political parties. (Asked how much money is used for reconstruction and where it comes from, he said, "We don't have such measures. . . . We only provide support for emergency cases in those areas.") Other minorities and Arabs "will coexist with us. . . . We are not separating ourselves from those people. They will have members in the government."

Iraq has many Christians who live outside this area and do not personally share the region's ancient roots. Some pastors say they fear that a regional divide will make them more vulnerable where they are. Said one pastor who did not give permission to be named because of threats to his church, "Many in the Assyrian and Chaldean leadership talk as though they are spokesmen for all Christians. They are not." Another in similar circumstances said, "Personally I want Christians everywhere, on equal footing with all Iraqis, not with special treatment in a special area." He also said, "Too many of our brothers and sisters want first power and authority, not Bible study and discipline."

Goran, the Kurdish deputy governor in Nineveh, insists that what in the end is needed is a vote: "The Kurdish regional government requests a referendum so that people in the middle have to decide. The people of Assyrian places should get to decide their future, not somebody else."

One reason the Christian region has recently gained wider interest may be that it provides a needed pawn in the chess game of redrawing Iraq's map. For Kurds it could be traded away to gain greater control in the Kirkuk region. Or kept as a buffer zone to what is now a hostile Arab/Kurd border.

Politics is messy, and progress toward elections could set the stage for bitter rivalries that erupt in more violence-or actually help to strengthen the democratic process. It's clear that ethnic minorities, including Christians, will play a greater role than ever in Iraq's political future. And that going to the polls in Iraq has consequences everywhere.


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