For Iraqis In Crisis, Dividing The Country Seems A Poor Solution

Jul 29, 2014
Originally published on July 29, 2014 6:35 am

The muscular farmer sits in the basement kindergarten of the church, perched on a tiny chair intended for a child. He and his family are spending the holiday here, after being forced to flee from extremists.

"Our village is more than 300 years old," Ahmed Ali says of Shreikhan, near Mosul, "and we never had any such problems."

For most Muslims around the world, Eid is a time for gifts, feasts and visiting relatives. But for him and others in a militant-controlled swath of northwest Iraq, it's a strange and unhappy holiday.

He and his family, Shiites who left their homes when extremist Sunnis took over Mosul, are spending the holiday in Qosh, a nearby Christian village. They have been living for a month in a kindergarten with Santa Claus and snowmen painted on the walls.

"There's no mosque here," he says, "just a church."

His family had been in Shreikhan since it was founded and are so long-tenured that he described his house as historic.

He says that relations were so good with the Sunni village down the hill that, two months ago, he married one of its daughters. And as evidence of the peaceful coexistence in this mixed area, he says the Christians here in Qosh have welcomed him. Men at the Chaldean Mar Mekha church pile boxes of aid onto handcarts and into trucks to deliver to families sheltering there.

"The church is very helpful; they give us food," he says. "And even the people from the town, they gave us everything we have here."

But some wonder whether it's time to partition Iraq along religious and ethnic lines. Fueled by the war in Syria, new waves of highly sectarian Sunni and Shiite militias are threatening civilians, and both sides scare the Christians. Meanwhile, the ethnic Kurds' calls for independence in the north are growing louder.

Already Ali says most of the Shiites from his village have moved to Shiite-dominated southern Iraq. But for Ali, a divided Iraq wouldn't be the country he loves.

"If that happens it will be something very, very painful," he says. "I'm a farmer. I have 50 tonnes of potatoes in cold storage. It's my home; it's my place."

Around the corner, a government building is sheltering an extended Sunni family from Mosul. The paterfamilias, Saad Mahmoud, says he fears that the extremists will target him because he worked for the government. Usually at Eid, he pays calls to his neighbors: Shiites, Christians and other minorities among them.

"If you did this partition, I would consider it a tragedy," he says. "Because we're a family, it's like somebody came to your house and took away one of them."

At the church, aid co-ordinator Fadi Youssef also says that Iraq — the land of the two rivers, he calls it, as Iraqis do when feeling proud — should be a place of diversity and co-existence, not a split state with no place for minorities.

Iraq's deputy minister for the displaced, Asghar al Moussawi, echoes that sentiment. Visiting the church for Eid, he says he sees the signs of Iraq breaking up into segregated regions. But so much of Iraq — including this area around Mosul — is so mixed, he says, it's impossible to divide.

"As an Iraqi, I wouldn't wish for Iraq to be divided or even head in that direction," he says. "Especially because that division would happen on the basis of ethnicity and sect."

For many Iraqis, commitment to a united Iraq is part of their identity — and something their leaders insist they believe in. The deputy minister even says Western countries shouldn't offer asylum to Iraqis — which might encourage them to leave — but rather give aid with the aim of helping them stay where they are.

But such assistance would need to arrive swiftly.

Youssef, the church aid coordinator, says the church waited until after Eid to tell the displaced families that they can't live in the kindergarten forever.

He thinks they'll probably end up in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, with the rest of the Shiites from their village.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The violence in Syria has spilled into Iraq over the last few months. And Sunni extremists now control areas of the country's northwest. Iraqi Muslims are celebrating Eid, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in a time of violence, displacement and fear. Many Christians, Shiites and others have fled their homes. And some wonder whether the time has come to partition Iraq, along religious and ethnic lines. But NPR's Alice Fordham reports that for many Iraqis, a divided Iraq would not be the country they love.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: I meet Ahmed Ali and his family on the Muslim holiday, Eid - a time for gifts, feasts and visiting relatives. But for him, it's a strange Eid and not a very happy one. He's not saying the usual prayers in his village, just outside the northern city of Mosul. He's fled to a Christian village called Qosh.

AHMED ALI: (Through translator) There's no mosque here, just a church.

FORDHAM: Ali and his family are Shiites who left their home when extremist Sunnis took over Mosul. They have been living a month in a kindergarten with Santa Claus and snowmen painted on the walls, where Ali, a muscular farmer, perches on a tiny child's chair to tell his story.

ALI: (Through translator) Our village is more than 300 years old and we have never had such problems.

FORDHAM: His family's been there since the village, Shreikhan, was founded.

ALI: (Through translator) Our house isn't just a regular house. It's very historic. There's a foundation underground and the roof is made from gypsum and stone.

FORDHAM: Relations are so good with the Sunni village down the hill that two months ago he married one of their girls. And as evidence of the peaceful coexistence in this mixed area, he says the Christians here, in Qosh, have welcomed him.

ALI: (Through translator) The church is very helpful. They give us food. And even the people from the town, they give us everything we have here.

FORDHAM: But fears are growing that the days of coexistence in Iraq are over. Fueled by the war in Syria, new waves of highly sectarian Sunni and Shiite militias are threatening civilians and both sides scare the Christians. Meantime, the ethnic Kurd's calls for independence are growing louder. Among some experts and politicians, the idea that Iraq should be partitioned along ethnic and sectarian lines is gaining traction. And already, Ali says most of his fellow Shiites from his village have moved to Shiite-dominated Southern Iraq. But he hates the idea of Iraq splitting up.

ALI: (Through translator) If that happens, it will be something very, very painful. I am a farmer. I have 50 tons of potatoes in cold storage. It's my home. It's my place.

FORDHAM: Over at the church, men are piling boxes of aid onto handcarts and into trucks to deliver to the families sheltering here. The deputy minister for the displaced, Asghar al Moussawi, is paying an Eid visit. He sees the signs of Iraq breaking up and losing its diversity. But he thinks that so much of Iraq is mixed, just like this area around Mosul, that it's impossible to divide.

ASGHAR AL MOUSSAWI: (Through translator) As an Iraqi, I wouldn't wish for Iraq to be divided or even head in that direction, especially because the division would happen on the basis of ethnicity and sect.

FORDHAM: For many Iraqis, commitment to be a united Iraq is part of their identity and something their leaders insist they believe in. The deputy minister even thinks Western countries shouldn't offer asylum to Iraqis, which might encourage them to leave. But rather give aid with the aim of helping them stay where they are because, as church aid coordinator Fadi Youssef says, the displaced families can't live in kindergarten forever.

FADI YOUSSEF: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says they've waited until after Eid tell them, but the church can't support the displaced indefinitely. He thinks they'll probably end up in Southern Iraq with the rest of the Shiites from their village. Alice Fordham, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.