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“Today was a significant day in Nineveh Plains liberation,” reported Assyrian leader Emanuel Youkhana—four nearly sleepless days, for many Iraqis, into the start of a military offensive to dislodge ISIS from its stronghold in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and the surrounding area.
Ground operations to retake the city and Nineveh Plains commenced Oct. 16. As darkness spread over the vast plains—a 1,600-square-mile expanse that forms the historic Christian heartland of Iraq—coalition airstrikes combined with heavy shelling to soften ISIS (or Islamic State) targets. By daybreak Kurdish forces had advanced more than 6 miles along the 600-mile front line they had staked against ISIS since August 2014.
Over the next four days, coalition forces advanced to within striking distance of Mosul, the city of 2 million residents ISIS captured in June 2014. During the advance, Iraqi and Kurdish forces retook at least 50 villages, many of them ancient Christian towns in Nineveh Plains, sites many feared had been lost to Islamic extremists forever. For the approximately 200,000 Iraqi Christians driven from this area that summer, the prospect of returning home is real again.
Iraq’s army advanced from the south to within 20 miles of Mosul and within 6 miles of the city from the north and east, where the peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan autonomous region in the North joined the Iraq army’s 9th Division.
In most areas commanders said they met little resistance from ISIS, but did encounter snipers and suicide bombers who tried to reach Iraqi forces and blow themselves up. Iraqi forces shot the terrorists, exploding them and those nearby.
By Oct. 22 the peshmerga and the Iraq army’s Division 9 penetrated the heart of Qaraqosh, the largest city in Nineveh Plains, a city with approximately 50,000 residents prior to ISIS taking the town two years ago. Under heavy fighting, the forces regained control of Bartella, a predominantly Christian, ancient Assyrian town. In 2014 ISIS militants had gone door to door in Bartella and other cities, forcing Christians from their homes with threats to kill them unless they converted to Islam or fled. Most residents fled to Kurdistan, where many have taken refuge for two years in camps or other temporary housing. Scores of others have emigrated, to Turkey, Jordan, Europe, and the United States.
As intense fighting on Oct. 20 in Bartella subsided the following day, the sounds of mortar rounds, bombs, and gunfire gave way to a sound not heard for more than two years: the ringing of church bells.
“I am so happy,” said Father John Tarachee, a 68-year-old priest from Bartella who returned to his home Oct. 23 with a television journalist, under careful watch of Iraqi security forces (see video below). “I haven’t seen my village [in] two years and three months.”
Tarachee crossed blocks of destruction to see his church for the first time since he fled with his wife and congregants overnight in 2014. He found the church’s protective wall and gate destroyed, the building barely standing, its cross full of bullet holes and burned. But as airstrikes and gunfire sounded outside, Tarachee and his wife recovered the traditional large, hand-scribed scriptures used in worship from a back room, and he vowed to return and rebuild.
Two years ago, said Youkhana, Iraq’s Christians “followed this situation depressed and collapsing. Now we are following it with joy. The people may finally realize their ability to go back home.”
But Youkhana warned, “Defeating ISIS militarily does not mean we have won. It does not mean we have completed the mission. Can we guarantee ISIS is not coming back in another name or another place or another time?”
Even amid swift gains, church leaders say they are concerned the United States with its allies will declare ISIS defeated before adequately securing the region for Iraqis to return there to live—particularly non-Muslim minorities targeted by ISIS like the Christians and Yazidis. That concern surfaced even before forces launched a massive assault to retake the city of Mosul itself, an operation that could last for months, according to Stratfor, the Austin, Texas–based global intelligence firm.
Analysts believe the early gains against ISIS in Nineveh could signal the militants are preserving their strength to do battle inside Mosul. They estimate 750,000 residents remain in the city—down from an estimated 2 million in 2014. They may be used as human shields, or prompt a mass exodus, adding to the humanitarian crisis created by the ISIS invasion two years ago.
At the White House, President Barack Obama was cautious as the offensive began: “I’m confident that we can succeed, though it’s going to be a tough fight and a difficult fight,” he said at a news conference. “There will be ups and downs in this process.” He warned of “heartbreaking” situations if those who’ve survived living under ISIS are forced to flee.
Publicly the United States has let Iraqi forces take the lead, but in reality U.S.-led airstrikes and mortar assaults are what’s advanced the attack, and most Iraqis believe the timing is somehow tied to U.S. elections. The Americans delivered “an all-time high” of over 1,400 munitions between Oct. 17 and Oct. 22, according to Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. John Dorrian.
‘Defeating ISIS militarily does not mean we have won. It does not mean we have completed the mission. Can we guarantee ISIS is not coming back in another name or another place or another time?’ —Emanuel Youkhana
Chief Petty Officer Jason Finan, a 34-year-old Navy man attached to a SEAL team advising Iraqi counterterrorism forces, became the first American casualty of the offensive, killed Oct. 20 when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb. More than 5,000 U.S. advisers and joint attack controllers are on the ground supporting the Iraqi army in its fight against ISIS, with 100 or more directly involved in the current operation, along with Apache attack helicopters.
But U.S.-Iraqi cooperation hit a snag early on as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter arrived in Baghdad. Carter pressed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani to allow Turkey and its Sunni Arab–trained militias to participate in the battle. So far Iraqi leaders are saying no, claiming the current presence of Turkish forces near Bashiqa violates Iraqi sovereignty.
Despite American pressure, Abadi has said, “We do not want to enter into a military confrontation with Turkey. … The Turkish insistence on [its] presence inside Iraqi territories has no justification.” Iraq’s parliament also called on the Turks to leave, saying Turkish troops are “hostile occupying forces.”
On the street, Iraqis refer to Turkey’s leader as “Sultan Erdogan” and see their neighbor—a NATO member seeking to enter the EU—as trying to re-establish an Ottoman Empire–like control over the region via the conflict with ISIS. Many believe President Recep Tayyip Erdogan left the country’s borders open for foreign fighters to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq and gave air cover and other support to the Islamic militants, wanting ultimately to cement its own territorial gains out of ISIS-carved sections of Syria and Iraq.
That territory encompasses much of the earliest Christian enclaves in the world and includes sites of second- and third-century churches stretching from eastern Turkey across northern Syria and into Iraq.
Humanitarian aid groups warn that Turkey could be the largest obstacle to Christians returning to their homes in Iraq. Barnabas Aid issued a statement Oct. 20 titled “Turkey must not be allowed to stop Christians returning to Mosul.” Among other signs of escalating tension, it cited a statement by Erdogan in October to an Arab news channel, saying once Mosul is liberated, “only Sunni Arabs, Turkomens, and Sunni Kurds” should be allowed to remain in the city.
Turkey’s presence, said Christian Aid Mission’s Darrell Yoder, creates “a cloud of uncertainty that shadows the flush of success” in the Mosul offensive. “There is also the underlying sentiment that unless the environment that allowed ISIS to enter and flourish is addressed, another group, perhaps even more dangerous, could simply take its place,” said Yoder.
Iraq has requested a UN Security Council meeting to consider Turkey’s incursion into Iraq, but it will take support from the United States, which appears absent, to make that happen.
Youkhana, the Assyrian leader who also heads CAPNI, an Iraqi relief group, points out that over 3,000 Yazidis and a number of Christians remain in ISIS captivity. Over 1,700 Kurdish peshmerga forces have been killed in fighting with ISIS since 2014. Outsiders, he said, “should not become our voice” in who gets to return to their homeland.
Martin Banni, a 25-year-old Chaldean Catholic priest, is among those Christians determined to return home. As Islamic State fighters two years ago bore down on his town of Karemlash, 18 miles southeast of Mosul, he and other Christians left. He remembers how no one came to their rescue then and the Christians “were few in number with no weapons, and we could do nothing to face the Islamic State.” As frustration grew over being kept from their homes, Banni and others launched a “Liberate Mosul” campaign that’s gone viral.
Now, living in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, Banni already has a list of priorities for rebuilding hospitals and schools, he told Religion News Service, saying, “The liberation of the region is finally happening, and the prospect of going home feels closer now than ever before.”
Banni said he is hopeful the military offensive signals a more lasting transition. “We want to face our problems and solve them, not to escape from them,” he said. “A people who have borne all these difficulties can never be broken.”