Manila Training Center- Iraq -- Hundreds of Christian men are picking up rifles for the first
time at a former U.S. military facility in the hills of northeast Iraq
and training to reclaim their towns from Islamic State militants who
stormed the country last year.
Fresh recruits to a new Iraqi
Christian militia said their families were abandoned to militants by
government forces last summer and they seek to create a force that will
keep their towns and villages safe even after Islamic State is defeated.
"I want to defend our own lands, with our own force," said Nasser
Abdullah, 26 years old, who is helping lead younger recruits in
Sunni neighbors in nearby villages, the recruits said,
supported the Sunni extremists of Islamic State as militants seized one
Christian village after another in the Nineveh plains, where Iraqi
Christians and other minorities live.
As Islamic State fighters
advanced, Kurdish forces assigned to the region fled under attack,
leaving exposed vulnerable communities.
"Those who betrayed us
won't be allowed to live among us," said Firas Metr, a 27-year-old
electrician and recruit with no military experience. "We need to protect
ourselves, now and in the future."
30,000 Christians have since fled the Nineveh plains. Just one
Christian town there, Al Qosh, and three smaller villages remain free.
Across Iraq, more than 150,000 Christians have been displaced since
Islamic State began its rampage, according to Iraqi Christian community
More than 2,000 men have signed up to fight, but it
wasn't clear whether they could afford to train them all. Organizers
hope the U.S. will help.
The U.S. National Defense Authorization
Act, approved in December, names local security forces in Iraq as
potential beneficiaries of as much as $1.6 billion to train and equip
fighters against Islamic State. Those funds should support "local forces
that are committed to protecting highly vulnerable ethnic and religious
minority communities in the Nineveh Plain and elsewhere," said a
statement accompanying the act.
Christians, particularly Chaldean Catholics of ethnic Assyrian origin,
have long ties with U.S. lawmakers through its large expatriate
Former Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, who retired in
December, helped include specific reference to the Nineveh area, which
they hope will yield U.S. funding.
U.S. officials familiar with
the effort said the idea has been to include minority groups that could
use assistance, especially after the siege of Yazidi families by Islamic
State militants last summer in Iraq.
Mr. Levin said this week he hoped the training program was successful but didn't know enough about it to comment further.
a recent Sunday, roughly 300 Christian recruits, toting duffel bags,
left on a dozen buses bound for a training camp outside the city of
Kirkuk. They sang and danced with the air of students en route to summer
Local Christian politicians
have tried for a decade to arm and train a Christian regional guard but
faced resistance from Iraqi authorities.
While under attack by
Islamic State's predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, the Assyrian Christians
got permission and funding for local watchmen but never the armed
militias they hoped for. This month, that will change.
"This is a
fight to take back and come back to our land," said Yonadam Kanna, a
parliamentarian with the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the political
party leading the training. "It's as though our roots of thousands of
years have been pulled out of the ground."
Snubbed by the central
government in Baghdad, party officials pressed their demands over the
past weeks with the Kurdistan Regional Government, whose semiautonomous
region in the north abuts the Nineveh plains. The Kurds offered the
training facility outside Kirkuk, a base once run by the U.S. military
to train Kurdish regional guards, Kurdish and Christian officials said.
About 500 recruits, mostly
Assyrians, will be trained this month but it is uncertain who will fund
and equip them in the long term. Christians here are divided about
having their own militia. Patriarch Louis Sako, head of the Chaldean
Catholic Church, which many Assyrians follow, has said he disapproves.
new militia is seen by some Iraqis as more evidence of how the country
is fractured along sectarian and tribal lines, despite efforts by
various sides to wage a unified battle against Islamic State.
Minister Haidar al-Abadi came into power last year under pressure to
heal the rifts dividing Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds, which
worsened under his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki. Mashaan al-Jabouri, a
Sunni member of parliament, said a weak Shiite-led government hasn't
been able to overcome the distrust among these groups.
Abdullah, one of the Christian recruit leaders, was serving with the
Peshmerga, the Kurdish regional force, in the Nineveh plains when
Islamic State seized the city of Mosul in June. The Peshmerga guard
land, including Christian towns, in northern territory contested between
Kurdish and Iraqi authorities.
Abdullah said when he heard Peshmerga comrades had fled as Islamic
State militants took Mosul, he recalled thinking: "I wouldn't want to
defend a place that isn't mine either." He quit the next day.
later, Mr. Abdullah signed up for a Christian militia that served as a
trial run for the current effort. About 100 local men took up arms last
summer to guard villages still free from Islamic State.
training camp outside Kirkuk, Mr. Abdullah joined other ranking
militiamen to coach the recruits. "They are excited, but they are
nervous for sure," said Steven Yousef, 21 years old, as rows of men
awaited their first roll call. Most have never seen an Islamic State
militant, he said, or fired a gun.
As many as half of Iraq's
Christians are estimated to have fled over the past decade, and a second
wave is bound for Istanbul, Beirut, and Amman, Christian community
of the Nineveh plains, home to such minority groups as Yazidis and
ethnic Shabak, have for years felt vulnerable, living in the middle of a
struggle between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities over control of the
"No one has protected the minorities, and no one will in
the future," said Kaldo Oghanna, an Assyrian party official who swapped
his suit for military fatigues to oversee the first week of training.
party officials--who call their fledging force a battalion--say their
goal is to retake Christian towns from Islamic State and police them
independently until the dust settles.
In Erbil, a Peshmerga
spokesman said he understood from meetings with Christian officials that
the militia would eventually work under the Peshmerga.
Oghanna said there was no such agreement. Other party officials said
they were open to incorporating trained units into a future national
guard, but had doubts about its eventual deployment. Recruits said they
wanted independence to protect their communities after expelling Islamic
financial support from the Iraqi, Kurdish or U.S. governments, the
Christian militia has so far operated on donations, mostly from
Assyrians abroad. Every recruit will get a rifle, Mr. Oghanna said,
though the ones used in training are lent by Kurdish camp authorities,
along with machine guns and mortars.
Several Americans were
helping train the young men. They said they had served in the U.S.
military and were volunteering through a nonprofit organization they
declined to name. They wouldn't talk about their mission or background,
saying they needed to protect their identities from Islamic State, also
known as ISIS and ISIL.
One of the American trainers, 28 years
old, said U.S. officials in Erbil were briefed on the Christian militia
but weren't involved. U.S. officials didn't respond to requests for
"The Americans want to stay
away from this because their view is, if you train the Christians,
you're starting some crazy religious war," he said. "Well, ISIS beat you