Iraq’s once sizable Christian population has dropped by as much as half since
was ousted in 2003, to roughly half-a-million people today.
Islamic State seized swaths of Iraqi territory in 2014, more than
150,000 Christians fled their homes. Many of them lived in Hamdaniya,
which is on the Nineveh Plain, a fertile region that inspired the
militia’s name: the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, or NPU.
of the Christian community are now pressing the central government to
grant Nineveh Plain the status of a province, a step intended to
safeguard vulnerable minority groups, which also include Yazidis and
“It’s a turning point in our history: to be or
not to be in our homeland,” said Yunadim Kanna, a Christian member of
parliament in Baghdad.
Militia leaders want the force to remain in charge of security in that territory even after Islamic State’s defeat.
The militia was formed in the fall of 2014 by displaced Christians
who felt that Iraqi and Kurdish troops had abandoned them during Islamic
State’s advance. The militia was initially funded through donations.
Members speak a modern version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
NPU reports to the central government, which earlier this year began
paying for salaries and supplying assault rifles. The militia hopes to
expand to around 1,000 troops and several hundred new recruits are
currently in training.
U.S. special operations forces helped
train the militiamen over the summer, and recently supplied them with
200 rifles, machine guns and ammunition, said Capt. Tuwaya.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State didn’t comment.
NPU’s existence is a sign of the Christian minority’s tenacity, and of
how Islamic State’s emergence deepened ethnic and religious fractures in
Iraq, despite efforts to present a common front against the insurgency.
NPU members said Iraqi Sunnis—many of whom initially supported Islamic
State—wouldn't be welcome if they returned to the Nineveh Plain.
its members’ methods can be raw. At a checkpoint outside Qaraqosh, one
young militiaman boasted that he beheaded an Islamic State fighter with
his pocketknife on his first day of combat. He showed a photo on his
phone of the militant’s head.
Qaraqosh, where some 40,000 people
once lived, is now a ghost town. The main street is littered with debris
and charred furniture, the shops burned and their windows shattered.
Airstrikes flattened buildings.
The town’s walls and churches are
scrawled with depictions of Islamic State’s black-and-white flag—and
now also with graffiti of the NPU.
“It’s from this direction that we are expecting attacks,” said Capt.
Nimroud Moma, who commands a company of some 90 NPU militiamen, pointing
out at the open desert toward territory still contested by Islamic
Militiamen positioned heavy machine guns on the balconies of abandoned homes.
Tuwaya said he joined the militia because he wants Iraqi Christians to
return to their ancestral lands. Two of his six children have left Iraq,
and the other family members share a two-bedroom apartment in Erbil.
“I am doing this first for Iraq, and second for Hamdaniya,” he said.
family members fled Qaraqosh, their house was looted and Islamic State
militants moved in. When Capt. Tuwaya returned for the first time, in
November, he said almost everything was gone.
But he found a portrait of the Virgin Mary under a sofa, brushed off the broken glass and hung it back on the wall.