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Nastiness in Nineveh

May 19, 2009


The very name “Nineveh” conjures up images of past glory. In the Bible, Nineveh is called an “exceeding great city.” (Jonah 1:1) It was the Assyrian king Sennacherib who made Nineveh a truly magnificent city around 700 BC. He laid out new streets and squares and built within it the famous “palace without a rival,” whose overall dimensions were about 503 by 242 meters (1,650 ft × 794 ft) — large by any historical standard. The total area of Nineveh comprised about 7 square kilometers (1,730 acres) and it had fifteen great gates that penetrated its walls. An elaborate system of eighteen canals brought water from the hills to Nineveh, and several sections of a magnificently constructed aqueduct erected by Sennacherib were discovered at Jerwan, about 65 kilometres (40 mi) distant. The walled city had more than 100,000 inhabitants (maybe closer to 150,000), about twice as many as Babylon at the time, placing it among the world’s largest settlements. According to Wikipedia, “Nineveh’s greatness was short-lived. Around 633 BC the Assyrian empire began to show signs of weakness, and Nineveh was attacked by the Medes, who about 625 BC, joined by the Babylonians and Susianians, again attacked it. Nineveh fell in 612 BC, and was razed to the ground.” Ancient Nineveh was built on the eastern bank of the Tigris, across the river from the modern-day major city of Mosul, Iraq.


Today, the region of Nineveh is again experiencing turmoil. It’s not the Medes and Assyrians who are in conflict, but the Kurds and the Arabs [“Dispute Over Land Simmering in Iraq,” by Nada Bakri, Washington Post, 18 May 2009]. Bakri calls the area separating Iraq’s Kurdish regions from its Arab regions “Iraq’s most dangerous fault line.” Throughout the Iraq conflict, the town of Mosul has been in the news as one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities. Bakri, however, submitted her report from another town in Nineveh — Bashika (also spelled Bashiqa).

“Bashika has emerged as a flash point in a growing test of wills over who will control land claimed by Arabs and the Kurdish autonomous government in the north of Iraq. … Many fear [the standoff] may be resolved only through violence. … Nineveh was under Kurdish control until provincial elections in January, when Nujaifi’s Arab nationalist list, known as al-Hadba-a, won a majority of seats. When the party formed the council, its members assumed key positions in the province, leading the Kurds to walk out in protest. Bashika is one of a string of Kurdish towns and villages that declared they would no longer abide by Nujaifi’s authority.”

More violence, of course, is the last thing that Iraqis need (be they Kurds or Arabs). Unfortunately, past offenses, ethnic pride, potential oil revenues, and fear have combined in a toxic brew that keeps the area tense. The Kurds simply refuse to recognize the powers of officials who were victorious in the last election and “have blocked Arab officials from carrying out their duties” [“Tensions Stoked Between Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis,” by Sam Dagher, New York Times, 18 May 2009].

“American officials have long feared a military conflict in the north, where Arabs and Kurds have competing claims to territory and have legions of trained men under arms. The struggle for power has also fueled the insurgency in the north, giving groups like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia an opening to appear to back an Arab cause. And it comes as American combat troops are scheduled to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of June.”

Emotions are particularly high on the Kurdish side. Arabs Kurds from their homes under an Arabification program launched by Saddam Hussein. Hussein also used chemical weapons against the Kurds. As a result, the Kurds consider the land sacred and are unlikely to compromise over issues involving land. The Kurds believe the only way they can ensure that the government doesn’t renew attacks against them is to hold important posts within the government.

“The Kurds …. are now threatening to escalate the conflict unless they are given the posts of deputy governor and provincial council chairman. [Atheel al-Nujaifi, the newly elected Sunni Arab governor,] says there will be no talks with the Kurds unless they recognize Nineveh’s administrative borders and pull their forces back to behind the so-called Green Line, Iraqi Kurdistan’s boundary before the American-led invasion in 2003. The Kurds reject that request and say they will not budge before the fate of disputed territories north of Mosul is settled. They say they trust neither Mr. Nujaifi nor the central government in Baghdad, led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, which has been seeking to assert its authority in northern Iraq at the expense of the Kurds. ‘We do not trust these people, we know their intentions,” said Khasro Goran, the Nineveh leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the most powerful Kurdish force on the ground.”

Although the mistrust on both sides is understandable, increasing tensions only make the situation worse.

“Joost Hiltermann, an analyst who is advising the United Nations on territorial disputes in northern Iraq, said the Kurds had more of an interest in escalating the conflict. ‘It could be of Kurdish interest to provoke confrontation in order to persuade the Americans that if they abandon the Kurds, the consequences would be dire,’ said Mr. Hiltermann, a senior Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group. The American military has played down the significance of the recent Kurdish actions. Meanwhile, residents here on the Nineveh Plain, a mix of ethnic and religious groups, are bracing for the worst. A checkpoint staffed by Kurdish military forces on the highway between Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, and Mosul was recently moved closer to Mosul. Kurdish observation posts along the plain’s roads and hilltops have also been fortified. Near Bashiqa, dirt shields several roadside military outposts. Machine guns could be seen on the roofs of some buildings.”

With the June deadline looming for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities, renewed efforts need to be made to find a solution to growing tensions. Unfortunately, many people in the area believe that only confrontation will result in a solution. Such an outcome would be bad for both sides since it would set back development efforts and drain scarce resources which could be put to better use than fighting a civil war. Nineveh may never achieve the greatness it enjoyed in the past, but men of good will can make it better than it is today.

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