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At a covert training camp just north of Mosul, ten miles from the front lines with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the first wave of Assyrian Christian volunteers for the Nineveh Protection Unit (NPU) have just completed boot camp. Funded in part by an Assyrian-American telethon campaign and trained by a handful of freelance U.S. military veterans, around 500 men are set to deploy next week as part of an unorthodox — and unproven — project.
But as ISIL pillages what’s left of their ancestral homeland, and Iraqi government forces prove incapable of stopping them, some among the region's dwindling Assyrian Christian minority have placed their hopes for self-preservation in the NPU, which plans to grow by the thousands in the coming months.
“Their morale and capabilities are higher than almost anything I’ve seen,” said Matthew VanDyke, an American filmmaker and former rebel fighter in Libya who organized training sessions over the past two months to whip the NPU into fighting shape. “The kidnapping of their people, the loss of their homeland, the use of their women as sex slaves — it’s really put a fire in them.”
The idea for a professionalized Assyrian army was first conceived last summer, when ISIL mounted its infamous surge across northwestern Iraq’s Nineveh plains, slaughtering or enslaving hundreds of Assyrians and other religious minorities who stood in its path. Their supposed protectors, the U.S.-backed Iraqi army, wilted before the onslaught, with many soldiers reportedly abandoning their posts and stripping off their uniforms to avoid detection.
The lesson, said Kaldo Oghana, an Iraqi Assyrian official and NPU spokesman, was that “no one protected minorities then, and no one ever will.”
So in early December, political leaders for the 400,000-member Assyrian community in Iraq, working alongside an Assyrian-American political action group, the American Mesopotamian Organization (AMO), vetted and enlisted the first tranche of displaced volunteers from among 2,500 applicants to compose the NPU’s inaugural battalion. As part of the AMO's Restore Nineveh Now campaign, the goal is to build a force from the ground up that will earn the respect of the Iraqi government and perhaps the anti-ISIL coalition led by Washington. Ultimately, the NPU says, they hope to prove themselves worthy of Iraqi or Western arms.
Though it has not seen action yet, the NPU has already attracted considerable attention in the West, in part due to VanDyke’s involvement. Through a project he calls Sons of Liberty International, VanDyke has crowdfunded online and tapped $12,000 of his savings to train local Christian forces against ISIL — starting with the NPU. At the NPU camp last month, VanDyke recruited five U.S. combat veterans to run a training course — involving simulated battles and physical training — at an Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga facility.
"The world has been slow to act," against ISIL, said VanDyke, who spoke from the Kurdish city of Erbil. "We don't have to seek approval from Congress. We just step in and help."
The urgency of their mission was underlined in tragic fashion this week, when ISIL stormed over 30 Assyrian villages along the Khabour River in Syria. In a pattern that has become all too familiar, ISIL quickly overpowered a smattering of local Assyrian and other militia fighters, burning homes to the ground, abducting up to 300 men, women and children, and scattering thousands more from their now mostly overrun homeland.
“We refuse to be just another militia,” said Oghana. “We are working to build security and defense systems for our homeland, the Nineveh plains.”
At the heart of the NPU, and the Restore Nineveh Now campaign more generally, is a nationalist ambition for a semi-autonomous subdivision of Iraq’s Nineveh province, where threatened religious minorities like the Assyrians, who have lived in the region for nearly 7,000 years, as well as Yazidis and Shabaks can take shelter. Assyrians in Iraq — backed by a vocal diaspora centered in the U.S. and Sweden — have argued that their country's constitution provides for the creation of such an entity.
Jeff Gardner, the AMO’s U.S.-based spokesman, said Baghdad's Council of Ministers provisionally voted in favor of the plan back in 2014, though it has been in discussion among Assyrian circles for decades. “Everybody recognizes this need, but unfortunately ISIS is sitting right on top of this area,” Gardner said, using another acronym for ISIL.
Funding has come from near and far for the Assyrians' various political, military, and humanitarian efforts in Iraq. Around $250,000 has been raised, mainly through two telethons organized by the Southern California-based Assyrian Broadcasting Network, a 24-hour Assyrian language news channel that reaches the diaspora in the U.S. and Canada. The AMO is also lobbying the U.S. Congress for a wider intervention in Iraq, beyond the current coalition airstrikes.
The U.S. Department of Justice did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment on the legality of fundraising for a foreign army, though the Assyrian community says its efforts to "support" their troops are completely legal so long as the money does not go to weapons.
VanDyke has said he has even met with State Department officials about his efforts. In an email to Al Jazeera, the State Department said it could not comment on such a meeting, saying that any American civilians who "may have traveled to Iraq to take part in military activities are not part of the United States government effort in Iraq."
Regardless, AMO said this week that the NPU was not currently working with VanDyke. It said the fighting force was graduating to a second phase, which involves creating an officer corps and specialty training. For that, it has reached out to another private U.S. contractor, who it would not name.
"But our biggest struggle is gaining the acceptance of the Iraqi government," Oghana said. Acknowledgement could open the door to heavier equipment and munitions — machine-guns and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers — needed to roll back ISIL and defend more villages from falling.
The NPU has its skeptics, however. The Restore Nineveh Project, and particularly VanDyke’s involvement, have drawn criticism that adding another sectarian militia to the Iraqi battlefield will only serve to further splinter the anti-ISIL movement, which includes the Western-backed Iraqi government, independence-minded Kurds, and hardline Shia militias. ISIL propaganda has already seized upon Christian efforts at self-defense to brand the conflict a new "crusade."
All involved with the NPU, including its American backers, dismissed those concerns. “To say this is a religious war is to say ISIS represents Islam,” said VanDyke. “There are no crosses or religious markings on their insignia, nobody’s marching behind a cross. This is a nationalist cause.”
“Christianity is our creed, but there’s something more important than that,” said Oghana. “For us, this is our historical land, not a matter of faith.” In fact, he said, anybody is free to join, especially Yazidis and Shabaks.
From a constitutional perspective, experts said there was cause to doubt the viability of an independent Nineveh Plains Province, however dire Assyrians' plight. “The problem is that the Iraqi constitution works on a system of governorates, but what they’re asking for is the subdivision of an existing governorate," said Djene Rhys Bajalan, a lecturer at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani. "I'm not sure there's a provision for that."
Still, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, an Iraqi political body that oversees the NPU, says it is not interested in compromising. The NPU, Oghana said, turned down an offer to be absorbed into the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, a Western-backed force that has proven effective on the ground against ISIL. “We will work with everyone to cleanse Nineveh of ISIL, but we refuse to be loyal to anyone else,” he said. After years of political marginalization and massacre, “our people lack confidence in the whole process, in both the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga.”
Not all Assyrians agree with that assessment. Their people have a history of bad blood with the Kurds — most infamously, Kurdish involvement in the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey that saw almost 300,000 Assyrians slaughtered. But many point out that today, the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq is secular and largely welcoming of ethnic minorities. If helping the Kurds defeat ISIL leads to Kurdish expansion in Nineveh, that might not be the worst outcome for the Assyrian people.
According to Bajalan, “The Assyrian diaspora in the West, in some ways, is still living in the 1920s,” when a mass exodus of Assyrians fleeing the genocide settled in places like California and Sweden. “They have a negative image of the Kurds, and for good reason, but the realities on the ground are more nuanced.”
And Iraq's Assyrian community, which has shrunk from about 1.4 million in 1987 to just 400,000 at last count, represents just two percent of the population. Even taken together with the Yazidis and Shabaks, religious minorities in Iraq have extremely limited political clout. “I don’t know how far banding together is going to get them, unfortunately,” Bajalan said. “These small minorities are in a tough position, squeezed not just physically and culturally, but politically, too.”