One of the most peaceful towns in Iraq, near one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, is under threat. Bashiqa is in danger of becoming a troubled metaphor for the conflicts that threaten the rest of Iraq.

Originally published in by IRIS Director Christine van den Toorn (December 6, 2012)

For about a decade, Bashiqa, a small village only 30 kilometres from Mosul, arguably the most dangerous place in Iraq, has avoided the violence that has plagued the rest of the country. Until recently, that is.

At the end of October, two car bombs exploded just outside the main city checkpoint which resulted in three deaths and over twenty casualties. The checkpoint is just beyond downtown Bashiqa.

And just over a week before that during the annual holiday of Eid, two car bombs were discovered in the rural Shabak-dominated villages around Bashiqa. One exploded - though there were no casualties. The other was discovered before it was able to be detonated - many locals think it was on the way to Mam Ritha, a centuries old Shiite Muslim shrine.

Yet in the past, Bashiqa’s locals have been proud that there have been explosions everywhere in Iraq “ila Bashiqa” (“except for Bashiqa”).

Why then, has violence now come to the town after so many years?

As is usual for violence in Iraq, no one knows exactly who did this. But most locals will speculate on the same point: “its people from the outside who want Bashiqa”. Nobody knows exactly who might want Bashiqa enough to bomb it but the locals think it’s someone from either Baghdad or Erbil – that is, Iraq or the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan – trying to push them one way or another. Who is pushing and which direction they’re pushing in remains unclear though – to the locals at least.

Bashiqa has often been described as ‘Iraq al msagher’ or ‘the little Iraq’ because of its diverse population. And as such, it has become a microcosmic example of the most contentious issues facing the greater nation: federalism, disputed territories, security, energy and identity politics.

Historically, Bashiqa has been a peaceful town, out of the reach of antagonistic politics and policies. Mostly this is due to strong local identity and deep communal ties among the population. It is a diverse community: the town centre is mixed Yazidi, Christian and Sunni Muslim, with Yazidis making up the large majority at 70 percent. The Shabak ethnicity – about 100,000 of them - makes up 90 percent of the population of the hinterlands around Bashiqa, that they share with Christians, Kurds, and Arabs.

Local Yazidis call Christians ‘qreeb’ and Muslims ‘qreef’, both meaning ‘blood brother’. The Shabak are also referred to by urban dwellers of Bashiqa as “our brothers”.

Most local music, poetry, dance, food and clothing is not affiliated with one group but rather with the town – they are Bashiqi traditions. Their language - Bashiqi Arabic - is also unique.

Additionally, all over Iraq, the name Bashiqa is fondly associated with the local drink, arak, because until 2003 the area was the main supplier of this potent alcohol to the entire country. Many people from Mosul and Ninawa go to Bashiqa to drink and relax. In fact, the bombs that exploded on the night of Oct 31 were outside a popular local bar frequented by these visitors.

“There are two things we don’t care about in Bashiqa - religion and politics,” one of Bashiqa’s religious leaders told NIQASH. And by “care about”, he meant that these things would never affect the strength of local, communal ties.

These kinds of dynamics have maintained peace in Bashiqa during Iraq’s most contentious periods. One man recalled how, during the reign of Saddam Hussein and his Baath political party, the local Bashiqi Baathists would alert the local Communist Party members when a crackdown or a raid was planned.

A Christian man told how he and his wife shared their one room apartment with a Yazidi man who deserted the army during the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s, and the deserter’s wife, for an entire year.

In 2007 when a busload of Yazidi workers from Bashiqa was massacred in Mosul by extremists who were allegedly Islamic, Bashiqi Yazidis protected their own local mosque in case “someone from the outside decided to take revenge,” one local man told me.

Throughout history of the town, people in Bashiqa were always Bashiqi first.

However recent changes have challenged the local peace and the communal identity in more ways than one. Bashiqa’s new status as a disputed territory and its inclusion in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan’s controversial oil contract with Exxon Mobil is one example.

Since 2003, Bashiqa has also become a disputed territory - that is, land that Iraqi Kurdistan says belongs to Iraqi Kurdistan but which Baghdad says belongs to Iraq; Mosul, Kirkuk and other parts of the state of Ninawa are also disputed territories.

As one resident put it: “everyone [he was referring to Baghdad and Erbil] wants Bashiqa.” The town’s geography and ethnic, religious and linguistic composition would make it a valuable inclusion for both the Iraqi Kurdish and federal Iraq.

Bashiqa has been a sub-district of Mosul since the formation of Iraq in 1919 and is economically, politically and socially linked to the city and to federal Iraq. Geographically speaking, it is close to Mosul and as an Arabic speaking town it is also linguistically connected to federal Iraq. Most people in Bashiqa identify as Iraqi with one woman declaring ‘hamoot li al Iraq’ or “I would die for Iraq”.

In the same breath, however, locals will often say they would probably vote to join Iraqi Kurdistan if they were forced to choose. The Yazidi-dominated towns around Bashiqa, and most of the Yazidis in the area, outside of the ones in Bashiqa, speak Kurdish; they identify as Kurds culturally and with the Iraqi Kurdish authorities politically.

And some of the biggest reasons people in Bashiqa have started to lean toward Iraqi Kurdistan and away from Mosul and the rest of Iraq since 2003, is the lure of jobs, security and government services.

During the 2003-US led invasion that toppled the regime of former leader Saddam Hussein, the US army authorized the deployment of Iraqi Kurdistan’s own peshmerga, a military force, in many areas in the Ninawa province, including Bashiqa. The Iraqi Kurdish forces were friendly toward the US forces and this move was made to protect the local population from potential violence coming out of Mosul, a historic centre of Baathist support and therefore supportive of Saddam Hussein.

The presence of those Iraqi Kurdish forces introduced a new dynamic to Bashiqa and many surrounding towns: the Iraqi Kurdish came to be seen as guarantors of security against all those forces that did not guarantee it – such as the Baathists, or Saddam loyalists, as well as Sunni Muslim extremists (Hussein was a Sunni Muslim). That is why Bashiqa residents now question the ability of the Iraq army to protect them if the Iraqi Kurdish forces were to leave. And all of this has allowed the Iraqi Kurdish to make economic and political inroads into Bashiqa.

Anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of people in Bashiqa are now employed by one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s two major political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The main jobs are in education or security. Many other residents of Bashiqa work in Iraqi Kurdistan itself, in the cities of Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah or Erbil as labourers or in the service industry.

Although the town’s electricity and water are provided by Baghdad, better municipal services in neighbouring Iraqi-Kurdish-controlled towns like Shaikhan, are a topic of constant discussion.

These issues have certainly shifted people’s loyalties from Iraq to Iraqi Kurdistan. “I will vote for whoever gives me a job,” many locals state plainly. And in the 2010 provincial elections, 55 percent of Bashiqa’s votes went to the Iraqi Kurdish bloc – a surprising percentage for town many consider part of Mosul.

One local who identified himself as Bashiqi, Yazidi and Iraqi, told NIQASH: “I don’t care whether I’m Iraqi. I don’t care about Iraq or Kurdistan. I care about services and development.”

But with jobs have come both subtle and obvious attempts to “Kurdicize” Bashiqa. Locals protested when the KDP said that Kurdish should be taught in local schools. While the party backed off to some extent, teachers employed by the Iraqi Kurdish in Bashiqa must still teach a certain number of courses in Kurdish and are encouraged to send their own children to Kurdish speaking schools and universities in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Some residents have been asked to change signs from Arabic to Kurdish script. The two major Iraqi Kurdish political parties and the Iraqi Kurdish in general, are very obvious in Bashiqa - the number of party and regional flags on roofs and store fronts has steadily increased over the past few years.

One resident remembers speaking out when the Iraqi Kurdish flag went up over his school. He was told to stop talking before he got everyone in trouble. A massive Kurdistan flag was erected last December at the entrance to the town, just meters from where the car bombs exploded Wednesday night.

A year ago, in November 2011, Iraqi Kurdistan began to intensify its claim to Bashiqa, controversially including it in their already highly controversial oil contract with multinational company Exxon Mobil – which was declared illegal by Baghdad.

This was the first contract the Iraqi Kurdish authorities had dared to sign with a large international oil company and it was a move that provoked the wrath of Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki was further angered when Ninawa’s governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, gave the deal his blessing, publically saying it was good for the province. Over the past year, the contract has been one of the most contentious issues between Baghdad and Erbil.

Currently it seems that Exxon Mobil, possibly fed up with being scolded by Baghdad for signing that deal and no doubt, with other problems in the Iraqi oil bidding process, has decided to sell its extremely valuable West Qurna 1 oil field in southern Iraq and explore exclusively in Iraqi Kurdistan.

And as Ninawa and oil deals like Exxon Mobil’s appear to be slipping out of Baghdad’s grasp, the federal government will certainly look for ways to push back and exert more power over the province, especially before the April 2013 provincial elections. And it’s possible that Bashiqa - a disputed territory, now part of the Exxon Mobil deal - could be a good place for al-Maliki to start that campaign.

Recently al-Maliki’s government has offered Bashiqa’s rural Shabak community – who usually religiously identify with the Shiite Muslims, of which al-Maliki is one as is most of his ruling coalition – the chance to form an all-Shabak brigade, purportedly to protect the minority group from extremist attacks (read Sunni Muslim extremist) attacks in Mosul.

That falls in line with al-Maliki’s recent policy of putting his stamp on disputed territories by creating new army brigades that come under his office’s command, such as the controversial Tigris force in Kirkuk, which has been at the root of many of the recent problems between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad.

Recently al-Maliki also suggested creating a Northern Command Council in Erbil to protect Iraqi sovereignty against Turkish incursions into the country; the Turkish forces enter Iraq, semi-illegally, to root out Kurdish fighting for Kurdish independence in Turkey – the conflict is a long one and many on both sides have died.

In regard to the Shabak brigade, most, if not all, in Bashiqa opposed its creation and several local leaders went to Baghdad to express this. Al-Maliki raised the idea of the Shabak brigade again in early October and that resulted in protests against the “minority militia”.

However after the two car bombs were discovered in Bashiqa’s Shabak areas several weeks ago, support for just such an armed force has grown. While it is yet to be determined who was responsible for the bombs, the agenda they – whether intentionally or coincidentally - serve is clear.

People in Bashiqa are acutely aware that they are being fought over by Erbil and Baghdad and that the instability resulting from these bombs could push them one way or the other.

“If there were elections tomorrow in Bashiqa, the KRG would get one hundred percent of the votes,” one local suggests. Only a second later, though, the man added that the bombs could have been “people from Mosul punishing us for being too close to Kurdistan” over the past few years.

Many suggest that these recent bombings will push people toward the KRG because, when the going gets rough, the people in Bashiqa trust the Iraqi Kurdish forces, the peshmerga (who are actually all from Bashiqa anyway), to protect them. “The peshmerga keep us safe from people from the outside”, said one man, “I don’t trust the Iraqi army to protect Bashiqa”.

On the other hand, residents worry that if Bashiqa moves too far to the Kurdish side, they will draw the anger and attention of extremist groups in Iraq seeking to maintain the state and support the al-Maliki regime. In fact, some have suggested that Bashiqa may have already gone too far east and that these bombs could be a punishment, or a reminder that they are still part of Iraq.

Whether the bombs are to show Bashiqa that Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga cannot protect them from Mosul, or that only the peshmerga can protect them from Mosul, nobody really knows.

In terms of the local population though, Bashiqi blood remains thicker than Iraqi politics or Kurdish oil. For the time being anyway. Locals are worried about more deaths and injuries but they swear they will always put their town and its people first.

“I care about Bashiqa, not Iraq, and not Kurdistan” said one man, before suggesting an alternative, albeit rather unrealistic one. “If these guys [Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad] continue this, Bashiqa will just kick out all the political parties and create its own state.”

That’s probably wishful thinking – no other, bigger states in Iraq have managed to achieve this (some have tried).

“The only way this violence will stop is if we have to choose,” another man said, referring to the choice that disputed territories may be asked to make between Iraqi Kurdistan and federal Iraq, should Article 140 – legislation that is meant to solve the problem of disputed territories – ever be enacted.

For the time being though, Bashiqis can only continue to wonder who set the bombs and why violence has finally come to their town. And they know that if this is the first spiral of pre-election violence aimed at shoring up support for one political group or another, then it will be a very long winter indeed in “little Iraq”.