ALQOSH, Iraq — Clutching his rifle intently, the Iraqi recruit maneuvered between piles of bricks and cement obstacles. The sound of shooting pierced the air and he jumped behind a wall, lifted his rifle and imitated the staccato sound of gunfire.
It was only a training exercise — the man is among the few dozen Assyrian Christian militiamen conducting military drills in a training camp at the foot of the mountains overlooking the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq.
The militia, known as the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, or NPU, is one of three Christian armed groups hoping for American support after the U.S. House of Representatives called for direct assistance to be delivered to local security forces in the north of Iraq.
American assistance “will give equality to all the ethnic groups here,” said Col. Jawat Habib Abboush, the deputy commander of the group.
“This is our country, we had a civilization here for a thousand years and we are still citizens of this country,” he added. “We cannot be marginalized.”
Assyrian Christians, many of whom speak a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples, once constituted a significant minority in Iraq but their numbers have dwindled in recent years as many have emigrated to escape longstanding discrimination.
When the Islamic State group spread across northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014, Assyrian Christians were brutally targeted and thousands of members of the community were displaced from their homes, fleeing to Kurdish-controlled areas.
Col. Abboush said his group poses no threat to anybody but IS. The militia had formed to protect the community in the wake of the Islamic State’s onslaught and the collapse of the Iraqi army.
“We joined to fight terrorism and Daesh, and to liberate our land, to protect our dignity and honor,” said recruit Michael Rai Staef, using the Arabic acronym for IS. His hometown, Qaraqosh, is still held by the militants.
The NPU has received training from American private military trainers and Col. Abboush said his men were currently being trained by U.S. military personnel.
A spokesman for the anti-IS coalition couldn’t confirm if the NPU was, indeed, receiving training from the U.S. military but said they were considering training another Christian group, known as Dwekh Nawsha.
The House of Representative’s draft 2017 U.S. defense bill specifies that direct assistance may be provided to “local security forces, including ethnic and religious minority groups, with a national security mission.” The bill still needs to be approved by the Senate and signed by the president, and its vague wording gives Washington considerable discretion over whom to support and how.
But groups such as the NPU hope it means that financial aid and direct military support could be forthcoming.
The 300 or so fighters of the NPU have purchased some of their weapons themselves, and received around 100 rifles from the Iraqi army. Their salaries have been paid by the Iraqi government since spring.
Yet the Christians are divided among themselves. There are at least two more Christian armed groups operating in the area, where they vie for influence.
One rival group, the Nineveh Plains Forces is based in the town of Telskof, where half-collapsed buildings and bomb craters remain from vicious fighting against Islamic State militants in May.
The NPF have also received training from American private military trainers. But unlike the Iraqi-supported NPU, the NPF’s support comes from the peshmerga, the armed forces of the northern semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.
They have received arms and other equipment from them, although because the cash-strapped peshmerga are struggling to equip themselves properly, the NPF receive “only leftovers,” NPF commander Safaa Khamro said.
The NPF and the NPU are prone to squabbling: each speaks highly of its own battlefield successes and accuses the other of running away from fighting, harboring secret agendas or just being propaganda outfits. They even occupy separate positions on the front line.
The Kurdish regional government and the central government in Baghdad are vying for influence over Ninevah province, and are hardening the divisions between the Christian groups. The NPF describes itself as part of the Kurdish region’s defense system. The NPU sees itself as an official Iraqi security force; most of the leaders are former Iraqi army officers and many of the men have Iraqi flags on their uniform.
Hajar Ismail, a spokesman at the Ministry of Peshmerga, said the policy of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government was to encourage Assyrian Christians who want to fight to join the peshmerga, not to form their own armed groups.
Nevertheless, northern Iraq is awash with various militia forces, representing the many ethnic and sectarian groups of the area, including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Yazidis. Currently the U.S. and other Western countries are providing direct military assistance to the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga, but not to other groups.
The Christian militias hope that the U.S. bill could change this. They readily admit that their relatively small numbers and shortage of equipment mean they do not play a major role in the anti-IS campaign.
U.S. financial support might allow Christians to play a bigger role, but it’s unlikely to heal the rifts between them.