Several months after the defeat of ISIS in northern Iraq, the ethnic and religious minorities who were driven from their homes hesitate to return. They fear further outbreaks of violence and they do not have the confidence or the wherewithal to restart their livelihoods. If these groups are to survive—and their survival is a critical buffer to the growth of extremism in the region devastated by ISIS—they need security and jobs. Neither of those needs is being met.
Christians are continuing to leave Iraq in alarming numbers, with some on the ground estimating that as few as 130,000 remain in Iraq (down from 1,600,000 in 2003). One of us, Dr. Hollingshead, just returned from two and a half weeks there. During one particularly poignant dinner table conversation with a Christian family who had fled their home in Bartella, the couple expressed their desire to return home to rebuild their lives. They were clearly worried, however, about the Iranian-backed militias whose presence throughout much of northern Iraq they deem to be threatening. They do not trust Shiite militias. The mother turned to Stephen and asked, “Dr. Stephen, do you think we will we be safe with the Muslims in Bartella?” Her anxiety poses a difficult obstacle to be overcome. Given the events of the past several years and the current geopolitical rivalries within Iraq, it is easy to imagine Christians, Yazidis, and others being caught once again in the crosshairs of malevolent powers. But it is also possible to create conditions in which those minorities have a reasonable expectation of security and the ability to thrive economically.