The Nineveh Plain Protection Units (Classical Syriac: ܚܕܝ̈ܘܬ ܣܬܪܐ ܕܫܛܚܐ ܕܢܝܢܘܐ) (Arabic: وحدات حماية سهل نينوى) or NPU is an ethnic-Assyrian, Christian militia based in the Nineveh Plain, Northern Iraq. The militia is the armed wing of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), an Assyrian-Christian political party that holds one seat in the Kurdish Parliament under the Rafidain List.(1) Founded towards the end of 2014,(2) The NPU were instrumental to the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq’s North and played a key role in many strategically important battles against the organisation. The NPU remains active in Iraq today, providing protection to strategically important areas in the Nineveh Plain, and protecting its sizable Christian population. They are also engaged in a long-term rivalry with the Babylon Brigades, a pro-Iran militia depicted as, and led by an Assyrian Christian, but composed mainly of non-Christian personnel.
History & Foundations
The NPU was founded towards the end of 2014 after many of Northern Iraq’s native Assyrian-Christians were forcibly displaced by the rise of ISIS. Both displaced and non-displaced Assyrian Christians came together to form the NPU under the leadership of former Iraqi General Behnam Abush(3) and received funding from the Iraqi State and private donors (mostly the Assyrian diaspora in Australia, Europe, and the United States).(2) Despite registering approximately 2000 fighters with the Iraqi state, this number was cut down to 600 active fighters due to a lack of government funding, with all of those 600 receiving training from the US military. Varying sources indicate that the movement boasts up to anywhere between 2000 and 4000 reserve fighters.(4)
After their foundation, the NPU played a crucial role in the fight against ISIS. In an interview between researcher Aymenn al-Tamimi and a senior member of the militia, the aforementioned militia member states that the NPU saw its first major taste of combat in 2016, liberating the villages of Badanah and Telsukf.(5) Both of these battles were conducted with American air-support, showing an apparent working relationship between the two forces.(6)(7) In addition, the senior member of the militia stated in the interview that the PMU were active in the battles for Bakhdida (also known as Qaraqosh), Karamlesh, and Bartella. After the liberation of these areas, and still to this day, the NPU has been responsible for the security of these towns and districts.
Since the liberation of Mosul from ISIS, the NPU have been engaged in a rivalry with the 50th Brigade of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, known as the Babylon Brigades (Arabic: كتائب بابليون). The Babylon Brigades are a pro-Iran militia with links to the Badr Organisation that presents itself as a Christian militia, despite the fact that the majority of its members are Shi’a Arabs and Shi’a Shabak.(8) In March 2023, the Babylon Brigades attempted to take over the aforementioned town of Bakhdida, which was and has since returned to being under the control of the NPU. During this attempted power-grab, seven members of the NPU were kidnapped by the Badr Organisation affiliate.(9) The Babylon Brigades previously were caught looting ancient Christian artefacts from Assyrian churches, and its leader, Rayan al-Kildani, was designated by the US Treasury Department for serious human rights abuses. The US Treasury stated:
"The 50th Brigade is reportedly the primary impediment to the return of internally displaced persons to the Nineveh Plain. The 50th Brigade has systematically looted homes in Batnaya, which is struggling to recover from ISIS’s brutal rule. The 50th Brigade has reportedly illegally seized and sold agricultural land, and the local population has accused the group of intimidation, extortion, and harassment of women."(10)
Despite the Iranian backing of the Babylon Brigades, the NPU has retained a key position of security in the Nineveh Plain, mostly due to its positive perception amongst the local Assyrian communities.
Objectives & Ideology
The NPU’s ideology can broadly be defined as ‘Assyrian Minority Interests’. The militia is set on defending the Nineveh Plain from all of its adversaries, and ensuring that internally displaced Christians can return to their homes, as testified to in the interview with Al-Tamini, where the senior militia member states the objectives of the organisation revolve around “holding the land in the areas of the [Nineveh] plain…ensuring security, and helping the displaced people to return to their areas.”(5) Furthermore, the NPU is a pan-sectarian militia, with its fighters coming from all branches of Christianity practised by the Assyrians in the Nineveh Plain. Unlike many other of the militias that formed in Iraq after the rise of ISIS, the NPU tends to be apolitical and more interested in securing safety and a homeland for its Christian members.
Military & Political Abilities
The NPU’s military capability is limited by the poor quality of the equipment the soldiers have at their disposal. A significant portion of their weaponry is either supplied by the fighters themselves or obtained as used equipment from the Iraqi military.(11) Due to this and the relatively small manpower of 600, the group's military ability is limited to protecting a select few towns and districts. Although the NPU did actively fight against ISIS during 2016 and 2017, its role was mostly limited to complementing a larger Iraqi or Kurdish force’s advance. On the political front, the affiliated Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM) holds one of the Christian minority-reserved seats under the Rafidain List in Erbil’s Kurdistan Parliament.(1)
Approach to Resistance
The NPU’s approach to resistance is defined by its trust towards and reliance upon the Iraqi state. The group did not seek to grow beyond the budget allocated to it by Iraq and received most of its weapons from the state. During the battle with ISIS, the NPU maintained an obedience towards the Iraqi Army, following orders and fighting when required. Following the fall of ISIS, the group continued to serve under the command of the Iraqi military, with hope and trust that the best way to secure a future for the Assyrian Christians in the Nineveh Plain is through the Iraqi state. The militia reports to a council of military officers affiliated with the National Security Service of Iraq.(4) This approach seems to be working for both the militia and the Assyrian communities of Iraq, with “NPU-administered areas [seeing] the highest rates of return among Christian Assyrians.”(4)
International Relations and Potential Alliances
The NPU does not have any official relations with foreign actors. The group is broadly allied with the United States, as it received training from them in 2014, but does not receive on-going funding from the country. The group receives some non-military funding from the Nineveh Plain Defense Fund, a US-based charity with links to the American Assyrian diaspora, but relies on Federal Iraq for the majority of its funding.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - “Parliamentary Blocks”. Parliament of Kurdistan - Iraq. Accessed October 6, 2023. https://www.parliament.krd/arabic/parties-and-mps/parties/.
(2) - Nelson, Steve. “Iraqi Christians Form Anti-ISIS Militia, and You Can Legally Chip In.” US News, February 6, 2015. https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/02/06/iraqi-christians-form-anti-isis-militia-and-you-can-legally-fund-them.
(3) - “The Christian militia taking on Islamic State in Iraq,” BBC News, September 8, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34176641
(4) - Reine Hanna and Gregory J. Kruczek, "Contested Control: The Future of Security in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain," Assyrian Policy Institute, June 1, 2020, https://50f3ad00-5b28-4016-898f-6130d301c97a.filesusr.com/ugd/6ae567_98f8f8912baa40949a18a3a0b717eaea.pdf.
(5) - Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, "The Nineveh Plain Protection Units: Interview," October 22, 2020, https://aymennjawad.org/2020/10/the-nineveh-plain-protection-units-interview.
(6) - “Peshmerga retake Mosul Dam,” Aawsat, 18 August, 2014, https://eng-archive.aawsat.com/d-abdullah/news-middle-east/peshmerga-retake-mosul-dam-spokesmen
(7) - “Iraqi Christian militia liberate village from ISIS,” La-Croix International, September 6, 2016. https://international.la-croix.com/news/world/iraqi-christian-militia-liberate-village-from-isis/3798
(8) - Yaqoub Beth-Addai, “Nineveh Plains Christians Defend Against the Babiliyoun Militia,” The Washington Institute, March 16, 2023, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/nineveh-plains-christians-defend-against-babiliyoun-militia
(9) - "Iran-Backed Babylon Brigades Kidnap Seven Members of Nineveh Plain Protection Units in Baghdede, Iraq," Syriac Press, March 15, 2023, https://syriacpress.com/blog/2023/03/15/iran-backed-babylon-brigades-kidnap-seven-members-of-nineveh-plain-protection-units-in-baghdede-iraq/.
(10) - Michael Knights and Yaqoub Beth-Addai, "Profile: Kataib Babiliyoun (50th PMF Brigade)," The Washington Institute, March 16, 2023, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/profile-kataib-babiliyoun-50th-pmf-brigade.
(11) - Chris Gentry, "Group Profile: Nineveh Plain Protection Unit (NPU)," International Review, October 23, 2017, https://international-review.org/group-profile-nineveh-plain-protection-unit-npu/.