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That morning, Lalo had his first meeting with the multinational force commander for Mosul and eastern Nineveh, Colonel Michael Shields. Although "meeting" is perhaps not quite the right word for an encounter that began when four US soldiers in full battle dress came through the front door unannounced, the commander demanding: "Who's the leader? Where's the leader?" But once the Americans had put down their weapons and body armour, the exchange that followed was polite enough. I knew Lalo was bitter that the US had supported the appointment of a Muslim mayor in a predominantly Christian area and Shields told me he was working hard to improve contacts with local officials. He explained: "Nineveh province is an ethnically challenging area. If the governor shows favouritism, that creates problems." Lalo ventured bluntly that Shields' predecessor had been "bad for the Christians". "That," the colonel said, "is water under the bridge."|
The Christians' last hope in Iraq may just lie, according to Lalo, with Sarkis Aghajan, minister of finance in the Kurdistan regional government and, until last May, Kurdish deputy prime minister. It is he who has been channelling money to Nineveh to pay for armed guards.
In his palatial residence in Ankawa, a Christian neighbourhood in Iraqi Kurdistan, he talked about his community as he sat between a picture of the crucifixion and the statue of an eagle. "As Christians," he said in Syriac, "we regard Nineveh as our region. Throughout history our people have been obliged to leave and live elsewhere." This included those who had fled Saddam Hussein's campaign to "Arabise" Kurdish and Christian areas in the north, when land was redistributed by force to Arab settlers. But now, he explained, about 3,500 families had come from Mosul and Baghdad to settle in the Nineveh plains.
"More than 30 Christian villages have been restored. But people will not return unless they feel their national rights are protected. Before, people were kidnapped on a daily basis. We increased the number of armed guards and now there are thousands. We are not threatening any other party, but the Kurds look out for the Kurds, the Arabs for the Arabs, so we have to protect ourselves too."
But Aghajan's ambitions go further. He is convinced that the only way to secure protection in the longer term is for an autonomous region, a safe haven, to be established covering Nineveh's Christians, as well as smaller minority communities there such as the Yezidis and the Shabak. "This special region would help us to maintain Christian history in that place. In that way, there would be no way for Kurds or Arabs to intervene. This would encourage the Christians living outside to come back, and it would be an example in the Middle East."
Aghajan is also sure that such an autonomous region should be part of an enlarged Kurdistan, prompting some politicians from Nineveh to accuse him of serving a Kurdish agenda. One, who fears the prospect of Kurdish control as much as a return by the Ba'athists, described him as "prime minister Barzani's loyal Christian". But Aghajan insists that the Nineveh plains would "get a fairer share" from the Kurdistan administration than from the central government. He praised Barzani's leadership. But he also knows that many Christians are already voting with their feet for the relative safety of Kurdistan.
Then he decribed how his people had been betrayed. "It was easy for the Americans and the British to have supported us when the churches were bombed - it was a historic opportunity - but they did nothing. If they had supported us financially, for example, we could have protected all the Christian families in Mosul."
Asked if he thought the Americans might be afraid to be seen to support the Christians, because that might be perceived as partisan or anti-Muslim, he waved his arm impatiently. "They didn't have to do it publicly - they could have done it through the Kurdistan Regional Government or through individuals. Now the Christians in Mosul are being made to change their religion. They are forced to pay money for jihad. If you hear the stories of those people, you will understand the tragedy. I am not talking about one of two families, or even a thousand, but about a nation.
"If our friends don't help us now, their friendship will be worth nothing in future. If it continues as it has, Baghdad and Mosul will be emptied of Christians."
As he spoke, I recalled Bush's words, over three years ago, from the decks of the USS Abraham Lincoln, announcing "the end of major combat operations" in Iraq. The president is fond of using biblical quotations in his speeches and he ended this one with a stirring message from the prophet Isaiah: "To the captives, 'Come out!' and to those in darkness, 'Be free!'"
In May, Iraq's first full-term government since the fall of Saddam Hussein was approved in Baghdad. Wijdan Mikha'il, a town planner and member of the secular Iraqi National List, was appointed as the new minister of human rights - a hard job, she remarked to me ruefully, in a country where "the people hardly have any rights". Mikha'il is also a Christian, the only one in the government. When she got the job, she moved her family, including her three young boys, from their spacious Baghdad house to live in a hotel behind the concrete blast walls of the Green Zone. Over supper there one evening she talked to me about the sectarianism that has poisoned Iraqi society.
"I have always seen myself as an Iraqi first, and then a Christian. Before, we all lived together, we never thought that someone was a Sunni and the other was a Shia, or a Christian, but now it is different." She has held discussions with the Iraqi Council of Minorities, a new umbrella group that is pushing for amendments to the constitution to improve human rights protection. When I asked Mikha'il about how many Christians were leaving, she said: "The process started before the war but it has accelerated. In the schools the children now say that a Christian is a kaffir, that he is different from the Muslims. And that means he can be treated differently. In 20 years there will be no more Christians in Iraq."
As she talked, two men and two women, dressed mainly in black, walked into the hotel restaurant and sat down in a corner. The minister lowered her voice: "They are Saddam's witnesses." The trial of Saddam Hussein was in session that week, stumbling from one adjournment to the next, and Mikha'il listed some of the atrocities for which the former dictator should still be tried, including the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, in which many Christians were also killed.
So was it worse before, or now, from the point of view of the Christian community? She replied immediately: "It's worse now. Not just for my community - for all Iraqis. Of course, what is happening now, Saddam partly created. We have gone in one year to a situation we would have reached after 15 years if Saddam was still in power: the lack of security, the breakdown of society . . ." Suddenly she laughed, for the first time that evening. "So maybe it is better to get there in one year, so we can start the process of improvement."
Would she herself still be here in 20 years' time? This time she hesitated. "I don't think so. I love Iraq. I had so many opportunities to leave, but I always stayed. But I don't want my children to live here"