Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently published a report on the escalating outrages being committed by Iraqi Government Security forces and Shia militias upon Sunni civilians. The alleged crimes documented in the report are reportedly taking place in recently re-captured Iraqi towns and villages in the eastern Diyālā governorate, territory re-captured from The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). (This name chosen by author, as it seems most accurate in describing the group’s current and growing reach) The report from HRW is wide-ranging and detailed and contains very disturbing eye-witness accounts;
A 70-year-old resident of al-Bulour village in Muqdadiyya, who identified herself as Um Mariam, told Human Rights Watch that on December 8, 2014, Muqdadiyya police took her sons, Karim, 33, and Seif, 38, from their home without an arrest warrant. “They burst into the house and grabbed them,” she said. They released the men, who Um Mariam said were civilians, two days later.
But at about 3:30 p.m. on December 12, as their mother watched them approach the al-Bulour checkpoint on their return home, six armed men wearing black or camouflage with their faces covered grabbed the two men. The armed men pushed Um Mariam and threatened to shoot her if she screamed: “I was kissing their hands to make them stop, and they just kicked me off of them,” she said. Immediately afterward, Um Mariam went to file a complaint with the police station commander, who told her the police “couldn’t do anything” about the abduction, she said.
Another brother, Abu Yousif, told Human Rights Watch that unknown men called him shortly afterward and told him his brothers were dead: “Come take your dogs,” they said. “We shot each of them ten times in the chest and threw their bodies.”
Um Mariam and Abu Yousif then fled to Khanaqin, an area in northern Diyala under both Kurdish peshmerga and militia control.
Iraqi government forces and militia abuses has been known in the country and beyond for over a decade but is rarely reported in relation to its relationship to the rapid rise of ISIL. The sectarian-based policies of the central government, based in Baghdad, and violence inflicted on the Sunni population has played a huge part in the rise and appeal of ISIL in the country its Sunni inhabitants and across the world, these factor cannot be underestimated. Even before ISIL were being mentioned as a major force, as late as summer 2013, the former government of the Prime Minister, Nori Al-Maliki were under serious pressure within the country as Sunnis railed against the perceived injustices unleashed upon them by the regime and militias.
From the very beginning of the US-led invasion in March 2003, once the Shia-led political groups and militias regained what they saw as their rightful place as leaders of the country, they embarked on a vengeance campaign against Baathists and any Sunni-led group or individual they labelled a threat. Death squads roamed at will across the country and in particular in Baghdad, leading to an ethnic cleansing of the city which included the virtual end of any mixed Shia/Sunni neighborhoods that had existed under Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship. At the same-time Sunni insurgent groups fought back with a mixture of guerrilla tactics including suicide attacks, bombings and coordinated hit-and-run attacks on coalition forces and then on to the newly-formed Iraqi Security Forces.
Iraq, as a state, has been destroyed by this 10+ years of sectarian violence. The coming-of-ISIL should not be a surprise. The group’s perceived evil in the west and by many others (including the majority of Muslims) is seen as a defence by many Sunnis in Iraq who have come-up against the brutality of the Iraqi-state. This isn’t to say that ISIL are supported across the board by the Sunni population, In Iraq or Syria, but if it is a choice between vengeful security forces and a group which proclaims to be there as a protection, as Patrick Cockburn’s latest Counterpunch article highlights, they will choose ISIL.
The only way ISIL can be dismantled in the long-term in its original base in Iraq is through a real unity government in Baghdad. Al-Maliki has been removed, but the current Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi, does not seem willing or capable of reversing the sectarian trends installed in governance and has little control over the various militia groups, as described in the HRW report. These militias are known to be taking training and direction to some real extent by Iranian forces, on-the-ground. The Kurdish Peshmerga, understandably given their history of persecution under Saddam Hussein’s rule and mistrust from the Shia-led governments, are interested in protecting Greater Kurdistan only. At this point any real unity seems impossible within Iraq due to this bitter Shia/Sunni and Kurdish divide that wracks the country and wider-region.
The sectarian-nature of the conflict is so entrenched that perhaps only an honest, influential and outside broker has any chance of bringing the moderates together. It cannot be the US or European powers involved in the invasion due to the huge part they had to play in the current situation. It is easy to, and many have, blame the Iraqis and their sectarian politics solely for the current situation, but none of this would have been possible without the illegal invasion by the US-led coalition and subsequent brutal occupation, which handed all power to the Shia majority of the country without real consideration for this huge transfer of power. The UN has remained powerless in the region since they were sidelined in the run-up to the invasion in 2003 and coincidentally played a part in legitimising the militias in their call for the relief of the town of Amirli over fear of fresh ISIL massacres. The militias re-taking of Amiril bought a relief from the very real ISIL threats but led to the ransacking of the town and surrounding villages by these very same militias. China has suggested that it may be willing to be involved militarily, but has offered nothing in the way of long-term diplomatic or humanitarian assistance that will really help the people of Iraq.
The Iraqi people of all denominations are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Apart from the brave, indigenous and international humanitarian workers, risking their lives in the country, who is there left to turn to for the beleaguered peoples of Iraq and the wider region?