The killing fields of Iraq, no end in sight?
BEIRUT - The United Nations has sounded an alarm on the staggering number of civilian casualties in Iraq in recent months. However, observers say they do not believe that the fate of civilians is at the top of the agenda of Baghdad’s government.
According to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), more than 55,000 civilians were killed or wounded in Iraq from January 2014 to October 2015 in areas controlled by the Sunni Islamic State (ISIS) and by the predominantly Shia Iraqi government and allied militias.
By October 2015 more than 3.3 million people — including 1 million school-age children — had lost their homes. Internally displaced Iraqis are often denied access — by Iraqi authorities — to areas of refuge and face harassment and arbitrary arrest.
The number of casualties could be much higher because many parts of the country are out of reach of humanitarian organisations.
In the provinces of Anbar, Ninewa or Kirkuk, where the United Nations compiled reports of atrocities and abuses, the situation for civilians is appalling.
Children are forcefully enrolled into ISIS “combat units”, the population is compelled to watch public executions following trials by ISIS, which itself appointed courts in which “culprits” are killed in the most horrid ways. Homosexuals are thrown from buildings. Journalists who are accused of spying are beheaded or shot as are many of those who had held public office after 2003 or who simply do not adhere to the “values and ideals” of ISIS.
Those caught while attempting to flee ISIS-held areas face death. Members of ethnic minorities, such as Yazidi girls and women, are subjected to sexual slavery.
According to the UN report, such acts amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
But ISIS is not the only human rights abuser.
Killings, abductions, destruction of properties take place on a daily basis in Baghdad, which had the highest number of civilian casualties from May to October 2015, and in other areas that are under government control, its security forces and its allied militias, many of which, says the United Nations, do not seem to make a distinction between armed men and civilians.
In Baghdad, UNAMI Director Francesco Motta said the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has stated that it will ensure accountability for all human rights violations committed in the current conflict.
Motta said the United Nations was informed that “the office of the prime minister has appointed a number of committees to carry out investigations into allegations of violations taking place in areas that have been retaken from ISIS, particularly concerning allegations of killings, abductions, destruction of property, etc.”
“The United Nations looks forward to learning of the results of these investigations into these allegations, as well as of actions that the government intends to take in relation to the care and protection of the victims,” he added.
However, Iraqi observers familiar with the country’s political scene scoff at the idea. To them, the international community should know better than to trust Abadi.
“There are courts but the judicial system is flawed as it is under pressure from tribal forces or militias, and there is nothing Abadi can do in this respect. He is powerless and does not even have real military power at his disposal since the Iraqi army collapsed in Mosul when it lost the city to ISIS on June 10, 2014,” said Abdel Amir al-Rukaby, an Iraqi political author who lives part of the year in Baghdad.
“Today, armed militias fighting ISIS on the ground are loyal either to Iran or to Iraq’s top Shia cleric in Najaf, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani,” he said. Nonetheless, the United Nations is asking that all armed forces be placed under the Iraqi government’s control.
“While the government insists that the only armed forces operating on the ground are the Iraqi Security Forces and the People’s Mobilisation Units, there are also other armed groups operating in support of those forces. It is essential that all such armed groups are properly affiliated to the Iraqi Security Forces (…) This is to ensure accountability in relation to any violations that may be committed by members of those armed groups,” said Motta.
Prosecution of such groups might prove difficult as they enjoy legitimacy in large parts of Iraq.
“Actually, Baghdad would have fallen to ISIS if it wasn’t for Grand Ayatollah Sistani who called on the population to take arms giving rise to the so-called Popular Mobilisation Units, also known as Hashd al- Shaabi ,” said Rukaby.
In addition to Hashd al-Shaabi, various other pro-Iranian militias, such as the powerful al Badr Forces, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq or the Iranian Hezbollah, are involved in the fighting and do not report to Abadi.
“Even though members of anti- ISIS militias are engaged in robbing and killing, they consider that nobody can hold them accountable as their legitimacy derives from the fact that they are fighting for the country and spilling their own blood for their land,” added Rukaby.
Motta said deterrent legal steps could be taken by the Iraqi government, such as joining the International Criminal Court or amending the Iraqi criminal code to ensure that war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide are criminalised and prosecuted under domestic law.
For many Iraqi observers, however, nothing of the sort will be achieved as long as there is no internal Iraqi reconciliation. They blame the United States for having assembled a sectarian political government that has failed.
“The political infrastructure of our country is shattered. We should hold a founding conference attended by the various components — religious, secular, ethnic — of the Iraqi society and devise a new formula for living together,” said Rukaby, a Shia. “Let us sit, reckon that our state has totally collapsed and lay the foundations of a unified multi-plural state.”
Such plans have not received the backing of any significant player.