Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has received a great deal of credit for the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS). After ISIS took Mosul in 2014, the United States argued that defeating the terrorist organization required new political leadership in Baghdad, and it conditioned its military support on replacing Nour al-Maliki as the prime minister. Abadi rose to the premiership as the least objectionable candidate among the competing political factions in Baghdad. He deftly managed a complicated diplomatic dance, staying on good terms with both the United States and Iran. This balancing act kept both American and Iranian forces in the fight against ISIS. Together with Iraqi forces, which Abadi helped to transform and rebuild, this unlikely coalition eventually dismantled ISIS’s territorial caliphate and drove its fighters into the shadows. Although he was not reelected this past summer, Abadi remains proud of his accomplishments—and rightfully so.
In early March, Abadi appeared at the Sulaimani Forum to highlight his role in the defeat of ISIS. Now, in its sixth iteration, the Sulaimani Forum is an annual meeting held at the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani. It has become known for high-profile speakers—Iraqi President Barham Salih is the founder and host of the Forum—along with feisty debate from all sides of Iraqi and international politics. It is a place where, in past years, American and Iranian officials denounced one another; Turks and Kurdish militia leaders traded veiled threats; and Sunni, Shi‘i, and Kurdish Iraqis debated the nature of their country. For those reasons, the Forum has become one of the best opportunities for taking the pulse of Iraqi politics and security. This year was no exception, though for different reasons than in the past.
At the Forum, Abadi shared the stage with prominent journalist Jane Arraf, who has spent years covering the Middle East, and Iraq in particular. Arraf began by asking the former premier several interesting but uncontroversial questions, allowing him to make the case for his legacy. Then, suddenly, the interview descended into the absurd. When the Battle of Mosul came up, Abadi claimed he had made extraordinary efforts to protect civilians. With a straight face, he emphasized that “there were only eight women and children” killed during the battle. He was off by severalthousand. Arraf reported from Mosul during the battle. Hearing Abadi’s claim, she paused for a moment, gathered herself, and asked: “You’re saying only eight women and children were killed in Mosul?” Abadi held firm. “Yes … Less than ten. Eight … Probably the number eight has increased a bit, and that was at one stage … I was there! Looking in the streets, looking who is going where, who is going around, I made sure that there were no civilians, only combatants,” he said. Arraf was also there, and she recounted what she saw. Bodies were strewn about in the streets; buildings had collapsed on families; entire neighborhoods were destroyed. Credible lists of civilian deaths are as high at 10,000 in Mosul with women and children overrepresented among them. Such facts had no effect. Abadi stuck to his figures, insisting that he always double-checked them and that he had relied on multiple sources. By the end of the conversation, he seemed even more convinced of his statement. He might have been the only one in the room who felt that way.
Some at the Forum brushed off Abadi’s statements as either those of a self-serving politician trying to shape his legacy or those of a delusional man who has received far too much credit for Iraq’s success in defeating ISIS. Such sentiments are dangerous. Dismissing Abadi’s statements conceals the fact that they fit well into larger narratives that minimize the suffering the Iraqi forces inflicted on Mosul; these are the same narratives that continue to erase atrocities against Sunni Arabs in the country today. The result is a potential time bomb that Iraqi leaders are ignoring at their own peril.
The liberation of Sunni Arab cities in Iraq—Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul, among others—from ISIS often left little more than rubble in its wake. Numerous reportsfromHuman Rights Watch documented “summary killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and the destruction of homes” often by Iranian-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), or Hashd al-Sha‘bi, and, to a lesser extent, by the Iraqi military and Kurdish forces. In some places, entire villages were razed. Some reports documented how PMF fighters came to displaced persons camps in the middle of the night and took people who were not on the official wanted lists. Deputy Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch Lama Fakih stated in one report, “In case after case, relatives are telling us that their male family members are being stopped by PMF fighters and disappearing.” She continued, “While we cannot know exactly what has happened to the men detained, the lack of transparency, particularly for their families as to their whereabouts, is cause for real concern.” Reporting over the past few months has provided disturbing insights into the scale and arbitrariness of the campaign, which is nominally targeting the remnants of ISIS, but is beginning to look like revenge against Iraq’s Sunni Arab population as a whole.
There were an estimated 8,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul and far fewer in the surrounding cities. Yet, the wanted list of ISIS suspects has grown to some 100,000 people. An Iraqi intelligence official interviewed by Ben Taub of The New Yorkerdescribed “systematic criminality within the security forces, detailing patterns of battlefield executions, murders in detention centers, and coverups organized by the state.” He continued, “We’re deleting thousands of families from Iraqi society. . . . This is not just revenge on ISIS. This is revenge on Sunnis.”
If suspects are captured alive, they are severely tortured until they confess. Many do not survive these interrogations. A few are sent to court to provide a semblance of due process, but these are little more than show-trials. There is a 98% conviction rate, and people are found guilty even when there is clear evidence that they are not. For example, in one case, a man was found guilty of using a detonator to set off a bomb even though the incident was known to have been caused by a suicide bomber. In many cases, lawyers simply refuse to represent the defendants for fear that they will be accused of holding ISIS sympathies. Every day, 25 people are sentenced to death in Iraqi courts, and, again, these are only the people who make it to trial, almost certainly a small minority of the accused.
The families of accused ISIS fighters are herded into fenced-in compounds. Some relief workers call them concentration camps. These family members often have no rights. The state will not reissue them identification cards, and children who were born in ISIS-occupied areas are sometimes denied Iraqi birth certificates. They are, in essence, stateless in their own country. Some PMF militias are running extortion rackets; if innocent people cannot or will not pay them thousands of dollars in bribes, then they are added to the lists of the accused. Many of the women have lost all male members of their families, and some have been forced into prostitution as the only means to provide for their children. In other cases, militia members and soldiers simply rape them. The resulting unwanted babies—hundreds of them—are left for dead in trash cans or isolated parts of the camps. And hundreds of small children are growing up in Iraqi prisons. Again, it should be emphasized that many of these families insist that they did not support ISIS and did not have family members who joined the organization. Some have credible stories to back up these claims, but it simply does not matter.
Those accused of having some connection to ISIS are among the nearly two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq. These are mostly Sunni Arabs along with a smattering of other minorities—Christians, Yazidis, and others—from areas that ISIS had controlled. Many, but not all of them, continue to live in camps. The Iraqi government and humanitarian NGOs have worked hard to reduce number of IDPs significantly over the past two years. Some four million IDPs have returned home. However, even those who return continue to face considerable challenges, often from PMF militias. As a recent UN report noted, “Approximately 11 per cent of the roughly 4 million returnees are in locations where living conditions are not considered to be adequate, dignified and safe.” Many of the remaining IDPs do not want to return home due to fear for their safety. Relief organizations are doing what they can to support these families, but a generation of children is growing up in trying conditions, without access to normal schools, permanent housing, or secure social networks. This, too, will have dire repercussions for Iraqi society when these children grow up.
The current situation of Sunni Arabs and other religious minorities in former ISIS-controlled areas is tragic, even more so because after the defeat of ISIS many of them welcomed the Iraqi forces as liberators. More recently, however, a narrativeofsectarian persecution has reemerged. More and more Sunnis now see the Iraqi government and its security forces, especially the PMF militias, as representatives of Shi‘i and Iranian interests. It is impossible to ignore the potentially perilous similarity between this narrative and the narrative that helped bring ISIS back to power after its military defeat during the Surge of 2006-7, when an American-led counterinsurgency campaign suppressed jihadists in the Iraqi military but did not defeat them politically. It would be irresponsible not to contemplate how history may be repeating itself. Indeed, perceptive observers of Iraqi politics are doing just that.
Considering the humanitarian and strategic implications of what is happening to Iraq’s Sunni Arab population—especially as part of the campaign to kill or capture the remnants of ISIS in Iraq—one would imagine that it would be a major topic of conversation among Iraqi officials at the Sulaimani Forum. Yet, the subject was almost completely missing from the discussions. The Forum was founded, and continues to be hosted, by Dr. Barham Salih. Dr. Barham, as he is known in Iraq, is by all accounts one of the most liberal, diplomatic, and capable public figures in Iraq. For those reasons, his recent selection to be the President of Iraq was almost universally praised. Whether because of his new appointment or some other reason, the Forum presented a more polished and unified narrative than in the past. The Iraqi President acknowledged in generic terms that Iraq faced problems, but he did not provide details. Instead, he presented a message of hope. He brought up instances of Shi‘is critiquing Shi‘is, Sunnis critiquing Sunnis, and Kurds critiquing Kurds. Sectarianism still exists, he acknowledged, but he believed Iraqis were beginning to move beyond it. Moreover, he proposed that Iraq could be a stabilizing force in the region because it lies at the intersection of Turks, Kurds, Arabs, and Persians. In the same way that a destabilized Iraq created broader instability, a secure and successful Iraq would promote peace throughout the region. The path forward, he averred, was to focus on the basics like providing electricity and water.
A steady stream of Iraqi ministers and politicians toed the same line. People like Qusay Suhail (Iraqi Minister of Education) and Ammar al-Hakim (leader of the Shi‘i Hikma Movement) argued that Iraq is moving in the right direction, and because it is so diverse and borders so many different nations, a strong, independent Iraq can be a force for peace and stability in the region. Several speakers even suggested that Iraq could be a “model” for other aspiring democratic states in the Middle East. One attendee summarized the general feeling on social media: “It was clear this year’s discussion had a different tone & conditions. Such conditions are critical in setting the policies in the right direction in order to move forward.”
At the Forum, I participated in a roundtable discussion covering the Iraqi security sector. It included a number of journalists, policy experts, and some people fairly close to the Iraqi government. The narrative was largely the same as in the other sessions. The interests of Sunni Arabs from places like Mosul were not even mentioned. It was as if they did not exist. Instead, most of the discussion focused on integrating the PMF militias into the Iraqi state. Several people highlighted how much the Iraqi people supported the PMF and how the PMF had accrued considerable political power. Other, more nuanced discussion revolved around divisions within the PMF and between it and the Iraqi Army. At times, the conversation drifted into topics such as the challenges that the PMF faced in southern Shi‘i cities, and some participants pointed out that it did not enjoy universal support in places like Basra. Yet, no one discussed the fact that Iraqi security forces and the PMF continue to carry out appalling war crimes and human rights violations. Ben Taub of The New Yorker has reported their actions in jarring detail:
[Iraqi] security forces filmed themselves punching, kicking, and whipping men in ad-hoc detention sites, including school classrooms. They dragged suspects by the hair, stepped on their heads, slammed knees into their faces, and threw furniture at them. They beat people unconscious; they beat people to death. They filmed themselves gunning down captives in open fields and stabbing them in the face with knives. A group of Hashd [PMF] members struggled to interrogate six foreign fighters who couldn’t speak Arabic; in the end, they shot them, doused them in gasoline, and lit them on fire—including two who were still alive. A federal police officer filmed himself beheading captives, including minors, and posted the videos to his Facebook account. He told a Swedish reporter that he had decapitated fifty people so far, all while they were still alive; as he paraded through the streets holding severed heads aloft, other uniformed police officers and soldiers cheered and marched alongside him. All through northern and western Iraq, anti-ISIS forces kept lists of people they wanted to kill. They hung bodies from telephone poles, and encouraged civilians to desecrate the corpses of their former jihadi oppressors. The irony was not lost on the killers—they knew that they were mirroring the Islamic State’s worst acts.
That Iraq’s Sunni Arabs will simply overlook such actions defies belief, especially considering that many of the accused profess their innocence and are believed to be innocent by their neighbors. Sunni Arab regions of Iraq were devastated by both ISIS and the counter-ISIS campaign, so they have almost no political power right now. They can be easily ignored. However, for Iraq to achieve long-term stability, these Sunni Arab regions will need to be reintegrated, and some political power will need to be ceded to them. When that happens, the idea that the PMF militiamen and soldiers responsible for such atrocities should be provided with state salaries and honored positions in government is going to be extremely problematic.
Unlike in previous Forums, there was no strong Sunni Arab Iraqi voice to make these points. In the past, people such as Usama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab who served as Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, had made clear that the government’s strategy for fighting ISIS, while operationally effective in the short term, was not helpful over the long term. He was a controversial figure at the time, and he has grown even more unpopular since. However, he highlighted atrocities against Sunnis that most politicians in Baghdad refused to acknowledge, and he argued, probably correctly, “If we do not start the reform processes, even if ISIS goes, another ISIS will come.” The closest thing to a strong Sunni Arab voice this year was Ebtisam al-Ketbi, President of the Emirates Policy Center. However, she is Emirati, not Iraqi. Thus, she mostly refrained from discussing internal Iraqi affairs. Nevertheless, she attempted to throw cold water on the idea of Iraq’s new role in the region. Instead, she insisted, probably correctly, that Iran wants a weak Iraq. As such, Tehran will likely thwart attempts to build a strong Iraq capable of providing regional stability. If they had been represented at the Forum, many people from the Sunni Arab population in Mosul would probably have approved of al-Kebti’s more skeptical analysis about Iraq’s current political trajectory. Of course, the residents of Mosul would probably have agreed that electricity and water are important, but if people are not safe, if their fathers have been killed by government sanctioned militias, and if their relatives are being tortured in government prisons, then the idea that providing such services is going to create stability is farcical.
Several international officials hinted at this point, although much more diplomatically. American Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations Denise Natali highlighted that the number one hindrance to stabilization is militias operating outside state control. This was a dig at the PMF, even if she did not say so explicitly. Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Iraq Jeanine Jenni-Plasschaert made a similar remark within a broader critique of the government’s attempts to whitewash the situation in Iraq.
Prior to 2014, many Sunni Arabs in Iraq lost faith in their government. Some of them welcomed ISIS in the hope that it could stand as a bulwark against arbitrary punishments handed down by what they saw as a sectarian government in Baghdad, under the thinly veiled thumb of Tehran. Now that ISIS is gone, some sectors of Iraqi society are out for revenge. But who is to blame for ISIS? The question becomes increasingly complicated when one attempts to determine at what point acquiescence (on pain of death) to ISIS becomes support for ISIS. Did a civil servant who continued to work for the city when ISIS took control become an ISIS supporter? What about a teacher who was forced to teach the ISIS curriculum? What about police officers? What about those who did not resist? What if their family members joined and they did not attempt to stop them? Who is culpable and where does one draw the line? These are deeply philosophical questions, and they are not easily answered. Stability in Iraq will require some sort of justice for those responsible for ISIS, but true justice will require wrestling with such difficult questions. That is simply not occurring in Iraq today. Instead, the Iraqi government is acquiescing to widespread atrocities against an entire sector of its society. Instead of confronting these problems, Iraqi officials appear inclined to ignore and deny them. In doing so, they are erasing the victims of current Iraqi policies in the same way that Abadi so casually erased the civilian deaths in the Battle for Mosul.