The Iraq Report: Internally displaced Iraqis denied identity papers
Although it has been half a decade since the forces of the Islamic State group (IS) were defeated and rolled back after they had captured a third of Iraq in a lightning offensive in 2014, little has been done to remedy the fundamental problems that led to their rise in the first place.
Rather than expending a concerted effort to reintegrate areas of Iraq once under the extremists’ rule, the Iraqi government has instead opted to ignore and outright ostracise millions of predominantly Sunni Arabs by ensuring they are denied formal identity papers and therefore access to what little government services, education, and health the Baghdad government does provide.
If this is not remedied, and soon, then it could spell the beginning of yet another violent chapter in Iraq’s ongoing tragedy since it was invaded and occupied by the United States and its allies in 2003.
"Rather than expending a concerted effort to reintegrate areas of Iraq once under Islamic State rule, the Iraqi government has instead opted to ignore and outright ostracise millions of predominantly Sunni Arabs"
Millions denied identity documents
While the Iraqi government has expended significant effort by courting international donors into making post-war Mosul seem like a success story, the reality is starkly different – particularly for other predominantly Sunni Arab areas.
The Iraqi authorities have ensured the press has ready access to areas such as Mosul’s historical sites, showcasing some of the country’s millennia-old contributions to human civilisation. The authorities are attempting to portray the area as pacified and open for business, with tourists encouraged to visit.
While boosting tourism to these areas is undoubtedly a positive step, it pales in significance to the plight of millions of Iraqis – mainly Sunni Arabs – who were either displaced during the fighting in 2013-2017 or else forced into prison camps as so-called 'IS families'.
Although Baghdad had announced it would close down the numerous camps for the internally displaced in 2019, IDP camps remained open informally, with such camps holding 1.2 million destitute Iraqis who could not go back home.
Many of these IDPs had no homes to return to, as the heavy weapons used by the Iraqi security forces to defeat IS had razed their towns and cities to the ground, and had not yet been rebuilt. In other cases, such as Jurf al-Sakhr, towns were depopulated of Sunnis and repopulated with Shia families linked to militia factions – raising concerns of war crimes.
Now, a new report by seven NGOs released on Monday shows that many of these millions of Iraqis continue to face harrowing conditions as they are denied their right to an identity half a decade on from Iraq’s supposed victory.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), millions are still denied access to essential identification documents, and “those still lacking crucial forms of ID are at continued risk of exclusion from key public services, including access to healthcare and education”.
A lack of essential identity papers also means that, despite claims of democracy, the Iraqi authorities have effectively carved out a million potential voters they consider to be undesirables from the electoral roll. This further entrenches not only the ghettoization of Iraqi society but separates the haves from the have-nots.
Securitisation of Sunnis
In recent reports that further demonstrate how destructive this ghettoization has been, Iraqi security forces have arrested over 1,000 children, with some having been forced to confess to IS membership under conditions of duress and torture.
Effectively, this has allowed the Iraqi government, which is dominated by Shia Islamist groups that have been embroiled in charges of sectarianism for almost two decades, to further the securitisation of Iraq’s Sunni Arab demographic.
This has, however, been a long-standing policy of the Iraqi authorities even while under direct US supervision during the occupation. In fact, it was the American military governor of Iraq, Paul Bremer, who instituted the ill-fated and infamous 'De-Baathification' laws immediately after assuming control in 2003.
While these laws ostensibly sought to weed out members of the former Baath regime led by dictator Saddam Hussein, they were in effect used to cast a wide net and distance wide swathes of the Iraqi populace who were hostile to US interventionism and the newly minted elite from politics.
"A lack of essential identity papers also means that, despite claims of democracy, the Iraqi authorities have effectively carved out a million potential voters they consider to be undesirables from the electoral roll"
In some cases, and as reported by the New York Times, Sunni schoolteachers who were accused of being Baathists were dismissed from their jobs with their roles going to unqualified Shia candidates in order to push Sunnis out of the bureaucracy and state institutions.
This was not only motivated by more mundane sectarian reasons, but by security considerations, with Sunnis deemed to be less loyal to the Iraqi state than the Shia, many of whom supported the US-led invasion before ultimately souring on it.
This, therefore, led to not only the excision of 'disloyal' Sunnis from the various apparatuses of the state, bar a few token Sunnis in parliamentary and weak ministerial positions, but it was also exacerbated by anti-terrorism laws that almost exclusively targeted the Sunnis.
These laws were adopted in 2005 under the auspices of the unelected, American-directed Iraqi National Assembly that predated the Council of Representatives – Iraq’s elected parliament. In the ensuing eight years, and particularly under the premiership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – a hardline Shia Islamist close to Iran – Sunnis were repeatedly targeted in security operations that relied on these laws.
While Sunnis protested their mistreatment on numerous occasions, little was done and instead Maliki ramped up his campaign against their community, leading to the outbreak of violence in late 2013 after Maliki’s security forces stormed peaceful protest camps – violence that IS was to exploit to capture a third of the country in 2014.
Eventually, and particularly after the collapse of IS’ short-lived pseudo-state, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) found that even trials of IS suspects were marred by violations of fair trial standards, including ineffective legal representation, limited possibility to challenge prosecution evidence, and little time or facilities provided to prepare a fair defence to charges that carry the death penalty.
Once again, this disproportionately impacted the Sunni population, and with millions of Sunni Arabs continuing to languish in both formal and informal IDP camps, Iraq faces a brewing threat. With no one and nowhere else to turn to, these camps can become hotbeds of recruitment to militant groups seeking to turn justifiable anger at the sectarian Iraqi system into another war.
This is almost certain to happen as the situation of the Sunnis was deplorable before 2014 and IS managed to exploit the instability to find a space for their ambitions. In 2022, the state of the Sunnis is magnitudes worse than it was in 2014, and there are many groups seeking to exploit their desperation.
If Baghdad does not rapidly learn the lessons of what triggered the last war and allowed for the mass destruction of Iraqi lives and cities, then it may very well be doomed to make the same mistakes again.
The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.
Click here to see the full archive.