The Iraq Report: Missing Sunnis an admission of 'war crimes'

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6 min read
05 January, 2023
Thousands of mostly Sunni Iraqis are thought to have been extrajudicially killed by Baghdad-sanctioned but Tehran-controlled Shia militias during the fight against the Islamic State.

Iraqi political dissidents and activists have expressed their outrage after Iraqi parliamentary speaker, Mohammed al-Halbousi, appeared to confirm in December that thousands of missing Sunni Arabs had been extrajudicially killed by Baghdad-sanctioned but Tehran-controlled Shia militias.

Halbousi was referring to the plight of “thousands” of Sunnis who were, according to extensive reporting by The New Arab in its Iraq Report series and organisations such as Amnesty International, forcibly disappeared between 2013 and 2017 by Shia militants associated with neighbouring Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as they battled the Islamic State (IS) group.

While rights groups and dissidents have called upon the Iraqi authorities to disclose the whereabouts of these Sunni men and boys for years, Halbousi’s remarks are the first such admission from a senior government official that Baghdad and forces under its command and control are responsible for grave human rights violations and sectarian war crimes.

"Mohammed al-Halbousi admitted that Iran-backed and Iraq-sanctioned Shia militias were responsible for the 'assassination' of thousands of Sunni Arabs who went missing between 2013 and 2017 as the country was at war with IS militants"

Speaker admits Shia militias 'assassinated' Sunnis

In an unusually candid televised interview with local network Al-Shaheed in early December, Speaker of the Council of Representatives Mohammed al-Halbousi admitted that Iran-backed and Iraq-sanctioned Shia militias were responsible for the “assassination” of thousands of Sunni Arabs who went missing between 2013 and 2017 as the country was at war with IS militants.

The speaker made it clear that he was seeking financial compensation from the government for the families of all those who had gone missing and were extrajudicially executed. He also slammed leading Shia Islamist politicians and militia commanders, and said the “same leaders of these [Shia] groups also held power” at the time the war with IS was still raging and these atrocities were occurring.

Halbousi, himself a Sunni from Anbar, made it clear that “the state must do justice to their families and include them in the list of victims of terrorism, and they should be considered for compensation,” adding that the authorities in Baghdad had been misleading families since 2014, giving their families false hope of their return.

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He further noted that the missing Sunni men and boys were “abducted” and “assassinated”. 

Following Halbousi’s revelatory remarks, the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights issued a statement in which it considered the senior Sunni politician’s statement as “an official announcement of [the disappeared Sunnis’] execution at the hands of armed militias during the expulsion of IS from Iraq”.

“Halbousi has effectively confirmed that the Iraqi government has engaged in a sectarian genocide against its own people, the Sunni Arabs,” Ahmed al-Mahmud, Iraq analyst at the London-based opposition group, the Foreign Relations Bureau – Iraq, told The New Arab.

“What else can you call it? A senior government official has confirmed that a previous iteration of his government, including men who are still in government, had overseen and turned a blind eye to the mass disappearance and assassination of tens of thousands of Sunnis on the basis of their sectarian identity,” Mahmud said.

“That fits the bill when it comes to genocide, as they sought to destroy, in whole or in part, the Sunni Arabs out of hatred, and used the war against IS as a cover,” the Iraqi analyst concluded.

Islamic state militants attacked Iraqi army soldiers [Getty]
At the time, leading human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, criticised the Iraqi authorities for allowing for an atmosphere of 'absolute impunity'. [Getty]

A history of sectarian violence

At the time, leading human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, criticised the Iraqi authorities for allowing for an atmosphere of “absolute impunity” by granting Shia militias a free hand to conduct all manner of human rights violations and war crimes without fear of judicial oversight or reprisal.

In a 2016 report, Amnesty wrote to the Iraqi government, then headed by Haidar al-Abadi, urging him to ensure the rights of the “thousands” of Sunnis that had been abducted, tortured and disappeared.

While Abadi condemned the violations, he also downplayed them by claiming that they were “not systematic” and were merely “isolated” incidents. He further attempted to discourage “excessive” reporting on them as he thought they would undermine the reputation of the Iraqi armed forces who were, at the time, fighting IS.

"In a 2016 report, Amnesty wrote to the Iraqi government, then headed by Haidar al-Abadi, urging him to ensure the rights of the 'thousands' of Sunnis that had been abducted, tortured and disappeared"

However, it was not just formally enlisted men of the Iraqi military who were implicated, but members of what became known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). Now part of the formal structure of the Iraqi military, the PMF began life following a fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani calling on all men to fight IS.

This led to the PMF becoming an umbrella group for dozens of largely Shia Islamist armed groups, some of whom already had chequered pasts, and who would later acquire legitimacy within the Iraqi system after Abadi’s government passed laws in 2016 and 2017, merging them within the chain of command of the Iraqi armed forces.

As a result, the PMF began to enjoy a proportion of Iraq’s defence budget. While the defence ministry has traditionally been held by Sunni politicians, the inclusion of the PMF in the military’s command structure effectively rendered the defence minister even more of a figurehead and diluted his power, as he could not act to curtail the PMF for fear of enraging powerful Shia Islamist groups who have held sway in Iraq since 2003.

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The PMF have since become a powerful force in Iraqi politics, even fielding politicians in elections and represented by influential Shia Islamist political blocs such as the Coordination Framework that includes former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and former cabinet ministers such as Hadi al-Ameri in its ranks.

Both of these men are alleged to have played a role in documented human rights abuses in the run-up to events that led to the rise of IS, with the former having notoriously ruled Iraq in a sectarian manner and the latter being the head of the powerful Iranian proxy the Badr Organisation, responsible for numerous sectarian atrocities while they controlled the interior ministry.

This history of sectarian violence and government insouciance to the suffering of a significant proportion of its population has cast a long shadow over Iraqi government reports and claims when it comes to its ongoing fight against IS.

A fighter in Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces stands guard next to a wall showing the group's logo outside their headquarters in the capital Baghdad on 13 June, 2021. [Getty]
The PMF have since become a powerful force in Iraqi politics. [Getty]

The fear amongst many is that, whenever reports of IS cells being destroyed are released by the government or military (as occurred in early December) there is always doubt over the veracity of the claim and whether or not the alleged operation was in fact another sectarian attack that was covered up by the catch-all excuse of “combating IS”.

This should serve as a warning to not only the Iraqi authorities, who are already witnessing rock-bottom popularity as low election turnouts so adequately demonstrate, but to the international community that must do more to hold its Iraqi partner to account.

If the Iraqi government is to continue to receive support from wealthy and powerful benefactors such as the United States, then that aid must be contingent upon a firm and provable commitment to respecting human rights and holding the perpetrators of any war crimes accountable for their actions.

Any less than this, and we may once more, and in the near future, see a resurgence of deadly communal violence and civil war in a country that has seen little else for the past two decades.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @DrTalAbdulrazaq

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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