The Iraq Report: War crimes continue in Mosul

The Iraq Report: War crimes continue in Mosul
Analysis: Welcome to The New Arab's weekly digest of events in Iraq
7 min read
19 July, 2017

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More than a week after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over Islamic State group militants in Mosul, there have been further disturbing signs that Iraq has yet to lift itself out of the state of lawlessness into which it has descended since the US-led invasion in 2003. Iraqi military units who answer to the prime minister have been filming themselves executing unarmed and restrained men in horrific ways, leading to condemnation from international human rights groups.


While IS still manages to conduct bombings around Iraq, including outside Baghdad, the fissures between the government and its allies against the militant group are already beginning to reappear. Officials representing the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have suggested the expected independence referendum will be used as a negotiating tactic to wrest further concessions from an increasingly weakened federal government in Baghdad. This weakness is further compounded by Iraqi officials backed by Iran taking powerful ministerial posts, and furthering partisan agendas by dealing with regional powers, including Saudi Arabia.


‘No amnesty’ leads to atrocities


Although it has been little over a week since Abadi dramatically announced that IS had been vanquished in Mosul, there are signs that the “mopping up” operations are taking a heavier toll on Iraqi forces than Baghdad is letting on.


IS has continued to strike Iraqi army units and militarised Federal Police forces throughout the recaptured city, and in particular in the western part of Mosul. Gunfire and airstrikes can still be heard as the government tries to eradicate the last vestiges of IS in the city. This may prove to be problematic, however, considering the importance of accessing local intelligence and assistance during counter-terrorism operations - help which may not be readily available to forces still committing atrocities.


In response to IS’ dogged resistance and mounting Iraqi military casualties in Mosul – where ragged militants would often emerge from shelters firing assault rifles and charging units with suicide vests – Abadi vowed last Thursday that Baghdad would “not issue an amnesty for the murderous terrorists”, brushing off criticism from Amnesty International regarding the mass destruction wrought by the bombing campaign against one of Iraq’s most important cities.


Not long after Abadi promised no amnesty for IS fighters – guaranteeing that none of the extremists would consider surrender and further extending the fighting – sectarian death squads working within the security services started releasing footage of them killing captured men. Alleging the captured and bound men were “suspected IS fighters”, Iraqi forces, suspected of being members of extremist Shia Islamist militias backed by neighbouring Iran, filmed themselves throwing men off bridges and shooting them after they had landed to ensure they were dead.

Thousands of people have been displaced from Mosul [AFP]

The New York-based Human Rights Watch reported they had analysed the videos and geolocated them, confirming the extrajudicial atrocities took place in Mosul. The brutal videos led to comprehensive condemnation among human rights monitoring groups, and led to further criticism of Iraq’s disregard for due process and the use of the justice system to determine guilt before punishment.


Mass destruction and collective punishment


The operation to recapture Mosul from IS extremists left the city in ruins. According to Amnesty International, all sides violated international law during the conflict, including the Iraqi government and the US-led coalition, leading to huge numbers of civilian deaths. Amnesty accused the coalition of using “excessive firepower” in their drive to “annihilate” IS, which placed civilians at unnecessary risk.


Amnesty further slammed the coalition for their “dismissiveness” of civilian fatalities, stating countries who are members of the anti-IS alliance (as well as their Iraqi allies) should “ensure a prompt, impartial investigation into alleged violations [Amnesty] has documented…Even wars have laws and there must be accountability when these are violated”.


An independent monitoring group has supported Amnesty’s claims that civilians are being disproportionately killed as a result of the battle of annihilation against IS. Airwars, a London-based organisation that monitors and documents civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria, said that up to 744 civilians had been killed in June alone.


The United States government claims that the number of civilians killed since it led its coalition into battle against IS in 2014 stands at only 603 fatalities. However, reports from Mosul residents and eyewitnesses seem to run closer to the accounts of Amnesty and Airwars, who blame coalition aircraft for increasingly intensifying airstrikes that has left the city in ruins.


While almost a million have been displaced as a result of the fighting, with hundreds of thousands in refugee camps, HRW has confirmed the Iraqi government had been shipping off alleged IS family members to “rehabilitation camps”. At least 170 families were forcibly relocated to a camp east of Mosul after pro-government groups demanded the eviction of families thought to have ties to IS.


The rehabilitation camps were supposed to allow alleged IS families to access intensive “psychological and ideological rehabilitation, after which they will be reintegrated into society if they prove responsive”, according to a Mosul district council directive.


However, the camps have alarmed human rights organisations and activists who have pointed out that they also exist in the governorates of Diyala, Salahuddin, Anbar and Babil, in addition to Mosul’s Nineveh. Sunni Arabs almost exclusively populate the camps, though they include some Kurdish and Turkmen, with the number of families thought to reach into the high hundreds. HRW has denounced the move as collective punishment of families for the actions of their relatives.

The scale of destruction in Mosul has not stopped the army from celebrating [AFP]


Kurdish ploys, Iranian ascendancy


Iraqi Kurds, meanwhile, appear to confirm what some analysts had long suspected about the upcoming independence referendum in territories controlled by the KRG. A senior KRG official, who represents the Kurdish government in Tehran, said the planned referendum was nothing more than a negotiating tactic to pressure Baghdad into meeting promises on energy and power-sharing.


Nazem Dabbagh told AFP that the KRG would actually prefer to remain part of a united, federal Iraq, but was essentially using the plebiscite as a diplomatic stick with which to beat an increasingly weakened central Baghdad government.


The KRG plans to hold a referendum on independence this year across not only the three governorates that comprise the KRG, but also land and territory nominally under the control of Baghdad, but de facto annexed by the KRG after Iraqi forces fled in the face of the IS onslaught more than three years ago. This includes the highly divisive and coveted oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which has a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.


The Kurds played a major role in the offensive to recapture Mosul, assisting Baghdad in clearing many smaller towns and villages in the operations leading up to the offensive against Iraq’s second city. While they are often at loggerheads with the federal government led by Abadi over oil revenues, Kurdish participation in the Mosul offensive at once cleared a major IS threat from the KRG’s doorstep – though a significant threat remains in Hawija – while earning diplomatic clout against Baghdad.


The central government’s weakness is further compounded by pro-Iran politicians taking senior roles within the Iraqi government and conducting international relations supposedly on behalf of Baghdad, while serving Tehran’s interests and their own.


Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji held high-level diplomatic talks with Saudi Arabia on Monday to discuss security cooperation, intelligence sharing and the easing of visa applications for Iraqis to enter the kingdom. Araji is a member of the Badr Organisation, a group which not only controls the Iraqi interior ministry, but was created by Iran in the 1980s as a Shia Islamist organisation loyal to the ayatollahs who hold sway in Tehran.


Saudi Arabia’s warming of ties with Iran-sponsored Islamists comes at odds with its stance against neighbouring Qatar, whom Riyadh accuses of being a close ally of Iran. Riyadh’s pragmatism towards Iranian proxies, including Araji and Badr, come as the kingdom worked with the Iraqi government to allocate 1,800 Hajj visas to members of pro-Iran Shia jihadists.


With Riyadh seemingly warming to Iraqi Shia groups associated with the Baghdad-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hashd al-Sha’abi in Arabic, questions are arising regarding Saudi claims to leading the Sunni Muslim world. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia claims to oppose Iran, while, on the other, it supports its proxies in Iraq who have been implicated in war crimes and atrocities against the Sunni Arabs of Iraq.

The Iraq Report is a new weekly feature at The New Arab.

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