Iraq's pyrrhic victories: Triumphalist narratives and deja vu

Iraq's pyrrhic victories: Triumphalist narratives and deja vu
4 min read
04 Aug, 2017
Blog: Military hubris prevents lessons being learned about the re-emergence of armed extremist groups, notes Hadani Ditmars.
Victory celebrations over the demise of IS may be premature [AFP]

As triumphalist pronouncements of the vanquishing of the Islamic State group in Mosul continue, even as abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Iraqi army and associated Shia militias persist, I am reminded of other pyrrhic victories in the land of two rivers.

"We announce the total victory for Iraq and all Iraqis," Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said on July 11, on the edge of Mosul's ravaged Old City district.

"This great feast day crowned the victories of the fighters and the Iraqis of the past three years." 

The threat of IS has not disappeared

But one would hope that after so many fatal examples of military hubris - George W Bush's "mission accomplished" springs to mind, Iraq's leaders would be more careful about broadcasting their prowess.

After all, the threat of IS has not disappeared. If anything, with human rights abuses carrying on against Mosul's beleaguered citizens - as many as 40,000 of whom perished in the US-backed campaign to "liberate" the city - and concentration camp-like "re-education" camps for alleged family members of IS fighters - the sectarian divisions exploited by IS will likely only increase.

And as Human Rights Watch reported, the US-trained Iraqi 16th division has been linked to war crimes in Mosul.

"Throughout the military operation to retake Mosul, Human Rights Watch has documented Iraqi forces detaining and holding at least 1,200 men and boys in inhumane conditions without charge, and in some cases torturing and executing them under the guise of screening them for ISIS-affiliation. In the final weeks of the Mosul operation, Human Rights Watch has reported on executions of suspected ISIS affiliates in and around Mosul's Old City, including the discovery of a mass execution site."

HRW cites gruesome accounts of decapitated female IS fighters, and child soldiers of the Islamic State group as young as 14 summarily executed and their corpses left to rot in the sun.

It will be a long time before the full death toll from the IS occupation of Mosul, and the battle to 'liberate' it is known [AFP]

And while the UN, Amnesty International and other international agencies have called for action for several months over the horrors unfolding in Mosul, Prime Minister Abadi has offered little more than lip service.

While exploiting the very real war crimes committed by IS in Mosul, he has remained tight-lipped on atrocities committed by Iraqi forces and associated militias, acknowledging some abuses, but taking no significant action to curb them.

Meanwhile, American NGOs in Mosul have delighted in tweeting about girls' schools re-opening and the evil deeds of the vanquished IS vandals - ushering in a "new era" for Iraq.

But somehow this is all very familiar. Not only does it remind me of the US rhetoric leading up to and immediately after the invasion of Afghanistan - "schools for girls", rather than "spoils for warlords" - it's also eerily reminiscent of post-2003 invasion Iraq.

As I documented in my book Dancing in the No Fly Zone, I attended a PR tour of Abu Ghraib prison, led by Janis Karpinski in September 2003. We were treated to a tour of brand new dental facilities, and a special excursion to the "chamber of death", where, in the bad old Baathist days, prisoners were executed - and where before long - Saddam would also be lynched.

The "kinder, gentler jailors" refused to allow us access to actual prisoners, preferring instead to introduce us to the same beady-eyed prison "doctor" who had worked there under the old regime - when medical personnel were complicit in torture - suddenly reborn as a "healer". This tied in nicely with the triumphalist narrative du jour - namely, "Saddam was evil, we are saviours".

Overall, the latest pyrrhic victory in Mosul raises more difficult questions than it offers easy answers

Overall, the latest pyrrhic victory in Mosul raises more difficult questions than it offers easy answers.

How are US-trained special forces able to carry out a reign of terror with such impunity? How did Mosul fall in the first place, with Iraqi soldiers simply melting away and leaving their often US-supplied weapons to IS?

And now, more importantly, who stands to gain from the destruction of Iraq's second biggest, historically important city. Not just the families of "martyred" Shia militiamen currently being awarded prime Mosul real estate, but also those companies and NGOs who will be rewarded with contracts to rebuild the ruined city.

In a land that has seen more that its fair share of brutal invasions and reigns of terror, let's hope that the real work of holding abusers accountable and rebuilding community will not be vanquished by false narratives based on sectarian politics and military machismo.

The long-suffering people of Mosul - and Iraq - deserve better.


Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars