The necessity of restraint in post-Islamic State Iraq
When al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to the Islamic State group, blew up the Shia al-Askari mosque in Samarra in February 2006, they sparked a wave of indiscriminate revenge attacks by Iraq's Shia majority against the country's Sunni minority.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shia cleric in Iraq, called upon the country's Shia not to retaliate against their Sunni neighbours, shrewdly calculating that this was exactly the response al-Qaeda sought. His call for restraint went largely unheeded and the situation spiralled out of control, plunging Iraq into horrific sectarian violence and bloodletting which has scarred the country ever since.
This month, the Iraqi state finally recaptured the city of Mosul from IS, arguably the most vicious and dangerous Islamist group to terrorise Iraq and its people to date. Any Iraqi desire to take revenge against the largely defeated group which, in an extremely cruel and systematic fashion, massacred Iraqis of all denominations is certainly understandable.
Video footage has already emerged showing Iraqi soldiers engaged in beatings and extrajudicial killings of suspected IS members they had taken prisoner.
|Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also|
George Orwell wrote a thought-provoking article about the sourness of revenge after witnessing a young Jew kicking a German prisoner of war on a visit to Germany shortly after its defeat in the Second World War. While he believed it "absurd to blame any German or Austrian Jew for getting his own back on the Nazis" he nevertheless saw a certain futility in the act.
"What this scene, and much else that I saw in Germany, brought home to me was that the whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish daydream," Orwell recounted. "Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also."
Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi dissent who assiduously chronicled the cruelty and crimes of the Saddam Hussein regime, once said that the day the Iraqi tyrant was hanged was "one of the worst days of my life".
"It was a disaster, an unmitigated disaster," he recalled. "I was just so upset, even on the verge of tears. It was the antithesis of everything I had been working for and hoping for."
Saddam was charged and executed for the massacre of more than a hundred civilians in the Shia-majority town of Dujail near Baghdad in 1982 following an assassination - a heinous crime but a small one compared to the long list of other atrocities he committed.
Instead of a more comprehensive trial charging him for all of his crimes against humanity, Saddam ended up almost looking like the victim by standing stoically as the hangman's noose was placed around his neck. Or as Makiya put it, the entire trial and execution was so poorly handled that it "actually succeeded in making Saddam look good in the eyes of the Arab world".
Saddam's trial aptly demonstrates how a quixotic attempt at revenge ended up eliminating any chance that real justice could have been served to his countless victims. Surely it is a lesson Baghdad should heed when dealing with captured IS members today.
|Iraq and its people have to be scrupulous when it comes to dealing with the fate of those suspected of collaborating with IS|
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is clearly cognizant of the dangers of broad retribution. He expressed opposition to the expulsion of the militant's families and relatives from the country's Nineveh Province, but was ignored by local tribal officials.
Sweeping revenge attacks and summary executions of suspected IS members - including those who were coerced to cooperate with the group, or had done so out of sheer necessity rather than any ideological affinities - could end up widening the divisions and fissures in Iraqi society that IS masterfully exploited to capture Mosul and other swathes of Iraqi territory in the first place.
Consequently, Iraq and its people have to be scrupulous when it comes to dealing with the fate of those suspected of collaborating with IS. Suspects should be convicted in accordance to the proven extent, intention and nature of their collaboration with the group: for example, were they technocrats or torturers?
Such criteria will enable Iraq to solidify its success against IS on the battlefield and salt the earth from which this hideous and poisonous weed grew.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.