Forgotten Front Line in Hawija

The Iraqi government has ignored Hawija’s plight, risking future unrest.

IDPs from Hawija arrive at a Iraqi Kurdish checkpoint
IDPs from Hawija arrive at an Iraqi Kurdish checkpoint

On 22 September, General Rebwar Ali, an Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga commander in Kirkuk, declared that Kurdish forces would participate in the operation to liberate Hawija along with Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Local Sunni Arab officials have long been fearful of Kurdish or PMU intervention in Hawija – a predominantly Sunni Arab town in the country’s agricultural heartland 65 km southwest of Kirkuk city. Instead, they look (albeit warily) to the Iraqi Army and Baghdad to expel ISIS militants.

Yet the Iraqi government has remained silent regarding the deteriorating conditions there, exacerbating the catastrophe through neglect. Into this vacuum, local powerbrokers have asserted their “willingness” to lead operations. Today, Hawija’s liberators will most likely be a coalition of Kurdish and PMU forces. Few have considered or addressed how locals may react. As one PMU commander flatly stated: “we do not know why the Sunni tribesmen fear us.”

Many Sunni leaders have tacitly accepted Gen. Ali’s premise, an acquiescence that indicates how critical the security and humanitarian situation in Hawija has become. Nearly 400,000 civilians remain trapped under ISIS control in Hawija and its outlying areas, with little food, medicine, or ability to flee. Hundreds of residents have been killed by ISIS militants – many others have reportedly died from thirst, hunger, or lack of medical treatment. Displaced residents have described their home as “rife with death and famine.”

Hawija’s residents, who have lived under ISIS occupation since August 2014, feel neglected by policymakers in Baghdad. The situation there exemplifies why Baghdad must coordinate a truly national strategy to defeat ISIS. The Iraqi government must not ignore the town lest they perpetuate the feelings of abandonment that fueled popular unrest two years ago.

A Dire Humanitarian Situation

Relief cannot come too soon for Hawija. The government’s neglect has pushed residents to risk their lives in attempts to flee toward Kirkuk. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials estimate that 18,000 people fled Hawija in August; this week, an additional 450 families reached Peshmerga checkpoints near Kirkuk, and the United Nations reported that 300 IDPs from the area had arrived in the Debaga camp between 22 and 25 September. Unconfirmed reports in Iraqi press indicate that ISIS is executing civilians caught trying to escape, and planting land mines to keep residents in place.

Those remaining in Hawija suffer severe electricity, water, and food shortages. Residents describe their home as “a prison,” where thousands of families have been held by militants. The price of flour or sugar has reportedly reached one million Iraqi dinars (US$846) per bag; according to some IDP testimony, many of their compatriots have resorted to eating grass and crushing date stones to make their own flour. Under such conditions, children have reportedly died from starvation.

Hawija’s remaining residents are among the most vulnerable populations in Iraq – neglected by the government, abused by their occupiers, and subject to an unpredictable liberation force. Most dangerously, they remain largely invisible in the eyes of the international media or community.

Today, locals must choose between two equally unpalatable groups. Kurdish forces have been accused of cleansing Arab regions they enter; the PMU have engaged in similar, documented activity across reconquered Sunni areas with Shia populations. Without government or international oversight, any liberation could precipitate serious violence – either in the form of reprisals against Sunni inhabitants thought to sympathize with ISIS, or between Kurdish and PMU factions.

From Confrontation to Neglect

A legacy of confrontation between local residents and the central government has left Iraqi policymakers wary of committing forces to Hawija.  There, Sunni resentment against Baghdad has simmered for a decade. Reliance on Kurdish and Shia militias to provide the liberation force will do little to address systemic distrust between Sunni populations and policymakers in Baghdad. In April 2013, residents rose up against policies of arbitrary detentions and political marginalization perpetrated by then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. After several days of violent protests, Iraqi security forces stormed a protest camp, killing at least 41 civilians.

This crackdown prompted Sunni tribal figures in the town and across northern Iraq to harden their rhetoric against Maliki’s government. The massacre of demonstrators imparted legitimacy and coherence to popular Sunni anger. As Hawija’s protesters came under fire, gun battles erupted across Iraq’s majority-Sunni cities, including Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul. From Jordan, influential religious figure Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi said, “self defense has become a legitimate and legal duty.” Some Sunni tribes mobilized, declaring jihad against Baghdad.

While political leaders from both sides of the sectarian divide appealed for calm, tribal elements largely ignored calls for restraint. Protest leaders in other Sunni areas vowed solidarity with Hawija’s embattled residents. In Mosul, one opposition spokesman declared that “the demonstrators in Mosul have left the sit-in area to take up arms in…Hawija.” As the International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann notes, these events turned Hawija into “a poster child for all the ills that would facilitate the Islamic State takeover one year later.”

Today, the proliferation of Shia PMU, as well as aggressive posturing by the Peshmerga, play on Hawija residents’ fears of marginalization and sectarian repression from 2013. Original plans for the town’s liberation relied on Sunni militias (Hashd al-Watani) to lead operations. Sheikh Abdullah al-Asi of the Shammar tribe called on Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to expedite the training process, but thus far these tribal resources have not been mobilized. In the overall rush to roll ISIS out of northern Iraq in the coming months, there is no time to conjure up a locally-sourced force. Cognizant of the pressing need for relief, Hawija officials have instead called for a “joint force” led by the Iraqi Army, which they hope would keep sectarian excess in check.

Yet given its tumultuous history, the Iraqi government considers Hawija a hotbed for pro-ISIS sentiment. In March 2016 an ISIS video showed civilians cheering as an Iraqi Air Force reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over the town. Policymakers are reluctant to commit their already overstretched forces into such a hostile environment. With Baghdad’s tacit blessing, sectarian-motivated elements will lead. And as international coalition partners remain reluctant to provide air support for PMUs, any fight for Hawija may result in massive physical devastation without pinpoint targeting intelligence.

Spark for Future Conflict?

As events three years ago in Hawija indicated, poorly-handled local grievance can precipitate national catastrophe. Iraq’s conflict today is local, with discontent manifest at a town-by-town level. For Hawija’s trapped residents, such a reality is clear. Ignored by the political establishment in Baghdad, they are essentially at the mercy of regional groups with few incentives to respect their wishes or autonomy. More importantly, these entities are subject to little oversight to prevent them from committing human rights violations or reprisals.

Peshmerga and PMU elements will fight to secure regional objectives in Hawija, with far less emphasis on repairing the Iraqi unity sought by Baghdad. Policymakers in Erbil have expressed their desire to end the ISIS threat in Kirkuk – a province the Peshmerga have essentially seized from federal Iraq – and secure the area’s rich oilfields. In July and August, militant attacks against the Bai Hassan refinery took Kurdish oil production temporarily offline. Given the KRG’s precarious economic situation, such disruptions are grave. The PMU may seek to operate alongside Kurdish forces to offset the latter’s ability to annex territory. Additionally, the ability to clear ISIS from a zone considered by some militia commanders as a birthplace for the current crisis is an appealing swansong for PMU leadership.

Without oversight by the federal government or neutral arbiter, Kurdish and PMU forces could turn on each other – as they did in Tuz Khurmato – or they may retaliate against Hawija’s population for their perceived embrace of jihadists. As the humanitarian situation continues to worsen, those impacted most directly by the ISIS occupation may find themselves new victims of their liberators. While PMU leaders have voiced support for notions of unity, their soldiers may take revenge against a vulnerable population seen as largely comprising ISIS sympathizers. Without Iraqi Army involvement, limited PMU restraint shown in places like Fallujah or Ramadi may unravel. Kurdish forces, too, may replicate their reported efforts to cleanse liberated areas of Arab influence – an effort that could ignite further conflict with the PMU.

Ultimately, the losers in these scenarios are the residents of Hawija who have lived under ISIS rule since August 2014. By turning away from the town’s plight, Baghdad and the international community could foster the same conditions for localized anger that gave rise to nationwide discontent three years ago. Oversight of liberation forces, coupled to a plan for providing desperately-needed humanitarian and reconstruction aid, is critical to bring Hawija – and other towns like it – back into the Iraqi state framework. As the past two years have shown, feelings of neglect and abandonment are powerful drivers of unrest. Practitioners of the fight for Iraq’s future must look to­­­ the forgotten front line in Hawija lest they ignore this lesson.