Pursuing National Reconciliation in Iraq

To awake from the nightmare of violence, Iraq needs a strong reconciliation framework, at both communal and national levels, that can give Iraqi citizens an alternative to cyclical conflict.

This article follows up on last week’s examination of how to reconstruct Iraq’s devastated infrastructure. Iraq and its policymakers must address the intense trauma inflicted on the country’s population as a result of the fight against ISIS. Nearly 40 percent of Iraqis are under the age of 15. To overcome cycles of violence that funnel many of these impressionable youth toward patronage networks and militia groups, Baghdad must devise and implement a national reconciliation process to complement physical rebuilding efforts.

Iraqis pray at the site of the Karradah bombing in Baghdad, which claimed over 300 lives.
Iraqis pray at the site of the Karradah bombing in Baghdad during Eid al-Fitr. (July 2016)

Baghdad’s steady advance against ISIS is revealing the terrible remnants of more than two years of ISIS occupation. On 7 November, Iraqi Army units discovered 100 decapitated bodies left unburied on the grounds of an agricultural college in Hammam al-Alil, a resort town 30 km south of Mosul. One week earlier, the bodies of 40 former police officers, many of whom were reportedly abducted from the town, floated down the Tigris River from Mosul. Such atrocities in Hammam al-Alil are the latest in a string of crimes committed by the so-called Islamic State as the group loses ground in northern and western Iraq. They also underscore a horrifying fact: in nearly every liberated town, security forces have found at least one mass grave.

The violence ISIS has committed against civilians illustrates a deeper trauma dealt to Iraq’s people that will take decades to process. Last week, EPIC reported on the physical destruction resulting from the war against ISIS. In a country where nearly 40 percent of the population is under the age of 15, it is equally crucial to understand how the violence experienced over the past two years will shape society – particularly its youngest and most impressionable members. Waking from this nightmare will ultimately require a strong reconciliation framework, at both communal and national levels, that can give Iraqi citizens an alternative to cyclical tumult.

Terrain of War

In August 2016 the Associated Press identified 55 mass graves across areas either currently or previously controlled by ISIS in Iraq. Anywhere between 5,000 and 15,000 people are buried in these and other unconfirmed locations. Since seizing territory in June 2014, the insurgents have committed stunning atrocities that shocked even Iraq’s war-weary populace. As UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Hussein concluded in January 2016, “Even the obscene casualty figures fail to accurately reflect exactly how terribly civilians are suffering in Iraq.”

Immediately after seizing Tikrit in June 2014, militants murdered between 1,500 and 1,700 unarmed Shia and non-Muslim air force cadets at Speicher, where they had been sent to rest – a massacre so horrifying that, as Siobhan Grady wrote in Foreign Policy, “it could be seen from space.” Two days earlier in Mosul, gunmen killed approximately 650-680 primarily Shia inmates at the Badoush Prison within hours of capturing the city. As the group consolidated control across Iraq in mid-to-late 2014, accounts of similar crimes emerged from survivors in occupied territory. In October 2014, Iraqi officials uncovered 200 corpses west of Baghdad, and a few weeks later, graves containing 150 members of the same tribe near Ramadi.

These initial massacres presaged intense ethnic and sectarian slaughter that would define ISIS’s legacy in the country. In August 2014, the group overran Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga positions in Sinjar, a district in Ninewa Province with a predominantly non-Muslim Yazidi population. On the first day of the ISIS advance alone, eyewitnesses reported that nearly 2,000 Yazidi men were killed throughout the district – prompting 40,000 to flee to Sinjar Mountain, where they remained besieged with little food or water for two weeks. On 15 August, all 400 men from one village were shot, and over 1,000 women and children abducted. By 1 September, the total death toll had reached 5,000 people, according to a UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) assessment.

The violence ISIS has committed against civilians illustrates a deeper trauma dealt to Iraq’s people that will take decades to process.

The UN and US would later call ISIS actions in Sinjar a genocide, citing the insurgents’ desire to systematically destroy the Yazidi community. Today, nearly 3,200 Yazidi women and girls remain imprisoned in the so-called Islamic State as sex slaves, and thousands of boys are still missing. Over the past year, the advocacy and research organization Yazda has documented 35 mass graves in Sinjar, each of which contained 10-100 bodies. Since 2014, ISIS has committed similar abuses against other minorities in Iraq, including Christian and Shabak communities. In October, Shabak media reported on kill sites where hundreds of civilians were executed, including many children.

The frightening scale of killing in ISIS-controlled Iraq is slowly coming to light. In addition to the grave in Hammam al-Alil, Iraqi forces recently unearthed 40 bodies in Sharqat while clearing mines from civilian homes. In late October, as Iraqi forces tightened their cordon around Mosul, reported emerged that ISIS has executed 284 men and boys, leaving their bodies in the defunct College of Agriculture north of the city. As the Iraqi Army, Kurdish Peshmerga, and Popular Mobilization Units continue their push into Mosul, more of these killing fields will undoubtedly emerge.

Shaping Iraqi Society through Conflict

UNAMI estimated that in the month of October 1,120 civilians lost their lives – 511 more than in the previous month. Other organizations, including the Iraq Body Count, put the figure at closer to 2,300 killed. In Baghdad, rising violence claimed 289 lives, and injured an additional 838 people. In Anbar Province, where security forces cleared militants from Fallujah and Ramadi over the past year, 219 people were killed by improvised explosive devices, suicide bombings, and insurgent attacks. Together, casualty reports from the UN indicate that since June 2014, a “staggering” 23,859 civilians have died in ISIS-related incidents.

Fighting has not been contained to the battlefield. In cities across Iraq, insurgents have staged dramatic attacks against civilian targets. In March 2016, a suicide bomber killed 43 people – most of them teenagers – at a soccer tournament in Asriya, a mixed Sunni and Shia town 40 km south of Baghdad. Earlier that month and 80 km further south in Hilla, a car bomb slammed into an Iraqi Army checkpoint, claiming 60 lives.

The capital has experienced the greatest uptick in violence over the past few months. On 3 July a truck packed with explosives detonated in a busy shopping center in the primarily Shia Karradah district in Baghdad, killing 323 people in the blast and ensuing fire. The attack – the deadliest to hit the city since 2003 – demonstrated ISIS’s ability to strike the city with devastating effect, and sparked widespread public outrage. In its aftermath, Iraqis demanded security reforms after leaked documents from Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s cabinet indicated a severe lack of coordination among the country’s intelligence services. In the following days, Abadi ordered the execution of five convicted ISIS members, and accepted the Interior Minister’s resignation. These efforts, supported by US military advisors, have succeeded in preventing similar mass casualty attacks.

Nevertheless, bombings are common in Baghdad and other cities, and the Karradah catastrophe underscored how pervasive violence is in Iraqi civilian life – particularly for the country’s youth. Only 52.5 percent of Iraqi boys attend secondary school (the figure for girls is 44.6 percent). In a country rocked by ongoing security, economic, and political crises, many of these teenagers seek advancement – or, at least, a living wage – by taking jobs-through-patronage, chiefly as fighters with non-state organizations like the PMU or, at one point, ISIS. As the Iraqi government remains seemingly unable to address growing insecurity across Iraq – even as it expels ISIS from its strongholds across the country – it is creating a generation of youth with little financial or social recourse except through a weapon. The widespread turn to armed conflict among Iraq’s young generation perpetuates the cycles of violence that intensified the current crisis, as young members of divided communities seek revenge rather than reconciliation. A recent Iraqi government investigation provided a stark warning about this danger, concluding that ISIS had trained at least 4,000 children as suicide bombers.

In this tumultuous environment, mitigating conflict is difficult. Groups responsible for liberating ISIS-controlled territory have exercised their own extrajudicial justice on civilian populations. In July 2014, Iraqi security forces unlawfully executed 255 prisoners in retaliation for ISIS actions, including eight boys under the age of 18. In Tikrit, which was liberated in April 2015, Shia and tribal militias allegedly destroyed homes and abducted around 200 civilians. Just over a year later, after Fallujah’s liberation, militias allegedly abused civilians thought to have sympathized with the jihadist ideology. The UN claimed that up to 1,500 men and boys were kidnapped from the nearby town of Saqlawiya; at least 49 were executed, and Human Rights Watch concluded that some of those later released showed signs of torture, including knife cuts, rape, and beatings. On 10 November, Amnesty International reported that fighters wearing Iraqi Federal Police uniforms tortured and executed six residents in villages south of Mosul.

Contacts in Mosul have stressed that Iraqi Army units have thus far been “very professional with the freed civilians.” However, concerns remain about the actions of militia groups west of the city in Tal Afar – especially as more evidence of ISIS crimes emerges. It is important to recognize the anger many young Iraqi fighters feel (on both sides) after two years of brutality.

Overcoming the Effects of Violence

A few weeks ago, a professor at the University of Baghdad explained that “death has become the normal in this country, and nobody listens to each other.” What can be done to reverse this savage pattern?

While Iraq requires a plan to reconstruct its war-ravaged infrastructure and restore services, policymakers must also address an equally important, albeit more challenging, need for national reconciliation. Such a process should include dialogues between leaders from opposing tribes and factions; the appointment of a coordinator to mobilize government agencies in support of these efforts; redistribution of powers within Iraqi government framework; and the strengthening of civil society actors working in contested and liberated regions. Sustained work to achieve these goals is, as the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Iraq Jan Kubis concluded, “the only way to make military victories against [ISIS] sustainable.”

Reconciliation in Iraq is not impossible, and has precedent. For example, in 2007 a group of facilitators from the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in the district of Mahmoudiyah – an area south of Baghdad that the American military labeled “Triangle of Death” for its heavy insurgent activity – brokered a reconciliation pact between Sunnis and Shias that still endures. Today, the tribal council established nearly 10 years ago still works to resolve disputes and prevent sectarian bloodletting.

“Death has become the normal in this country, and nobody listens to each other.”

Policymakers in Baghdad are taking steps to develop a broader plan, in part drawing from past experiences like in Mahmoudiyah. On October 31, the Shia Iraqi National Alliance announced “a national settlement that would result in a historical Iraqi reconciliation.” According to this framework, UNAMI will draft the document’s final version, and take a leading role to “promote and protect the settlement from any party that wishes to disrupt it or threaten to prevent implementing its provisions, be it Iraqi parties or regional countries.” Critically, the October agreement tackles key issues, including balancing power and wealth between the Federal government, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and the provinces; protecting the country’s natural resources, monuments, and archaeological sites; and addressing demographic change “in all its forms,” as well as the return of displaced people to their homes and the reconstruction of damaged areas.

Abadi has already shown willingness to pursue reconciliation, passing the General Amnesty Law in August 2016. The document, which addressed Sunni-Shia grievances stemming from post-2003 prosecutions, allowed people convicted between 2003 and 25 August 2016 to apply for amnesty, except those convicted of 13 types of crimes – among them acts of terror resulting in death or permanent disability, human trafficking, rape, or theft of state funds. These steps, taken as part of the Prime Minister’s government formation process in 2014, establish an important foundation for future discourse between factions within the Iraqi government. The onus will be on Baghdad to strengthen these provisions into a comprehensive reconciliation framework.

Two years of brutal war, following over a decade of tumult, has left many Iraqis “carved by suffering,” as one lawyer in Baghdad described. For the country’s youth, in particular, near-constant violence has shaped the way in which many envision their political and economic futures. The intensity of the ISIS catastrophe has deepened the cleavages between communities, and hardened the rhetoric of conflict and hatred in some corners of society. As Iraqi forces and their partners continue their offensive against ISIS, new evidence of the insurgents’ mass atrocities like in Hammam al-Alil – and of retaliations committed by liberators – could drive renewed fury between sectarian, ethnic, and political groups.

Ultimately, violence breeds future conflict unless the cycles of revenge, fear, and anger driving this process are addressed. Baghdad has taken important first steps to devise a national reconciliation plan, but greater international financial and political support is needed to ensure these efforts continue. By creating the framework for dialogue and wealth distribution, the Iraqi government and its international partners can offer alternative sources of income and prestige for its most susceptible citizens, rather than push individuals toward patronage networks and militia groups.

The country’s diverse communities have and can again live together post-ISIS. Reversing patterns of conflict is a critical step toward this goal. By combining infrastructure reconstruction with a reconciliation process, the policymakers in Baghdad can ensure stability moving forward. The USIP experience, National Alliance settlement, and General Amnesty Law are instructive examples of how to start. Without such an effort, however, any defeat of ISIS in Iraq  – and the extremist ideology it represents – could be short-lived.