As millions of people from the besieged community languish in detention camps, the situation is ripe for extremist groups to prey on the anger of Iraqi Sunnis, as Daesh did in 2014.
Half a decade since Daesh terrorists were defeated in Iraq by an international US-led coalition, little has been done to remedy the fundamental problems that led to the rise of the terror outfit. Rather than viewing post-war redevelopment and rehabilitation as an area of national priority, and expending efforts to reintegrate areas of Iraq once under Daesh’s rule, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government has instead opted to implement a sectarian policy and ostracise millions of Sunni Arabs by denying them formal identity papers and access to what little government services are on the table.
Daesh’s rapid advance and capture of a third of Iraqi territory in 2014 was a cautionary tale of what can happen if Baghdad continues its sectarian policies. And if the current situation is not remedied soon, it could spell the beginning of yet another violent chapter in Iraq’s ongoing tragedy.
Millions denied identity documents
While the Iraqi government has expended significant efforts by courting international donors to make post-war Mosul seem like a success story, the reality is starkly different – particularly for other predominantly Sunni Arab areas.
Baghdad has ensured that the press has ready access to areas such as Mosul’s historical sites, showcasing some of the country’s millennia-old contributions to human civilisation. The authorities are attempting to portray the area as pacified and open for business, with tourists encouraged to visit.
While boosting tourism to these areas is undoubtedly a positive step and indeed should be praised, Iraq’s investments are limited to these high-profile locales that attract media attention, even as cities such as Ramadi remain mostly ignored even after it was deemed among the most destroyed cities on the planet.
Increasing tourism also pales in significance to the plight of millions of Iraqis – mainly Sunni Arabs – who were either displaced during the fighting in 2013-2017 or else forced into prison camps as so-called “Daesh families”. Although Baghdad announced it would close down the camps for the internally displaced people (IDP) in 2019, they have remained open informally, holding a staggering 1.2 million destitute Iraqis who could not go back to their devastated homes, destroyed by the heavy weapons used by the Iraqi security forces against Daesh. In other cases, such as Jurf al Sakhr, towns were depopulated of Sunnis and repopulated with Shia families, raising concerns of systematic eviction of a targeted population.
Now, a new report by seven NGOs released on Monday shows that many of these millions of Iraqis continue to face harrowing conditions as they are denied their right to an identity. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), millions are still denied access to essential identification documents, and “those still lacking crucial forms of ID are at continued risk of exclusion from key public services, including access to healthcare and education”.
A lack of essential identity papers also means that, despite claims of democracy, the Iraqi authorities have effectively carved out a million potential voters they consider to be undesirables, further cementing the case that the political system predominated by Shia lawmakers is pursuing a sectarian policy.
The securitisation of Sunnis
In recent reports that further demonstrate how destructive this ghettoisation has been, Iraqi security forces recently arrested thousands of children, with some even being forced to confess to Daesh membership under duress and torture. The excuse, naturally, is that these children pose a security threat. Effectively, however, this has allowed the Iraqi government to further the securitisation of Iraq’s Sunni Arab demographic.
This has been a long-standing policy of the Iraqi authorities even while under direct US supervision during the occupation. In fact, it was the American military governor of Iraq, Paul Bremer, who instituted the infamous “de-Baathification” laws immediately after assuming control in 2003. While these laws ostensibly sought to weed out members of the former Baath regime led by dictator Saddam Hussein, they were in effect used to cast a wide net and keep wide swathes of the Iraqi populace, who were hostile to US interventionism and the newly minted elite, out of politics.
In some cases, and as reported by the New York Times, Sunni school teachers who were accused of being Baathists were dismissed from their jobs with their roles going to unqualified Shia candidates in order to push Sunnis out of the bureaucracy and state institutions. This was not only motivated by more mundane sectarian reasons, but also by security considerations, with Sunnis deemed to be less loyal to the new Iraqi state than its new Shia masters, many of whom supported the US-led invasion.
This led to not only the excision of “disloyal” Sunnis from the various apparatuses of the state, bar a few token Sunnis in parliamentary and weak ministerial positions, but it was also exacerbated by anti-terrorism laws that almost exclusively targeted the Sunnis. These laws were adopted in 2005 under the auspices of the unelected Iraqi National Assembly that predated the Council of Representatives – Iraq’s elected parliament. In the ensuing eight years, and particularly under the premiership of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – a hardline Shia politician close to Iran – Sunnis were repeatedly targeted in security operations that relied on these laws.
While Sunnis protested their mistreatment on numerous occasions, little has been done as the world turned a blind eye, instead, Maliki ramped up his campaign against their community, leading to the outbreak of violence in late 2013 after his security forces stormed peaceful protest camps – the violence Daesh exploited to devastating effect in 2014.
Eventually, and particularly after the collapse of Daesh’s short-lived pseudo-state, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) found that even trials of terror suspects were marred by violations of fair trial standards, including torture, ineffective legal representation, limited possibility to challenge prosecution evidence, and little time or facilities provided to prepare a fair defence to charges that carry the death penalty.
Once again, this disproportionately impacted the Sunni population, and with millions of Sunni Arabs continuing to languish in both formal and informal IDP camps where sexual violence perpetrated by security officers against vulnerable women is rife, Iraq faces a brewing threat. With no one and nowhere else to turn to, these camps can become hotbeds of recruitment to militant groups seeking to turn justifiable anger at the sectarian Iraqi system into another war.
This is almost certain to happen as the situation of the Sunnis was deplorable before 2014 and Daesh managed to exploit that to launch their ambitions. In 2022, the state of the Sunnis is magnitudes worse than it was in 2014, and there are many groups seeking to exploit their desperation. Unless Baghdad relishes the idea of another destructive war, its sectarian policies need to come to an end – now.
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