Pity the citizens of Mosul, who have lived through three years of repressive Daesh rule only to experience similar levels of brutality by their supposed liberators. It is a bitter irony that news of Daesh’s defeat in Mosul emerges at the same time that organizations such as Human Rights Watch are issuing damning reports documenting summary executions, torture and war crimes by Iraqi forces and associated militias.
Tehran’s paramilitary propagandists have long since been trying to portray Mosul’s Sunnis as supporters and facilitators of Daesh. In reality, they are victims and need support to rebuild their lives. According to international law, even Daesh suspects and their families are entitled to humane treatment, yet blanket accusations of this nature are being used to justify punitive actions against citizens that are every bit as brutal as those that Daesh is notorious for.
An Iraqi police officer boasted to a Swedish journalist (producing videos to back up his claims) that his men had decapitated 50 men with knives, and tortured others while onlookers cheered. There are repetitious testimonies of men rounded up and summarily executed, along with dozens of reports of rape and torture. “We know they are all Daesh families, but what do we do, kill them all?” exclaimed a special-forces soldier about refugees escaping from Mosul.
In such a climate, it is unsurprising that residents are complaining of brutal and unlawful treatment. We often hear the platitude that in the “fog of war” bad things happen. But there is a world of difference between isolated incidents and systematic measures condoned by military leaders.
This fits a pattern where in the aftermath of fighting in Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Salahuddin and Diyala, militias executed hundreds of civilians, forcibly disappeared thousands of Sunni men and engaged in systematic bouts of torture, destruction of homes, looting and sectarian cleansing. Dozens of towns such as Jurf Al-Sakhar are still entirely empty of their former Sunni populations.
After such atrocities, we had been led to believe that Iran-backed Shiite militants of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi would not be deployed inside Mosul. But as the months rolled by, some of these forces played an increasingly central role, while simultaneously embarking on a land-grab in areas to the west near the Syrian border. These campaigns of “victor’s justice” are sowing the seeds for Mosul falling back into the hands of anti-state forces. Have we learned nothing?
A recent Der Spiegel report documented routine rape of female Mosul residents, with Sunni members of Al-Hashd who fought to liberate Mosul being detained, tortured and raped. Security forces who had “lost all the standards of what is right and what is wrong” readily shared videos of their actions with the compiler of the report.
The people of Mosul and Iraq may be rid of Daesh, but the threats for the coming phase are glaringly clear: Paramilitary violence, ethnic conflict, and Iran seeking to enforce its agenda.
This demonstrates the extent to which such atrocities have become normalized. With massive infiltration of the security forces by militias, it is futile to distinguish between regular and irregular forces, all of whom have been found culpable of massive abuses.
With the US prioritizing the fight against Daesh, it has bent over backward to avoid antagonizing Iraqi Shiite militias, which it regards as de facto allies. Although the US launched airstrikes against similar elements in Syria, it was quick to stress that its only priority in Syria is defeating Daesh, not containing Iran.
Though Al-Hashd made a big deal about asking Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi for permission to go into Syria (he has now given permission for limited incursions), in reality its forces are already there. Major Al-Hashd components, such as Hezbollah Al-Nujaba and Sayyid Al-Shuhada, probably have more fighters active in Syria than in Iraq.
And associated groups such as the Hezbollah Battalions and Asaib Ahlulhaq are reportedly engaged in skirmishes across the border. Al-Hashd leaders have been explicit that they intend to fight in Syria and elsewhere, whether they get permission or not. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has even threatened to deploy Al-Hashd forces against Israel, in flagrant violation of his native Lebanon’s sovereignty.
Around Mosul’s Nineveh province, Al-Hashd’s agenda is to set ethnic and sectarian groups against each other. For example, in Daesh-occupied Tal Afar, Shiite Turkmen were mobilized to fight the Sunni Turkmen majority. Around Sinjar, Al-Hashd is playing Yazidis off against the Kurds while funding Christian and Shabak militias.
With numerous different visions for Nineveh’s and Mosul’s status in the post-Daesh era, certain parties may use force to impose their agendas. Few international observers have grasped the prospect that Daesh’s defeat in northwest Iraq could inaugurate a bout of conflict between the diverse claimants to a region that has already suffered enough.
Daesh continues to hold out in parts of Mosul, and key towns such as Tal Afar and Hawijah remain under its control. Yet there is already a celebratory, self-congratulatory tone to global media coverage and statements by world leaders, as if this means “peace in our time” for Iraq.
The people of Mosul and Iraq may be rid of Daesh, but the threats for the coming phase are glaringly clear: Paramilitary violence, ethnic conflict, and Iran seeking to enforce its agenda. For policymakers who saw the fight against Daesh as a simplistic confrontation of good versus evil, the challenges of this next phase are infinitely more complex but equally consequential for regional stability.
Unless there is urgent action to rein in over-mighty militia factions, and ensure the pre-eminence of an Iraqi state that governs in the name of all citizens, Mosul is just one of several cities at risk of leaping from Daesh’s frying pan into the fire of sectarian conflict.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.