Sectarian divisions exploited by ISIS still endure in Iraq

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of torture and abuse, and the head of the Iraqi government's Shia Endowment, Alaa al-Mousawi, has called for non-Muslims to convert to Islam or be killed. So far, Prime Minister Abadi has offered little more than lip service.

This is all eerily reminiscent of the post-2003 invasion of Iraq

Iraq's federal police members wave Iraq's national flag as they celebrate in the Old City of Mosul on July 9, 2017 after the government's announcement of the "liberation" of the embattled city. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

As triumphalist pronouncements of the vanquishing of ISIS in Mosul continue — even as abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Iraqi army and associated Shia militias persist — the consequences of Iraq's pyrrhic victory become evermore apparent.

"We announce the total victory for Iraq and all Iraqis," Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said back on July 11, on the edge of Mosul's ravaged old city.

"This great feast day crowned the victories of the fighters and the Iraqis for the past three years," he said.

But one would hope that after so many examples of failed military hubris – George W. Bush's "mission accomplished" springs to mind — Iraq's leaders would be more careful about broadcasting their prowess and apparent triumph.

Back in July, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared a "total victory for Iraq and all Iraqis." (Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press)

After all, the threat of ISIS has not disappeared. If anything, with human rights abuses carrying on against Mosul's beleaguered citizens – 40,000 of whom perished in the U.S. backed campaign to "liberate" the city and family members of alleged ISIS fighters being sent to byzantine "re-education" camps – the sectarian divisions exploited by the Islamic State will likely endure. 

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the U.S.-trained Iraqi 16th division has been linked to war crimes in Mosul. 

"Human Rights Watch has documented Iraqi forces detaining and holding at least 1,200 men and boys in inhumane conditions without charge, and in some cases torturing and executing them under the guise of screening them for ISIS-affiliation," the report reads.

It also details the discovery of a mass execution site, gruesome accounts of decapitation of women ISIS fighters, and children as young as 14 with alleged ISIS ties being summarily executed and left to rot in the sun. Lawyers are now being arrested for representing ISIS suspects and tried for their supposed crimes in kangaroo courts.

The head of the Iraqi government's Shia Endowment, Alaa al-Mousawi, has called for non-Muslims to convert to Islam or be killed. And while the UN, Amnesty International and other international agencies have urged action for several months on the horrors unfolding in Mosul, so far, Prime Minister Abadi has offered little more than lip service.

Meanwhile American NGOs in Mosul have delighted in tweeting about girls' schools re-opening, ushering in a "new era" for Iraq.

But somehow this is all very familiar. Not only does it remind me of the U.S. rhetoric leading up to and after the invasion of Afghanistan – "schools for girls," rather than, say, "spoils for warlords" – it's also eerily reminiscent of the post-2003 invasion of Iraq. 

In September of 2003, I went on a tour of Abu Ghraib prison, where we were shown brand new dental facilities and went on a special excursion to the "chamber of death" where, in the bad old Baathist days, prisoners were executed. Saddam Hussein would soon be executed there, too.

The supposedly kinder, gentler jailers guiding us around the prison refused to allow us access to actual prisoners, preferring instead to introduce us to the same beady-eyed prison "doctor" who had worked there under the old regime – when medical personnel were complicit in torture — who was suddenly reborn as a healer.  This tied in nicely with the triumphalist narrative du jour, namely: Saddam was evil, we are saviours.

Iraq's prime minister officially declared victory over ISIS in Mosul after a brutal nine-month offensive that was heavily supported by the U.S.-led coalition 2:25

In the aftermath of the liberation of Mosul from ISIS now, this creative revisioning is happening anew. In a land that has seen more than its fair share of brutal invasions and reigns of terror, we should hope that the real work of holding abusers accountable and rebuilding community will not be vanquished by false narratives based on sectarian politics and military machismo. The long suffering people of Mosul – and Iraq – deserve better.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist and past contributor to CBC’s Dispatches, she has been reporting from the Middle East for over two decades. Her next book, Between Two Rivers, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.


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