The Comeback Caliphate: How ISIS Could Regain Control of Iraq
For a country that has been all too accustomed to terrible news over the last fourteen years, the liberation of Mosul was a big breath of fresh air for Iraqis of all ethnicities and sectarian affiliations. The Islamic State, an organization so incredibly inhumane and medieval that it makes Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri look like a grandfatherly scholar, outlasted its welcome in Iraq’s second largest city long ago. So when the Iraqi army, the elite counterterrorism service, the federal police and the U.S.-led multilateral coalition finally squeezed ISIS fighters from a small enclave in the old city along the Tigris River after nine months of brutal house-to-house, room-to-room combat, there was plenty for Iraqis to celebrate.
And yet despite this triumphant victory and the celebratory mood enveloping Baghdad, the Iraqi government is quickly squandering whatever goodwill it earned among Iraq’s Sunni population. The reconciliation, reintegration and reconstruction that is critical to rebuilding Mosul’s infrastructure and bringing the nation closer to an intercommunal awakening is instead being replaced by revenge, bloodlust and score-settling—the very conditions that assisted ISIS’s success in Iraq in the first place.
Reports of Iraqi security forces or pro-government militias committing human-rights abuses, illegal detentions of Mosul residents, and extrajudicial killings of ISIS detainees or sympathizers have become the norm during and after the Mosul operation. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of Iraqi security forces randomly picking men and boys out of the crowd at checkpoints, beating them severely and taking them away to makeshift bases. Witnesses have told Human Rights Watch that some people have been killed at those bases, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that more have been tortured when they were interrogated.
Iraqi witnesses and victims have described how the families of ISIS members were rounded up and taken to rehabilitation centers. At the centers, they were screened to determine whether or not they supported the group’s ideology. None of the families that Human Rights Watch spoke to said that they were charged with any crime, and yet they were still held “against their will” by the very security forces that should have been protecting them.
New video footage released this month shows two ISIS detainees being thrown off a cliff by uniformed men. It is just the latest in a series of reported abuses where Iraqi troops or affiliated militiamen are depicted torturing terrorist suspects to elicit information. Those men are then executed. Indeed, when Iraqis are literally fishing out dead bodies from the Tigris River—some with faces so disfigured that it is impossible to identify them—it becomes clear that the lingering cloud of hatred and revenge that has been hovering over Iraq will continue to linger there.
That is, unless Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi is politically strong enough to introduce some accountability.
Stopping the abuses perpetrated by the Iraqi security forces—or at least decreasing the amount of them—isn’t just a straightforward manner of respecting human rights and international humanitarian law. It is also a strategic necessity if Iraq is ever going to get out from underneath the sectarianism that has subjected the Iraqis to horrific violence and get away from incompetent governance of its many coalition governments. Indeed, it is precisely these types of abuses—often conducted by government forces and tolerated or ignored by the Iraqi army high command and officials in Baghdad—that made it easy for a band of bearded, nihilistic jihadists to swoop into northern and western Iraq and defeat a better-equipped army.
It was only a short three years ago when the predominantly Sunni residents of Mosul were clapping on the streets and honking their horns in jubilation as ISIS convoys were rolling by. Moslawis were happy, not so much because they were supporters of ISIS’s caliphate-building project or its interpretation of the world, but because the soldiers they viewed as unfair, corrupt and heavy handed were expelled from the area and taught a humiliating lesson. In those opening days and weeks, the citizens of Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah were as likely to greet Islamic State militants as liberators from a disinterested and Shia-supremacist government as they are labeled criminals, marauders, rapists and mass murderers today.