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UN report spotlights 'staggering' Islamic State atrocities in Iraq

Militant group's territorial ambitions mark it out from other extremist groups such as the Taliban, according to international law expert. More than 9,000 civilians have died in Iraq's conflict so far this year.

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    A black flag used by the Islamic State flutters over their combat positions on the front line with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters at a bridge located between Irbil and Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
    Hadi Mizban/AP
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More than 26,000 civilians have been killed or injured this year in the conflict in Iraq, according to a new United Nations report, which details an array of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by the self-described Islamic State (IS). 

The group, which is fighting in Iraq and Syria, has carried out a wide range of atrocities, including mass executions, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence against women and children, the UN said. 

A joint statement by the UN's mission in Iraq and its human rights commission said 9,347 Iraqi civilians had died in the conflict. Another 17,386 had been injured. 

“The array of violations and abuses perpetrated by [Islamic State] and associated armed groups is staggering, and many of their acts may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

Paulo Barrozo, a professor at Boston College and expert on international criminal law, said that what sets IS apart from other terrorist organizations is its sprawling territorial ambitions. While the Taliban’s brutal reign in Afghanistan was limited to a single country, IS has torn up international borders in its attempt to create an Islamic caliphate.

“They add a dimension of chaos and brutality to a region that’s already volatile and that’s in the best interest of no one,” he says. “The population there is hostage to their brutality.”

The UN report, based on some 500 interviews with witnesses, said the Sunni militant group had performed “acts of violence of an increasingly sectarian nature” against Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims, and other minority groups.

Mr. Al Hussein from the UN called on the Iraqi government to join the International Criminal Court, which would allow the Hague court to investigate reported abuses and prosecute those responsible.

And it’s not just IS the UN accuses of committing atrocities in Iraq. Its report said Iraqi security forces and affiliated groups also violated international law by executing captured IS fighters and launching airstrikes that caused "significant civilian deaths." Iraqi airstrikes reportedly hit villages, a school and hospitals.

As of last month, an estimated 1.8 million Iraqis have been displaced by the violence, according to the report.

Since August, the US has carried out airstrikes in Iraq in support of government troops and Kurdish militia fighting IS. France and Britain have since joined the campaign. 

IS’s violent tactics have become synonymous with the group’s image and stated goal of creating a caliphate. Even al-Qaeda has condemned the group’s sweeping violence and disassociated themselves from it. However, its brand of mayhem, and the chaos of Syria, has attracted jihadist volunteers from across the region and Europe. 

As the Monitor’s Dan Murphy wrote of IS in July, “murder is their answer to anyone who doesn’t share their twisted vision of their faith.”

The horrific reality of the jihadis vision of a ‘caliphate’ couldn't be more clear – and that's one reason they'll probably ultimately fail. While Iraqis are terrified of IS for now, the IS brand of systematic brutality is likely to ultimately see the Iraqi Sunni Arab community it claims to protect and support turn on it, much as Sunni Arab Iraqis turned on its previous incarnation a few years ago.

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