The moral victory in the battle for Mosul

How the Iraqi Army treats the city’s civilians, both during and after the battle, will determine the country’s future. Humanitarian law in war can serve a peaceful purpose.

Displaced Iraqi girls are seen in Kokjali village near Mosul, during an operation against Islamic State militants.

Two years after losing the city of Mosul to Islamic State (IS), the Iraqi military finally breached the city’s outer limits on Tuesday. But for anyone following this battle for the country’s second largest city, the end game is not really a military victory. The government in Baghdad, assisted by the United States and Kurdish forces, is expected to win. Rather, it is how Iraqi forces treat Mosul’s 1.5 million civilians, both during the fighting and after, that will determine the real victory – which is a moral and political one.

Militant groups like IS rarely abide by the rules of modern warfare or international humanitarian law, which is exactly why the Iraqi Army should. IS will only keep gaining support from the country’s minority Sunnis if the majority Shiites continue to mistreat them. The best way to keep IS weak after the Mosul battle is for the Army to protect civilians from harm and prevent revenge attacks on those who initially supported IS.

The country’s ability to reconcile depends on the Army showing it operates out of principle rather than expediency – a principle that innocence should not be subject to the swords of hate.

Top officers in the Iraqi Army have been trained on humanitarian law. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, has also made sure to include Sunnis in key military posts. In addition, Iraq’s highest Shiite authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a religious order for Iraqi forces not to harm civilians or seek retribution.

Even the International Committee of the Red Cross has been active in training the Army. “Preserve your humanity in the heat of battle; show that humanity matters to you,” Robert Mardini, a local ICRC official, told them.

If the Army lives up to these standards, it may further reinforce the idea in the Middle East that war should not be a savage winner-take-all with acts of cruelty, such as the beheadings of civilians. The first step away from war is a recognition that it must be conducted by common humanitarian rules. If Iraqis can unite behind that idea, the country itself has a better chance at unity.

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