With sobering report on sectarian violence, UN puts renewed focus on Iraq

Much attention has been paid to Syria in recent months, but about 19,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in sectarian violence in the past two years, according to the report.

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP
Bruno Geddo, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Baghdad, addresses the media on the humanitarian situation in Iraq at the UN Regional Information Centre in Brussels on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016.

Over recent weeks and months, the world has trained much of its attention on Syria, as nearly five years of civil war have continued to send refugees pouring into Europe and as world powers have pursued sometimes-conflicting aims through separate military interventions.

All the attention on Syria has relegated next-door-neighbor Iraq to also-noted status. But a new United Nations report chronicling the violence suffered by Iraq’s civilian population over the past two years paints a troubling picture of a diverse society under siege. In particular, the report released Tuesday highlights what it calls the “genocidal” threats that the country’s religious minorities face from the Islamic State (IS).

The report registers a toll of nearly 19,000 civilians killed in sectarian violence and several thousand women and children enslaved by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, between January 2014 and last October. More than 3 million Iraqis are internally displaced, the report says, noting that about 1 million of those are school-age children – thus underlining the threat that the violence poses to the country’s future.

In recent months, there have been some signs of Iraq resisting the pull of sectarian violence. But the report puts a renewed focus on the country’s steep challenges, serving as a wake-up call for the international community.

As if to underscore the challenges, the report’s release coincides with a wave of sectarian violence in Diyala, a province northeast of Baghdad known for its diversity and peaceful Shiite-Sunni coexistence. The Iraqi government had proudly declared Diyala “IS-free” last year, but a series of deadly bombings over recent days in the Diyala city of Muqdadiyah, claimed by the extremist Sunni group, appeared to be aimed at least in part at debunking that assertion.

Just as worrying was the wave of reprisal violence against Diyala’s Sunni population that followed the bombings: Sunni mosques were set ablaze, while reports emerged of the Shiite militias in control of much of the province kidnapping Sunnis and dragging others from their homes and executing them.

The violence prompted Sunni parliamentarians to boycott the national assembly, and some Iraqi politicians warned that deterioration in Diyala posed a threat to Iraq’s cohesion.

“The attacks on mosques and houses in Muqdadiyah is a threat to Iraqi coexistence,” the Sunni speaker of Iraq’s national parliament, Salim al-Jubouri, said in a statement.

Despite the dire picture painted by Diyala’s sectarian violence and the UN report, there have been some indicators suggesting how Iraq is resisting the tug of sectarian recriminations and violence.

Most notably Iraq’s highest Shiite religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, condemned the attacks on Diyala’s Sunni mosques and called for unity among all Iraqis. He also admonished the government to work harder to rid the country of all militant groups, including those working in tandem with government security forces.

The comment appeared to be aimed in part at Shiite militias operating in Iraq, the most powerful of which are supported by Iran.

Another recent event suggesting a path forward for Iraq was last month’s retaking of the Sunni city of Ramadi from IS fighters. The capital of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Al Anbar province was freed by government forces while Shiite militias were kept out of the fight.

In another crucial step, the government sent in local Sunni fighters to hold liberated neighborhoods in an effort to cut down on sectarian reprisals against the Sunni population. Some Iraqi Shiites accused locals of abetting IS during the seven months that it had total control of the city.

US officials and regional analysts say they expect something along the lines of the Ramadi battle model to be employed when the Iraqi military finally launches a long-awaited bid to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from IS.

Wresting Mosul from IS control would deliver a critical blow to the extremist group in Iraq, but would not fully deliver the country from its presence – as suggested by the recent attacks in Diyala and an uptick in IS bombings in Baghdad, analysts say.

The United Nations report, issued jointly by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights and its Assistance Mission for Iraq, documents the violence being sustained by Iraq’s population and the damage to Iraq’s social fabric, mostly by IS. But the report also contains cases of abuse by Iraqi security forces and the Shiite militias supporting them.

Many of the crimes and abuses listed in the report had already been made known to the world through videos issued by IS itself – IS militants beheading or burning alive “apostates,” burying captives with bulldozers, and flinging suspected homosexuals from rooftops.

But by documenting nearly two years of violence in one report, the UN has drawn renewed attention to a civilian population that had been almost forgotten amid the international focus on Syria. It also lays the groundwork for its claim that in some cases, the Islamist extremist group is committing acts that amount to crimes against humanity and even genocide – a term that UN agencies do not use lightly.

“The so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL),” the report says, using another name for IS, “continues to commit systematic and widespread violence and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law. These acts may, in some instances, amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.”

The report says that most of the 3,500 “slaves” the group holds come from Iraq’s religious minorities, including the Yazidis. The mostly women and children slaves are forced into sexual servitude; some children abducted by the group are forced to fight on the front lines of battles – and are executed if they try to escape the fighting.

In addition to calling global attention to a traumatized civilian population that has largely slipped from front pages, the UN report may have another objective: to begin making a case to try any IS leaders who may eventually be apprehended for crimes against humanity.

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