Post-ISIS Iraq Series, Part I: Future of Sunni Iraqis – National Reconciliation or Eternal Suspects?

Iraqi artists perform a theatrical scene inside the destroyed building of the Institute of Fine Arts in Mosul city, northern Iraq, 27 July 2017. (Photo: STR/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

As Iraqi forces are confidently advancing through Islamic State-held territories in the country, the future of post-ISIS Iraq is slowly unraveling, and although some details might now be clearer, there is a lot of uncertainty looming over the fate of the country where more than half of the population has lived their lives knowing nothing but war, chaos and destruction. In Iraq, the future is deeply intertwined with the past — are Iraqis able to learn from it, or is the specific fabric of their society knitted long ago in the Saddam Hussein era going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Spot the ISIS Fighter

Three years ago, Islamic State militants took over large swaths of war-torn, exhausted and disenfranchised Iraq with relative ease, and news of their atrocities started reaching the world. It seemed that Iraq, as a state, became a part of history.

Yet in September 2017, Baghdad announced that over 2.1 million people, out of a total of 4 million who were internally displaced, have returned to their homes in liberated regions in order to rebuild their lives — and Iraq. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said his government drafted a program to repatriate the displaced people to the city of Mosul, which was declared free of ISIS on July 10. However, rebuilding peace and trust might prove to be more difficult than expected, and ultimately, some people will remain refugees indefinitely.

Iraqi Displaced People who Fled From ISIS Held Town of Hawija Near Kirkuk Wait in Line to Receive Food at a School Building in the Debaka Refugee Camp on the Outskirts of Erbil, Iraq 22 October 2016. (Photo: Amel Pain/Epa/REX/Shutterstock)

As some are trying to go back to their lives, some are heading to the scaffold — to die for the crimes they committed. At the moment, around 3,000 suspected ISIS members or collaborators are waiting to be prosecuted in Iraqi courts, with at least 50 hearings a day. For the most part, in Iraq, it is not too difficult to figure out who was an ISIS member or collaborator. In small villages and towns, where social and family connections run deep and people know each other well, witnesses and testimony are easy to come by.

In other cases, Islamic State itself helped by functioning as a real state with detailed records of its citizens — identifying them by full name, address, job and photographs. One thing that is keeping at least the most rampant vengeful violence at bay is camps for displaced ISIS members, collaborators or their families — who are now being ostracized by the local community.

“The idea of boycotting them is a relatively good and peaceful idea preventing further bloodshed. If these people do come back, their neighbors will name them and shame them, in the best-case scenario, but there is also a danger of vengeance,” Dr. Ronen Zeidel from Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa told Intelligencer Post. “So for the time being, it is better if these people are separated. They need to let some time pass, maybe let the blood money be paid. Only a small part of the population in Iraq was affiliated with ISIS, so, in a way, this is a very marginal problem.”

ISIS extremists in Mosul hurled a blindfolded man off a roof after accusing him of being gay, January 2017.

Yet despite organized attempts to separate grieving victims from crime perpetrators or people who were caught on the sidelines of those crimes, a certain level of violence has been steadily emerging. While some human rights groups are not fond of Iraq’s swift and strict hand of justice, it remains an open question how many people were denied it. Some soldiers reportedly decided to skip such formalities, taking judiciary authority into their own swifter and stricter hands. This naturally happened in Mosul, where some fighters lost their patience and humanity after nine grueling months of battle and confusion and many years of wars and insurgencies.

In February, Human Rights Watch published a report warning that the prominent paramilitary unit Hashd al-Sha’abi, or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), detained men who were not on the government’s “wanted” lists, most likely based on dubious evidence.

“In case after case, relatives are telling us that their male family members are being stopped by PMF fighters and disappearing,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “While we cannot know exactly what has happened to the men detained, the lack of transparency, particularly for their families as to their whereabouts, is cause for real concern.”

This image showing disembodied heads and mutilated bodies of the ISIS militants was allegedly posted on Instagram by an Iraqi soldier, who claimed it was an act of revenge.

In May, German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published a report that included images of apparent torture of suspects in Mosul, taken by a freelance Kurdish photographer Aly Arkady, embedded with the Interior Ministry’s elite Emergency Response Division (ERD). Some of the images showed people tortured by hanging from the ceiling with their arms bent far behind them, and Arkady also testified about beatings, rape and stabbings.

“I saw only the good at first with these guys. There with Sunni and Shi’ite fighting together, uniting against ISIS for all the right reasons,” Arkady told the Toronto Star. “They presented themselves as real Iraqi heroes. In those first three days in Fallujah, I saw it. They were brave. I saw it as Iraq coming together, finally, to win back the soul of the country.”

However, the treatment of prisoners became increasingly violent and disturbing, and the photographer said he was even coerced into beating the suspects to ensure his own survival. Arkady subsequently fled the country with his family. His location remains unknown for security reasons.

At the end of June, Human Rights Watch published another report detailing allegations from four witnesses, who said they had seen Iraqi forces beat unarmed men and boys fleeing the fighting in Mosul.

In July, a video was published on social media showing troops throwing a suspected ISIS militant over a cliff and shooting his motionless body. Some Iraqis believe that Iraqi security forces kill the suspects because they don’t trust their own government to keep them in prisons – they believe the jihadists and collaborators might bribe their way out.

“I know two men in my neighbourhood notorious for being members of Daesh who have just been released by the government,” Saleem Mohammed, a resident of the Nabi Yunus district in east Mosul told Independent. “One of them used to go on Daesh patrols in the markets here to look for people who were smoking cigarettes.”

In Late August, PM al-Abadi’s office acknowledged that the ERD unit of the security forces committed “abuses” against civilians during the offensive on Mosul, promising that the perpetrators would be prosecuted. At this point, it is not clear how often this happens and whether order prevails. Most likely, it will take years to see the full scope of the ISIS aftermath. For now, people move from one checkpoint to another, screened and questioned for the greater good of security from ISIS militants notorious for their infiltration tactics.

The Vicious Sectarian Circle

Many Sunni Muslims now fear that they will have to live their lives as eternal suspects. When the insurgency started in 2003, the opposition to occupation came from a wide array of suddenly toppled and endangered groups: Ba’athist loyalists, nationalists, Islamists (mainly Sunni) and tribal members who sought revenge for the deaths of family members or dishonoring them, criminals, and a growing number of foreign fighters from other Arab countries.

In Baghdad, coalition forces hastily formed the Interim Governing Council with what they found at hand: 25 members placed in consultations with pre-chosen political parties, reflecting Iraqi society along confessional and ethnic lines — setting an arguably damaging precedent for organizing Iraqi politics along these lines.

The elections saw a Shi’ite-Kurdish alliance emerging as the dominant political force, marginalizing the Sunni Arab community by the letter of the constitution and indiscriminately retaliating against them after attacks against Shi’ite civilians and the newly established security apparatus. Under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, by 2012, thousands of people became victims of regular sectarian violence and terrorist attacks claimed mainly by ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Iraqi Sunni Protesters Carry the Iraqi National Flags During an Anti-government Demonstration in Fallujah, Demanding the Release of Tens of Thousands of Sunni Prisoners Held in Anti-terror Sweeps and the Repeal of Legislation They Say Especially Targets Sunnis, 27 December 2013. (Photo: Mohammed Jalil / Epa/REX/Shutterstock)

In 2014, the Islamic State group conquered parts of Northwestern Iraq in a matter of days, conveniently aiming at Sunni regions and the cities of Fallujah and Mosul, where they found little organized resistance among people angry at Sunni elites and the Iraqi government, which is closely identified with Shi’ites. Many Sunnis indeed did support Islamic State in the beginning, seeing it as an alternative and protection from the central government in Baghdad.

“If there was no support here, they wouldn’t have survived one hour. The Sunnis were very happy in the beginning. They did not know who they were, and they welcomed them as saviors,” Hamoud, the tribal leader in Rabia told the Washington Post. “Now we consider them a disaster.”

Some Iraqis shared some radical ideological standpoints with ISIS. Among them were some members of now destroyed Mosul’s Great Al Nuri Mosque, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his ISIS caliphate in 2014. Three years later, TRT World found mosque’s imam Hamoud Omar Halil, previously presumed killed by ISIS militants.

An Iraqi soldier stands next to the destroyed Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the old city area western Mosul, Iraq, 03 July 2017. (Photo: STR/EPA/REX/Shutterstock)

“We were optimistic, because in Islam we say under the caliphate everyone will live in safety and peace. In the beginning there was exhilaration and enthusiasm among people towards Daesh, but after awhile the picture became clearer and restrictions were imposed on people who started to turn away from it,” he told TRT reporter. “Among their actions was bad treatment, underestimation of people’s lives and souls…there are other things that we agreed on, that we hoped for, like the cutting the hand of the thief, killing of the killer, stoning of the adulterer. Offenders and those who don’t follow the laws should be punished, we have no problem with these things,” Halil concluded.

Those who didn’t support them still have to live with the weight of the choices that some other people made. One of them is former truck driver Jassem Nouri, who used to live near the ISIS-held Salahuddin province. After Shi’ite militias ousted ISIS from some areas, residents of the nearby village, including Nouri, were not allowed to return. Nouri told the Washington Post his two sons had been detained by “masked men in unmarked uniforms” and accused of working with the Islamic State. He insists that they are innocent, but he has not been able to secure their release.

Smoke Rise From a Burning House After the Iraqi Military Seized Sa’adiya Town Northeast of Baghdad in Diyala Province Iraq 24 November 2014. (Photo: Str/Epa/REX/Shutterstock)

In the province of Diyala, with a mixed Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish population, Washington Post reporters found there had been “a spate of sinister killings” by “unknown masked assailants” targeting Sunnis. The Badr Organization, the largest Shi’ite military group in Diyala, which also controls the provincial government, acknowledged the problems.

“The Sunnis are being targeted, and states are behind this policy. They are displacing a whole sect in order to bring about demographic change, and that isn’t an easy thing to do,” Abu Mohammed, a 46-year-old electrician told Washington Post.

Mohammad’s feelings close the vicious circle of sectarian tensions and violence that have been tormenting Iraq for over a decade. Apart from the violence, Sunni Muslims often have to accept that their liberators will also be their new rulers, usually Shi’ite Muslims or Kurds. For example, the Sunni town of Rabia is now governed by Kurdistan instead of Baghdad. While the eradication of the Sunni identity and Sunni influence in Iraq may not planned by Baghdad, as some Sunnis feel, it is happening to a certain extent, fueling a renewal of old grievances.

“Sunnis’ role in Iraq’s politics and security, or even what Sunni political identity will emerge, is unclear. Sunnis are traumatized and atomized, fragmented between tribes, within tribes and between generations,” according to an International Crisis Group report published in March.

With limited resources and land and internal conflicts that might stem from a shared past, not even the conflict among the Sunni Muslims is that far-fetched.

Shi’ite Lifeline

At the moment, Sunnis can only look up to Shi’ite political options as a channel for their rehabilitation in Iraqi society. The liberation of Tal Afar served as an example of Shi’ite internal dynamics shaping the country’s future. Although Baghdad virtually excluded the Shi’ite umbrella militia organization Hashd al-Sha’abi from the Mosul offensive, its role in Tal Afar was prominent. PM al-Abadi caved in to political pressure to include them, despite vocal opposition from the United States and Turkey.

As the general elections set for 2018 are approaching, Iraq faces a choice between former Prime Minister al-Maliki and current Prime Minister al-Abadi, who both belong to the prominent Shi’ite Da’wa party. However, the choice isn’t just an internal dynamics question — it is also a matter of broader foreign policy choice.

“Al-Abadi is pro-Western, and by extension, pro-Sunni Arab states’ camp, so in a way, he’s also working to win the Sunni vote. And he stands a good chance, because his government is mainly associated with good things: uniting the country in times of trouble and retrieving ISIS-captured territories. On top of that, he wants to drift further from Iranian influence,” Ronen Zeidel says. “His arch-rival, al-Maliki, is pro-Iranian, supported by Tehran, more conservative, more religious and more sectarian, so he alienates a number of voters, but he has his own chances of winning.”

An Iraqi Man Passes an Electoral Poster For Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-maliki in Al-tahrir Square, Central Baghdad, Iraq, 19 March 2013. (Photo: Mohammed Jalil/Epa/REX/Shutterstock)

Al-Maliki can draw a lot of appeal in a country tormented by the devastating legacy of terrorism and radical Sunni Islam. But for Sunnis, he brings up a lot of bad memories. His authoritarian government was accused of sidelining the Sunni minority, interference with the judiciary, squashing opposition and corruption framed along political, sectarian, and ethnic identities and allegiances. Under his watch, in 2013, security forces stormed the Sunni camp in currently ISIS-held Hawija, killing dozens of protesters, until he was unseated by al-Abadi soon after the incident.

No matter who sits in Baghdad, Iraq has consistently shown that it cannot easily run away from the decades of war, tribalism, internal strife and oppressive regimes that shaped the society into what it was in 2003. In the following decade, the Iraqi society changed its course and found new basins to flow through, but whatever this river carried stayed right there in the water. It is too early to say whether the impact of ISIS’ conquest and the subsequent national unity are a catalyst to any meaningful change, but some of the things that surfaced during and after Mosul’s liberation are perfect examples of both lessons learned and the past rearing its ugly head.


The second part of the Post-ISIS Iraq Series will be published on September 13, and it will explore the internal dynamics among the Iraqi Shi’ite community and politicians, much-argued Iranian influence in the country, and the re-emergence of the Gulf Statesrole in Iraq.

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