The impunity enjoyed by the militias and continued collective punishment against Sunnis can only lead to civil war.
In the age of social media and the tragic but necessary ability to watch atrocities unfolding almost in real-time, it boggles the mind how Iraq still remains a black hole when it comes to Iran-sponsored Shia militias perpetrating sectarian cleansing campaigns against Sunni Arab civilians.
It has been a full week, and yet there has not been any reporting of the Shia militia attacks against the Sunni village of Nahr al Imam in Iraq’s eastern Diyala governorate by any mainstream media outlet. Instead, most outlets have preferred to focus on the Daesh terror group’s attacks against the nearby Shia village of al Rashad.
So why the selectivity when it comes to coverage of Iraq? Why are some victims deemed more important than others, despite living mere miles from each other? The answer to that may just determine whether the world needs to face up to another iteration of Daesh again or not.
Anti-Sunni violence is nothing new
The attacks on al Rashad and Nahr al Imam require some unpacking before we can begin to draw links to Iraq’s history of sectarian violence ever since the US-led invasion in 2003.
The attack began when Daesh militants took two Shia villagers from al Rashad hostage last Tuesday, demanding a ransom to release them. When their demands were not met, they murdered the hostages and then called their families, informing them to collect their corpses from a nearby orchard. However, when the families came to collect the remains of their loved ones, they instead found themselves walking into an ambush which killed a further nine and wounded more than a dozen.
The following day, armed fighters from the Bani Tamim tribe, who inhabit the village, surrounded the nearby village of Nahr al Imam. They were supported by units from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), also known as the Hashd al Shaabi in Arabic, a collective of largely pro-Iran Shia militias who have formal recognition as a branch of the Iraqi armed forces.
Together, the Bani Tamim tribesmen and PMF fighters exacted a brutal revenge, not against Daesh, but against the Sunni Arabs of Nahr al Imam. Eight Sunni villagers were killed while the Shia fighters burnt and bulldozed the homes and farms of Sunnis who managed to escape the atrocity and sought refuge in the mosques of the nearby city of Baquba.
Although the Iraqi government has ordered an investigation into the events that led to both Sunni and Shia civilians being killed, it is highly likely that the inquiry will not lead to any justice for the victims.
While Daesh is difficult to apprehend by virtue of its underground operations, it would not be difficult to find the PMF fighters and Bani Tamim tribesmen who killed the Sunni villagers and destroyed their homes and livelihoods. But this is never going to happen, as Sunnis are viewed as expendable.
More than five years ago, the PMF was also responsible for the mass disappearance of 643 Sunni men and boys near Fallujah, west of Baghdad. To date, no one knows exactly what happened to these victims of sectarian Shia insurgent groups tied to the Iraqi authorities and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, although a mass grave has been located, filled with men and children.
In Iraq, it is simply enough to be a Sunni and then accused of links to Daesh for you to be stuck in permanent legal limbo, facing torture and all kinds of depredations. Late last month, Human Rights Watch reported that both federal and regional Kurdish authorities have ignored judicial acquittals for alleged Daesh suspects and kept them incarcerated with no pathway for release.
Not even children are spared, as they are accused of Daesh membership and then arbitrarily arrested and tortured until they confess to being Daesh extremists. Despite numerous international conventions on the rights of children, nobody seems to care the second the word “Daesh” is thrown into the mix.
Normalising the sectarian cleansing of Sunnis
When collective punishment is meted out and is used as a tool, approved at least semi-officially by mere virtue of the fact that the federal authorities do nothing to hold perpetrators from the PMF to account, then there can only be one outcome – civil war.
This is no idle or grandiose assessment, either, as Iraq has a very recent history of inter-communal violence, death squads, forced sectarian homogenisation of cities and districts, and the reciprocal destruction of religious sites.
When the entire town of Jurf al Sakhr was forcibly emptied of its Sunni Arab inhabitants in 2014, it was justified by the Iraqi government as a temporary military measure needed to counter the Daesh threat. However, and to this day, the town is still off-limits to its original Sunni population and is instead home to Shia militants and their families who moved in after the Sunnis were expelled and took the liberty of renaming the town to Jurf al Nasr to mark their victory.
It seems clear that the “victory” they were alluding to included being able to perpetrate a genocidal war crime (as defined by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide) and completely get away with it.
The international community has no interest in crimes against Iraq’s Sunnis, and the Iraqi government certainly could not care any less. Even if they did want to hold anyone to account, the state itself is held hostage by Iran’s Shia proxies.
This can only mean one thing. Whenever Daesh next builds up enough strength to launch another attempt at conquest, or if a new iteration is formed out of its 10,000 strong remnant, the international community and the Iraqi authorities will only have themselves to blame.
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