The cradle of civilisation has become a free for all. Twenty five years after a US-led international coalition of states invaded Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, the situation in Iraq remains as deadly as ever. 16,115 civilian deaths were recorded in 2015, with many more injured.
On 1-15 March 2016 alone, according to Iraq Body Count (IBC), 570 civilian deaths were recorded. This includes 60 deaths (39 civilian) and at least 70 injured in a suicide bombing on a checkpoint near Hilla on 6 March. This attack was claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) militant group and received extensive international media coverage.
On the other hand, only Al Jazeera and Arabic-language Iraqi media reported an air strike — either Coalition or Iraqi government — that struck the village of Asriyah in Anbar Province, killing 69 civilians, largely women and children, and injuring 100 others, on 9 March. Reports also claimed that medical personnel were initially denied access by the Iraqi army, which was conducting raids on ISIL in the area. These deaths are not included in the above death toll. According to Airwars, there were over 100 civilian casualties through Coalition air strikes in this same period, some of which are included in the death toll for the first half of March.
It is undeniable that ISIL is responsible for the majority of civilian deaths, particularly through mass summary executions. IBC had to revise the death toll for 2014 upwards by 3000 following the discovery of mass graves in territories reclaimed from ISIL. Nonetheless, the almost exclusive focus on ISIL’s war crimes provides a convenient cover for those committed by others actors in the conflict: the Iraqi government and its paramilitary units, national, regional and international players.
In its World Report 2016, concerning Iraq, Human Rights Watch (HRW) states, “The UN Human Rights Council in March  condemned abuses by ISIS after an OHCHR report earlier that month found that the group may have committed genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It failed to condemn possible war crimes by government forces.”
A January 2016 report by the UN on the protection of civilians in the armed conflict in Iraq calls the death toll “staggering” but with over two thirds of the report dedicated to war crimes by ISIL, the crimes against humanity carried out by other actors hardly get a look-in, even though it concedes that Iraqi civilians are under attack from all sides. There is little mention of Coalition air strikes and the Iraqi government gets off lightly, even though many of the offences attributed to ISIL were also committed by others.
Another report published the same week by Amnesty International, “Banished and Dispossessed,” on war crimes and forced displacements in areas reclaimed from ISIL by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the north of the country received far less media attention. According to Amnesty, “Peshmerga forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish militias in northern Iraq have bulldozed, blown up and burned down thousands of homes in an apparent effort to uproot Arab communities in revenge for their perceived support for the so-called Islamic State (IS).”
As with other reports by human rights NGOs, it was rapidly dismissed by the government, “The claims of [Amnesty International] regarding the peshmerga in IS-liberated areas are false accusations, bias, and they neglect the peshmerga’s sacrifices as thousands of martyrs were killed and wounded to liberate the citizens of areas seized by IS.”
With member states of the US-led coalition against ISIL investing heavily in arming and training Kurdish, Yezidi, Turkmen, and other militant groups, there is no interest in admitting that they are in fact funding potential war crimes. In its report, Amnesty urges states, “such as the UK and Germany, and others providing training and capacity building- to take concrete and measurable steps to ensure that any assistance they provide does not contribute to the commission of violations of international humanitarian law such as forced displacement and unlawful destruction, and to publicly condemn such violations.”
The US-led coalition was warned early on that arming such groups could worsen the fragile ethnic situation in the country, with such groups using the security vacuum to consolidate their own power and spheres of influence, helping to redraw and balkanise the country’s internal boundaries without any apparent outside help.
As well as the spike in civilian deaths in recent years, Iraq also has the highest and fastest growing rate of internally displaced people in the world: since 2014, more than 3 million have been displaced and more than 8 million are in need of humanitarian aid. While there is plenty of money to fund the war effort, funds for the displaced and impoverished are non-existent. Families are separated through this process, and many starve to death. More than one million children are displaced, many of whom have no access to education.
The January 2016 UN report nonetheless uses the fact that ISIL is often present in civilian areas to justify international and Iraqi government air strikes on civilian areas, which cause more casualties and displacement. Airwars reports that since 2014, the international Coalition has carried out 7339 air strikes in Iraq and has clocked up a civilian death toll of over 1000 in its pursuit of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
Although the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) does provide updates on its air strikes in Iraq and Syria, it has always denied that such strikes have resulted in civilian deaths. Airwars has nonetheless submitted evidence to the UK defence secretary that could prove potential British responsibility for civilian casualties. Death is not only from the sky: in February, 3 British elite SAS soldiers were injured in ground attacks near Mosul and in the same month, US army special operations Delta Forces were also reported to be operating on the ground.
Within Iraq, government-backed, largely Shiite, militias, known as popular mobilization forces or units (PMUs) are subject to very little public scrutiny or accountability. In early 2015, the Wall Street Journal called them the “other powerful threat to Iraq’s future” and stated they are “also engaging in behavior not all that different from ISIS.” Such behaviour includes the use of child soldiers, noted by UNICEF in 2015, trained with US funding for the Iraqi army.
In January 2016, PMUs targeted and killed many Sunni Arabs in Diyala province. One parliamentarian called it “genocide” and although leaving Sunni Kurds alone, the attacks were clearly aimed at provoking sectarian strife. In February 2016, two Canadian NGOs accused PMUs of massacring Yezidis, including women who had been enslaved by ISIL, in territories that had been reclaimed. The UN in Iraq denied this. If proven true, the claims undermine Canada’s support for the coalition and the Iraqi military.
In 2015, ABC reported images and videos of Iraqi security forces and PMUs carrying out executions and destroying property; it described this as potential war crimes. An Iraqi government spokesperson said it was “possible the photos were fabricated by ISIS to discredit the military,” and promised an investigation which is allegedly ongoing.
Human rights NGOs such as HRW and Amnesty have reported and documented other incidents. In April 2015, Reuter’s Baghdad bureau chief, Ned Parker, left Iraq following threats from Shiite militias, after “he reported that PMUs had committed abuses and looting after they recaptured Tikrit from IS.”
There must be no impunity for anyone accused of war crimes and human rights abuses. The emergence of ISIL has provided a cloak for the Iraqi government’s own abuses: Iraq has one of the highest execution rates in the world, and torture and rape is common in Iraqi prisons. It is this culture of impunity and injustice that has contributed to the cultivation of ISIL.
One major difference in the war crimes of ISIL and other parties to the conflict is visibility. With ISIL’s skilled use of social media and mainstream media coverage, ISIL’s war crimes are well known. Since ISIL emerged on the international stage in 2014, the UN has been keen to investigate and prosecute its war crimes. Similar interest has not been shown in those of the Iraqi government against its own people or the US-led coalition that invaded in 2003.
The US has been rather more prude with its torture porn since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004. Over the past 12 years, the US government has been engaged in a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) over the disclosure of some 2000 pictures showing prisoner abuse by US military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. In February 2016, the US finally released 198 images. The ACLU described this small disclosure as hiding a much bigger story: “the government’s selective release of these photos could mislead the public about the true scope of what happened.”
Indeed, the US has much to hide. So much so, former soldier Chelsea Manning is currently serving a 35-year sentence for her disclosure of military documents to Wikileaks. Tortured during pre-trial detention, at one stage she faced the charge of aiding Al Qaeda through these leaks. At the same time, the British government is continuing to delay the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War which is likely to prove damning.
Nor is it just the Coalition’s crimes against Iraqis that need hiding. In a new book, The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers, former soldier Joseph Hickman has documented how thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are now suffering from cancer and other terminal illnesses, and their children are at greater risk, due to their exposure to burn pits incinerating toxic materials. The US government denies this is the case.
Alongside the various states and domestic players engaged in the scramble for Iraq at the expense of the Iraqi people, the number of private military contractors or mercenaries in the country has soared over the past year.
On 14 March, the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to consider ISIL’s war crimes against religious minorities an act of genocide. The resolution was non-binding and has no real effect. Regardless of the gender, ethnicity or religion of any Iraqi civilian, there should be no illusion that human lives are really of any interest here. The prize, as it has remained throughout decades of conflict, is Iraq’s natural assets.