In the shadow of the Middle East’s burning conflicts, Yemen, Syria and Israel-Palestine, Iraq has thankfully to its own residents, disappeared somewhat from the news of late. Yet a lack of bombs, bullets and the seemingly ubiquitous modern age image of people being forced to flee their homes shouldn’t disguise from the scale of the country’s challenges ahead and the very real prospect for a slippage back to violence.
A recent Foreign Policy piece warned that "the Islamic State appears to be returning to an insurgency in Iraq—or trying to". In April Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a rare video speech where he explained that; “the war of Islam and its followers against the crusaders and their followers is a long one. Our battle today is a war of attrition to harm the enemy, and they should know that jihad will continue until doomsday.”
The Special Representative of the Secretary General on Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, warned the members of the United Nations Security in May that; “Isis is resurging. They rested, moved and are active. Within this context, I am keenly aware of the importance of continued, wide-based international support, support to ensure that Iraq leaves its violent past behind, to ensure that Iraq does not slip back into the turmoil from which it so recently emerged”.
To support Iraq in delivering justice for the crimes Isis committed whilst preventing that justice appearing punitive against a specific community, that is, Iraqi Sunnis who lived in areas like Mosul controlled by Isis, is a fine and difficult balancing act.
Last week an Iraqi court condemned a fourth French citizen to death for joining Islamic State, despite France reiterating its opposition to capital punishment. There is an over-focusing on the foreign fighters aspect of Isis with the Iraqi judiciary saying earlier in May that it had tried and sentenced more than 500 suspected foreign members of Isis since the start of 2018.
The foreign fighter issue is important and proving an issue lack in geopolitical consensus, yet more important to Iraq’s immediate future are the 2 million or so Iraqis who remain internally displaced. This number will rise by several thousand as Iraqi fighters and families are returning from detention centres in North-East Syria.
There are understandable pushes from members of the Iraqi government and society at large for retribution against those who wreaked such havoc on the country and those that supported them in doing so. However, the recipe for future violence in Iraq is millions of people who feel disenfranchised from the national project. Just as Al-Qaeda in Iraq spawned Isis, what could follow what quickly became the world’s most feared terrorist group?
There are practical, functional issues around state services at play in this balancing act as well as more invisible and insidious social ones that demonstrate the unhealed wounds of the country’s long periods of civil strife. The legacy of Isis is not just the smoking husks of ruined cities, but of those who supported them, endured them or are in any other possible way seen to be perceived as affiliated with them.
Stigma can manifest in many forms; one is the simple denial of recognition of a person’s rights as a citizen of the country. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) about 45,000 children displaced in camps today do not have Iraqi-state issued birth certificates or other civil documents proving their legal identity. This is depriving them of their most basic rights as Iraqi citizens. NRC estimates that more than 80,000 households across conflict affected areas in Iraq have family members that are missing at least one form of civil documentation.
Saddam's Iraq was a complex and slow-moving bureaucracy - a culture that has not disappeared in the new Iraqi body politic but that has been replaced by a metastasizing combination of under resourced civil servants, corruption and a lack of political will and leadership across all layers of government.
This is the system that is charged with providing the vision of the wider country’s recovery whilst ensuring that the people who blame government for the state of affairs are able to feel part of society going forward.
One response that surely will delay a more sustained addressing of this issue is to turn the patchwork of displacement camps into larger and more organised ‘super camps’. This will likely, at considerable expense, be seen to contain the issue but will only allow it to fester for the politicians of the future to address at a later date.
Instead Iraqi leaders should look to the reconciliation committees of Rwanda and other efforts and bringing together communities divided by war from the former Yugoslavia to Cambodia to South Africa. There are many examples of carefully balancing justice for crimes with a wider sense of closure and moving on towards a more peaceful future, something that Iraq so desperately needs.
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