Six months and 16,000 airstrikes into the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, with less than 1% of the territory it held in Iraq recovered, an honest accounting leads to only one conclusion: The U.S.-led strategy is failing.
With the effort focused almost exclusively on a military defeat of the armed group, also known as ISIS, neither the Iraqi government nor its anti-ISIS allies – Iran included – have seriously addressed the reforms and accountability for abuses that could earn back the support of Iraq’s Sunni population. The fragmentation of Iraq’s fighting forces into unaccountable sectarian militias responsible for horrific abuses against Iraqi civilians is part of Iraq’s slide into a broken state that no amount of foreign aid and military intervention will be likely to put back together.
Despite the grievances underlying initial Sunni support for ISIS, the anti-ISIS coalition has focused almost exclusively on an airstrikes campaign, with Shi’a militias supported by Iran as the primary boots on the ground.
The stunning takeover by ISIS of a massive swath of Iraqi territory testified to the alienation of Sunni communities. Many Sunnis welcomed ISIS fighters as “liberators” from the sectarian oppression of government forces. But let’s not forget how Iraq got to that point – with the U.S.-led Iraq war that displaced a dictator but resulted in an abusive occupation and destructive civil war, leaving more than a million dead.
The highly sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki – installed by the U.S. and Iran – amplified the country’s division into warring Sunni and Shi’a camps. Sunni grievances simmered and then exploded under Maliki’s rule, which effectively excluded meaningful political participation by Sunnis and fostered wide-scale abuses against their community. When Sunnis attempted to peacefully protest their marginalization in 2012-13, they met violent assaults by government security forces.
These abuses led to a renewed insurgency that ISIS exploited. Well before ISIS took over Mosul, Iraqi security forces were indiscriminately bombarding Anbar province in their battle with Sunni armed groups. While U.S. officials decried the Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs, they said little about barrel bombs the Iraqi air force was dropping in Fallujah. By early 2014, the conflict had already displaced 500,000 civilians from Sunni areas.
These conditions created fertile ground for ISIS to escalate the conflict, co-opting several Sunni armed groups, and helping to spawn today’s terror crisis.
The Shi’a militias supporting the U.S.-led bombing campaign are armed, funded, salaried, and supported by the Iranians, but also by the Iraqi government, which is in turn armed and funded by Washington. While the U.S. says that its weapons, budgeted at $1.3 billion for 2015, are intended for Iraqi security forces, the reality is that much is ending up in the hands of these militias.
Rather than insisting that U.S. weapons must not go to militias, Secretary of State John Kerry now has a waiver of Leahy Law requirements for human rights vetting and end-use monitoring, which many believe are not working anyway. The Iranian government, meanwhile, is selling Iraq $10 billion in weapons, much of which also ends up in the hands of the militias it directs.
The problem is that these militias are carrying out abuses that have only further alienated Sunnis and served as a recruiting tool for ISIS: mass executions of Sunni prisoners, revenge killings following coalition airstrikes against Sunni communities for their alleged support of ISIS, and torture, beheadings and abuses of corpses. In January, witnesses described the execution of 72 Sunni civilians by Shi’a militias in the Diyala province.
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Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rightly talks of the need to demobilize these militias and integrate them into the armed forces, and has called for an investigation into the Diyala massacre. But he and other officials concede that they are weak in the face of corrupt security forces, and rely on the militias. Indeed, commanders of one militia, the Badr Brigade, have been appointed the interior and human rights ministers.
This concedes far too much to the militias, and far too little to the authority of the new government and its backers. Disarming these militias may be unrealistic in the short term, but there is much the government can do now to curb their worst abuses.The government can punish those responsible for murderous rampages in Sunni communities, and cut off salaries for abusive units. The government can reform the justice system, make good on its promise to release unjustly detained prisoners, and end pervasive torture in Iraq’s detention facilities. It can also join the International Criminal Court, which could deter abuses by all fighting groups. The prime minister can suspend enforcement of the disastrous Anti-Terrorism and de-Ba’athification laws and judicial executions.
These are essential steps to demonstrate to Sunnis that they are better off under the government’s protection. Iraq’s allies should recognize that ground forces and airstrikes alone are not enough and that the current campaign will fail without meaningful moves to end abuses.
Sarah Leah Whitson is the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.