Harmeet Sooden: Iraqi Civilians Caught Between Scylla and Charybdis

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Image courtesy of Human Rights Watch - Displaced Yezidi.

Harmeet Sooden has recently returned from Iraqi Kurdistan, where he was working on a human rights project assessing communal tensions in a camp for internally displaced persons. In 2005, Harmeet was kidnapped in Iraq while working for an international human rights organisation, and held hostage for nearly four months. He argues the protection of civilians should be the cornerstone of New Zealand policy in Iraq.

Analysis by Harmeet Sooden.

New Zealand’s military intervention in Iraq, as a member of the US-led coalition, is being sold to the New Zealand public as an exercise in stopping ISIS’s atrocities, especially those against the people of Iraq.

The reality, however, is that many of Iraq’s civilians are caught between Scylla and Charybdis between two dire alternatives: on the one side, opposition groups and ISIS; on the other, the US-led coalition and Iran. While human rights violations committed by ISIS are widely condemned, those committed by New Zealand’s coalition partners, including Iraq, are underreported.

The coalition’s strategy to counter ISIS relies on the use of force. Key to the coalition’s military campaign in Iraq is building the capacity of the Iraqi military and supporting Iraqi ground operations with airstrikes. Since the beginning of the conflict, human rights organisations have been implicating coalition members in human rights violations that may constitute war crimes. The Iraqi government, in particular, is responsible for widespread abuses, disproportionately against Iraq’s Sunni Arab population.

Iraqi security forces, originally trained and armed by the US, have engaged in: torture, hostage-taking, and summary execution of civilians, including women and children; beheading, lynching, and immolating captives, desecrating corpses, and celebrating the atrocities in photographs and videos posted online; looting and wanton destruction of property, and shelling and bombing residential areas and hospitals. Iraqi and Kurdish authorities sometimes prevent families fleeing the fighting from reaching safer parts of the country. Iraqi forces have also established “death zones” around Baghdad.

Other coalition members such as the US, Britain and Australia, who are conducting airstrikes and training Iraqi forces, themselves have a poor human rights record in Iraq. For example, the International Criminal Court is currently considering allegations of systematic torture and unlawful killings carried out by British forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2008.

The abuses by Iraqi forces are often preceded by coalition airstrikes. Not only are the airstrikes effectively providing cover for what appears to be ethnic cleansing in areas re-captured from ISIS, but they are also directly causing civilian deaths that may amount to war crimes. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the airstrikes are compounding the humanitarian consequences of the conflict.

Harmeet Sooden (second from left) interviews a displaced Iraqi family in Arbat IDP Camp, Iraqi Kurdistan on May 21, 2015. Up to 85 per cent of the camp’s 17,300 residents were displaced from their homes when Iraqi forces re-captured parts of Salah ad-Din governorate from ISIS. Image: Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Harmeet Sooden (second from left) interviews a displaced Iraqi family in Arbat IDP Camp, Iraqi Kurdistan on May 21, 2015. Up to 85 per cent of the camp’s 17,300 residents were displaced from their homes when Iraqi forces re-captured parts of Salah ad-Din governorate from ISIS. Image: Christian Peacemaker Teams.

UN agencies warn that Iraq is “on the brink of humanitarian disaster” due to the escalating conflict between the US-led coalition and opposition forces, and the severe shortfall in international funding. At least 3.1 million Iraqis have been internally displaced since January 2014, and a further million could be displaced in the coming months. A total of 8.2 million people now require immediate humanitarian support.

The situation has deteriorated to the point where “[a]uthorities in Iraqi Kurdistan suspect that displaced people are selling their kidneys to feed their families.” At the same time, it is becoming increasingly dangerous for humanitarian workers to carry out their work.

The UN has concluded that civilians are the primary targets of the conflict in Iraq.

New Zealand’s main contribution to the coalition is through Task Group Taji, a New Zealand-Australian training mission co-located with US training teams at the Taji Military Complex (Camp Taji) site. The task group is a small but not insignificant component of the multiple-site ‘Building Partner Capacity’ (BPC) programme led by the US. The primary mission of the BPC programme at Camp Taji is to train the Iraqi army’s 15th and 16th Divisions. Both divisions were formed to replace the US-trained units that collapsed in 2014 when ISIS seized the Mosul region. They are composed of new recruits as well as soldiers who fled during last year’s assault. Since May 2015, Task Group Taji has trained Iraqi troops from the 76th Brigade, a formation within the 16th Division, and the 71st, 22nd and 23rd Brigades.

In April 2015, the Wall Street Journal interviewed several Iraqi soldiers being trained at Camp Taji, who openly said “they actively served on their days off with Shiite militia – some…still listed by the U.S. as terrorist groups”, some also sponsored by Iran. The UN has reported that the popular mobilisation forces (PMF) and other pro-government militias “seem to operate with total impunity, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake” that often rivals the depredations of ISIS. The Iraqi security forces, and to a lesser extent the peshmerga, collaborate with the PMF.

UNICEF has confirmed reports of children being recruited by militias from all sides, including those supported by the Iraqi government. The PMF is reportedly providing combat training to children in summer camps established throughout the country. Militias fighting alongside Iraqi and Kurdish forces are using armed boys and girls on the frontline – some as young as 10. Enlisting children under the age of 15 or using them to engage in hostilities is a war crime.

In addition to jointly operating Task Group Taji with New Zealand, Australia is running a Special Operations Task Group. This Australian task group is rendering military advice and assistance to the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), a CIA-supported “elite Iraqi security force accused of killing prisoners and other human rights violations,” which include “torturing detainees with impunity” at a secret detention facility in Baghdad, and “unnecessary civilian casualties”. Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) – sometimes referred to in local circles as the ‘dirty brigades’ – provide CTS’s primary combat capability. ISOF units are under investigation by the Iraqi government for committing ISIS-like atrocities against non-combatants.

Iraqi soldiers trained by the NZDF at Camp Taji have now been deployed to the frontline to join the coalition’s Ramadi offensive. The military campaign to re-capture Ramadi involves elements of the Iraqi security forces that are spearheaded by the CTS and supported by coalition air power, including Australia’s Air Task Group, and pro-government militias, notably the PMF.

An officer with the New Zealand defense force gives a brief during a build partner capacity conference at Camp Taji, Iraq, July 22, 2015. The conference brought together coalition leaders to assess the Iraqi security forces training programs at BPC sites across the country. It allowed them to discuss topics like length of instruction, capturing lessons learned and leadership development as they apply to the Iraqi security forces trained at the sites. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Charles M. Bailey/Released)
An officer with the New Zealand defense force gives a brief during a build partner capacity conference at Camp Taji, Iraq, July 22, 2015. The conference brought together coalition leaders to assess the Iraqi security forces training programs at BPC sites across the country. It allowed them to discuss topics like length of instruction, capturing lessons learned and leadership development as they apply to the Iraqi security forces trained at the sites. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Charles M. Bailey/Released)

The NZDF training, even if it includes courses in “ethical behavior in war”, cannot address the root causes of the coalition’s human rights violations: for instance, the structural corruption and sectarianism introduced into Iraq’s military and state institutions after the 2003 US-led invasion. The NZDF cannot eliminate the risk of the training offering the Iraqi army greater means to worsen the human rights situation.

NZDF personnel are also deployed in unidentified roles in Baghdad and other undisclosed locations. The military role New Zealand’s intelligence services are playing in the conflict is secret. The full extent of New Zealand’s activities in Iraq is therefore not subject to public scrutiny.

Sectarian abuses that prevailed under the government of Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki continue unabated under his successor, Haider al-Abadi. Yet, the New Zealand Government insists on backing a regime that is showing little regard for civilians. When coalition forces were poised to re-conquer Tikrit in March 2015, Prime Minister al-Abadi said in a speech to the Iraqi parliament: “There is no neutrality in the battle against ISIS. If someone is being neutral with ISIS, then he is one of them.” His words epitomise the dilemma civilians face in areas where ISIS is active.

Far from being the “responsible international citizen” it professes to be, New Zealand is participating in a military enterprise that is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. There is a straightforward way New Zealand can begin to protect the people of Iraq: namely, by withdrawing its support for the human rights violators in the coalition, and acknowledging that worthwhile alternatives exist. New Zealand policymakers can get away with reckless policies so long as New Zealanders keep silent and tolerate them.

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Selwyn Manning, BCS (Hons.) MCS (Hons.) is an investigative political journalist with 23 years media experience. He specializes in reportage and analysis of socioeconomics, politics, foreign affairs, and security/intelligence issues. Selwyn has extensive experience as a commentator and has provided live political analysis to a wide range of television and radio organizations broadcasting in New Zealand, Australia and globally including the BBC (Five Live, London) and BBC (World Service). He is currently a correspondent to Australia's FiveAA radio, and is a regular live-on-air panelist on Radio New Zealand's The Panel with broadcaster Jim Mora.

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