by Terry Tait
Despite its absence from the headlines, there are several reasons why Iraq should still be important to us. From May to early July of this year, Iraq was receiving national coverage as the battle for Mosul reached its height, and triumph over the militants who plagued the city seemed imminent. However, since victory was declared in the struggle for this major city, public interest in the situation in Iraq has largely shifted to U.S. tensions with North Korea, investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election, and the various scandals of the current administration. While these topics deserve our consideration, there are several reasons why Iraq remains a significant issue deserving our attention and empathy.
Iraq and its people have endured much throughout modern history. Since 1980, the country has experienced a brutal dictatorship, two wars, a decade of crippling sanctions, a change of regime accompanied by U.S. occupation, severe sectarian strife, and ineffective governance, all contributing to Iraq’s present condition: war-stricken and divided. Since 2014, there have been four million Iraqis displaced internally, more than 250,000 refugees hosted in countries in the region, and 19,000 Iraqi civilians killed in the twenty-one month period between January 2014 and October 2015.
The current conflict has done untold damage to Iraq’s social and physical infrastructure. Over the past several years, abductions, car bombings, and airstrikes have become more or less commonplace in some areas of the country. On January 19, Baghdad officials reported an increase in kidnappings since the beginning of the year–thirty-one on Palestine Street alone–largely attributed to the increased presence of Shi’a militias. On February 16, one car bomb in Baghdad killed forty-eight people, the third blast that was claimed by ISIS in a three day period. On March 17, a single U.S. airstrike targeting three ISIS snipers killed between 160 and 200 civilians in Mosul. Such instances of violence can only do horrific things to the human psyche.
This is not the first time that the course of daily life in Iraq has been affected by violent conflict. In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, the capital city of Baghdad withstood thousands of American airstrikes over a forty-two day period. The Iraqi artist Nuha al-Radi wrote her Baghdad Diaries as a record of the events of daily life at the time. In one entry she states: “[The] equivalent of five Hiroshimas have already been dropped on us. We were all restless last night and could not sleep because there were no air raids. At midnight, we got an air raid and everyone promptly went to bed… We went to sleep quite happily to the sound of shelling but woke up the minute the cacophony stopped.”
Such conditions are not a thing of the past. During the month of August, the U.S. coalition has carried out almost 300 airstrikes in Iraq. These strikes were conducted within the context of preparation and support for the major assault on the city of Tal Afar in the northern area of the country. In this latest war effort, Iraqi soldiers have described the battle for Tal Afar as “[many] times worse” than the fighting in the Old City of Mosul. Prime Minister Haider al-’Abadi declared the battle for Tal Afar a victory despite the continued fighting in the area surrounding the city.
The scale of such campaigns will do little more than destroy when the country needs to rebuild. During the grueling battle for Mosul, which dragged on for nine months, airstrikes and other military operations prevented civilians from escaping the city. Caught between ISIS and the approaching coalition, many civilians were forced to remain in the city, which was rapidly descending further into violence.
Iraq is certainly a country at war. But there are no heroes in this conflict, and everyone is a victim.
During the battle for Mosul, the Iraqi Army carried out mass human rights abuses, including the torture and murder of civilians. On May 25 of this year, the Toronto Star and ABC published the account of Kurdish photojournalist Ali Arkady, which depicts the abuses he witnessed while embedded with a unit of Iraqi soldiers during the battle for Mosul. The photos and videos are both disturbing and revealing. Medieval methods of torture were employed arbitrarily on all who were suspected of having connections to ISIS, and the families of those suspected were detained, tortured, and held in abhorrent conditions. The main sources of evidence which justified this treatment–if there were any at all–were oral reports provided by local communities to the security forces of who did or did not support ISIS.
Guilt by association appears to be the new system of justice in the country. While the people of Iraq have every reason to be angered by the devastation brought by ISIS, and understandably feel betrayed by members of their community who took part in such destructive practices, the resentment that has emerged from these internal tensions has resulted in acts of retribution and the dissolution of trust at all levels of society. Methods of collective punishment invoke the memory of Saddam’s regime and the alienating practices that created the disenfranchisement that continues to burden Iraqi society today. Furthermore, the underlying causes for this current conflict remain unsolved; political and economic marginalization continues to afflict the country’s minorities.
The feeling of marginalization is particularly acute among the country’s Kurdish population. The Kurdish question is as old as the country itself, and it is at this critical point in Iraq’s path toward reunification that Iraqi Kurdistan is preparing for a referendum of independence on September 25. The Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has stated that this referendum is poorly timed and poses a threat to both national and regional security. Turkey released a statement indicating that a referendum would inevitably lead to a new civil war. Despite this, many Kurds have long seen the policies of Baghdad as colonial in nature and believe that Kurdistan’s contribution to the fight against ISIS has earned Kurdistan’s right to independence.
The Kurdish population has fought, both figuratively and literally, for increased autonomy in the past, and it will need to do so again in the period following a referendum–if one is held, it will most certainly result in a secession from federal Iraq. Any effort to separate would necessarily begin with a large-scale diplomatic effort to define the borders between a new Kurdish state and Iraq. This is not an easy task, given that there is a vast borderland with no natural barriers, an intermixing of various ethnic groups, and the diverse and oil-rich governorate of Kirkuk in between.
As the referendum approaches, so does the possibility of increased diplomatic and military tensions between Iraqi Kurdistan and the federal government. On September 12th Iraq’s parliament rejected the referendum and authorized Abadi to take any measure that would preserve the integrity of Iraq’s borders. The aggressive rhetoric emerging from Baghdad has deepened fears that the Kurdish referendum will lead to a new civil conflict as ISIS is being cornered in its last stronghold in the town of Hawija.
Bearing these factors in mind, ISIS is far from Iraq’s only problem. In the quickly approaching “post-ISIS” period, reconciliation will be necessary both within and between the country’s various communities. Iraqi citizens need to know that the government will seek out and prosecute perpetrators of crimes regardless of their affiliations, whether they be members of ISIS, the Iraqi Security Forces, or the international coalition. This process will be essential to eliminating the environment of fear and establishing communal trust within the country, more so than infrastructure redevelopment or economic stimulus–especially as ISIS makes the transition from a territory-holding entity to a more traditional terror organization.
If Iraq does not make an effort to re-incorporate into society those segments of its population that have been marginalized, and have either been victims or perpetrators of violence, the country will remain destabilized and insurgencies will continue to develop. At this moment, any form of rapprochement appears as intangible as the concept of peace itself. Indeed, the elusiveness of these efforts is embodied in the words of the Iraqi poet, Sa’adi Youssef:
This Iraq will reach the ends of the graveyard.
It will bury its sons in open country
generation after generation,
So walk – if you wish – a long time.
And call – if you wish –
on all the world’s angels
and all its demons.
and through the haze of phantoms
watch for miracles to emerge
from clouds of incense.
A Vision – 1997
Sa’adi presents any solution to the country’s woes as closer to myth than reality; a miracle only to emerge with the assistance of divine intervention “through the haze of phantoms.” The country is trapped in a cycle of destruction which repeats “generation after generation” as a result of the politics of xenophobia, hate, and fear that were elevated to new heights under the Saddam regime–and let loose after the U.S. invasion.
In light of recent events, Americans should be able to empathize with these issues now more than ever. The demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, and their violent outcome, exemplify the rhetoric of hatred that has been building to a furor in American society. While the perpetrators of hate speech, racism, and violence have been met with resistance, there is no clear way forward and no obvious solution. The task of reconciling deep-seated issues of race and inequality in America is daunting, and has sparked debates, protests, and movements. In Iraq, these issues have resulted in bloodshed and the disintegration of communities.
The cyclical nature of these prolonged and repeated conflicts makes rapprochement seem impossibly idealistic and ambitious. How can one bring two groups together if they see no reason to recognize the legitimacy of the other’s grievances? Nevertheless, reconciliation–despite its challenges–is the best and only way forward.
It is the only process that can start the long process of rebuilding communal trust among Iraqis in a post-ISIS era. Without the possibility of communal reconciliation–and unification on a national level–destruction and division will be the only future for a people that has already lost so much. If Iraq continues on its current course, enabling communal tensions and further marginalizing minorities, then stability will no longer be a goal, but a myth.
As Americans continue to engage in difficult conversations over race relations, extremism, and equality, we should remember that these are global issues that Iraq and other countries are facing as well.
Iraq is not the United States, but the two countries are suffering from different symptoms of the same disease. The rhetoric of hatred, xenophobia, and fear remains the same regardless of the setting, whether it be Mosul, Paris, Jerusalem, or Charlottesville. Though Iraq has been a resilient country, it has its limits. Communal reconciliation is needed in order to rebuild trust at every level of society–in Iraq as well as in the United States.
Terry Tait is a Senior at Miami University studying history with a focus on Middle East studies.
 Nuha al-Radi, Baghdad Diaries (London: Saqi Books, 1998), pg 28
 Ali Arkady, “Bound. Tortured. Killed,” Toronto Star
 Sa’adi Yousef, “A Vision,” in Without An Alphabet, Without A Face, trans. Khaled Mattawa (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2002), pg. 179