Last week, the German news magazine Der Spiegel published harrowing photographs from the battle for the control of Mosul and its surrounding areas between ISIL and Iraqi troops. Ali Arkady, the Kurdish photojournalist who documented the abuses of Iraqi government troops, said he had originally set out to cover the soldiers’ heroism in the fight against ISIL. But after witnessing their crimes, his conclusion was that these men were “not heroes, but monsters”.
Arkady said he witnessed Iraqi soldiers – not Shia militias – perpetrating a wide array of abuses including abductions, torture, and rape. Not only did Shia soldiers rape one of their Sunni allied tribal fighters, but in one particularly horrifying instance, interior ministry fighters were gloating about raping a particularly beautiful girl. Their comrades, apparently jealous, vowed to pay the already violated and scarred girl a visit themselves.
After seeing Arkady’s harrowing photographs, which were also published by several other news organisations around the world, Sarah Whitson, Middle East Director of the Human Rights Watch, said that the crimes were not even committed in the pretext of gaining intelligence. “This is just torture for fun,” she said.
Other journalists on the ground also reported atrocities committed by Iraqi security forces in and around Mosul. A journalist working for the New Arab reported that one Iraqi officer in Mosul told him that his comrades have been committing crimes so heinous that even ISIL would “stand aloof” from perpetrating.
The reports on these undeniable war crimes caused a lot of public anger, but the international community, and particularly the US-led anti-ISIL coalition, has so far stayed silent. Apart from a few paltry words of condemnation from the US envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, nothing has actually been done to stop these abuses and the victims of these atrocities are unlikely to see justice.
The rationale behind this silence is the Iraqi troops’ role in the fight against ISIL. The world is ignoring the unimaginable human rights abuses that they have been committing as they confront the deadly, but by no means existential, threat from ISIL. As a result, the innocent victims of Iraqi troops’ abuses, who predominantly belong to the Sunni Arab community of Mosul, are being marginalised even in their death.
When the Yazidi minority faced similar atrocities at the hands of ISIL fighters, the world was outraged. The US even staged an intervention to respond to their plight in 2014. But the civilians, Sunni Arabs from the city of Mosul, who are being tortured, killed and raped at the hands of Iraqi security forces, do not seem to attract the same level of attention.
Washington has significant leverage over the Iraqi government. The US has spent more than $20bn to rebuild the Iraqi army after the 2003 invasion and it is still giving financial aid to Baghdad. The US could easily make continued aid contingent on Iraq respecting the human rights of its citizens and not committing war crimes, as Amnesty International has already called for.