Iraq deserves heroes, but only has monsters

The atrocities committed by the Iraqi army in the battle of Mosul is well documented, but the world stays silent.

An Iraqi family walks from Islamic State controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul
An Iraqi family walks from ISIL controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle [Goran Tomasevic/Reuters]

Blindfolded, tied up men with dislocated shoulders dangling painfully from ceilings. Teenage boys, hands tied behind their backs screaming for mercy, only for a soldier to execute them in cold blood. Ashen-faced women clutching onto their terrified children after they had just been raped. These are just some of the scenes taking place in Iraq. The most frightening thing about these horrific acts is that their perpetrators are not fighters from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), but in fact government troops and police units.

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.

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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.

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.


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.

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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.

Instead, on top of not doing anything to stop the war crimes of the Iraqi military, the US is contributing to the mass slaughter of civilians in and around Mosul. The US recently admitted to killing at least 105 civilians in Mosul in a single airstrike in March, though it is believed that the death toll could be as high as 237. With one US strike, hundreds of lives were casually blotted out, and reduced to inconvenient numbers. 

The US’ policy on Iraq during the Obama era and now under the Trump administration have encouraged Baghdad to act with impunity. Despite repeatedly promising to conduct enquiries about alleged atrocities, Baghdad has done nothing to stop these human rights abuses and the number of victims continues to mount to this day.

Iraqi government’s self-assured confidence about its impunity was laid bare when an Iraqi official, Saad al-Muttalibi, laughed after he was told that he had likely just admitted to war crimes on television.

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During a televised interview, Muttalibi said that suspected ISIL members were executed without being put before a judge because “they are terrorists”. In other words, he admitted that the Iraqi government adopted the functions of the judiciary and simply conducted field executions against suspects.

At the end of the day, the Iraqi government may continue to win battles against ISIL and will almost definitely recapture Mosul. However, the sheer scale of the abuses and atrocities that have gone unchecked for more than a decade will ensure that the new regime in Baghdad’s Green Zone will eventually lose the war, squandering any chance for peace and ethnosectarian reconciliation.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.