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July 02, 2014

Human Rights Abuses in Iraq Help ISIS

By John Rodriguez

Over the last several weeks there have been alarming reports of increased human rights abuses in Iraq.  One of the most dramatic incidents was the claim that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who now prefers to call itself the Islamic State (IS), massacred 1,700 Iraqi soldiers on June 12th  - a violent killing spree that ISIS publicized with gruesome photos on Twitter.  Last week, Human Rights Watch released a detailed study that located a number of the massacre sites and analyzed photographs to confirm that at least 160 people were murdered. ISIS has also been accused of massacres and human rights abuses in a number of other towns that have fallen under their control.

However, ISIS is not alone in committing war crimes in Iraq.  Alarming reports have surfaced about Shiite death squads, some allegedly in Iraqi security force uniforms, operating around Baghdad.  These groups are accused of targeting and killing Sunni civilians.  These executions are reminiscent of the sectarian cleansing that occurred at the height of the U.S. occupation in 2006 and 2007.  In addition to killings by militia groups, there are also accusations that Iraqi military and police units have massacred Sunni prisoners, some still in their cells.  One news report claims that 69 prisoners were murdered on June 23rd in Hilla.  This is in addition to 52 prisoners that were allegedly executed in Baquba last week.

These war crimes by both sides of the conflict are reprehensible. Worse yet, in addition to being illegal, the crimes of the Iraqi Government strengthen ISIS.  In explaining the ISIS massacre strategy, Aaron Zelin pointed out that “ISIS’ goal is not only to scare Iraqi Shiites but to provoke them to radicalize, join Iranian-sponsored militias and then commit similar atrocities against Sunnis.  ISIS then hopes to set itself up as the protectors of the Sunni population, helping to consolidate its hold on Sunni population centers.”  Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to allow Shiite militias, and particularly Iraqi police and military forces, to commit war crimes against Sunnis risks cementing the alliance between ISIS and the Sunni tribal groups that have rallied to aid them.  Many have speculated that these indigenous Sunni groups will ditch ISIS once they have overthrown Maliki, rising up in a second Anbar Awakening.  However the Anbar Awakening was not successful by itself; the tribes had support from the U.S. military that was willing to help protect the tribes from al-Qaeda retribution.  The U.S. military was able to fill this role because it was trusted by the tribes. If these massacres continue the room for dialogue and the prospects for a unity government with Sunnis and Shiites will become increasingly slim.

President Obama said that “Iraqi leaders must rise above their difference and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future…only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis.”  It does not appear that the Iraqi government is heeding the president’s advice. The United States should be cautious about providing military support to the Iraqi government if it continues to take actions that strengthen ISIS’ grip on the Sunni people of Iraq.

The United States should recognize that eliciting human rights abuses and repression is a classic tactic of terrorists and insurgents.  Carlos Marighella, author of Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerilla, wrote that, when confronted by a regime that violates human rights, "to be 'violent' or a 'terrorist' is a quality that ennobles any honorable person, because it is an act worthy of a revolutionary engaged in armed struggle against the shameful military dictatorship and its atrocities."    President Obama called on the United States “to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines” of the fight against terrorism through programs like the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund.  But these partnerships will not succeed if U.S. partners resort to repression.  As Congress considers the administration’s Overseas Contingency Operations request, including the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, it must ensure that U.S. partnerships and aid are directed selectively to the governments that will use the aid effectively.  Proper vetting of units in accordance with the Leahy Laws can help ensure that this U.S. aid does not facilitate repression that will only strengthen the adversaries who seek to do us harm.