Iraqi Civilians Once Again Caught in the Crossfire

The attempt to recapture Mosul and other key areas in Iraq is now generating a new wave of optimism in the West. With the many challenges being faced, including the potential displacement of huge numbers of people and ISIS escaping to fight again under a cover of oil fires, it might be a mistake for the West to be too optimistic too soon.

What will a post-war Iraq look like? What prospects does life hold out for the Iraq’s people? The most important thing will be to ensure that Iraq becomes a safe space where peace and prosperity can flourish unhindered. This new peace and prosperity must benefit all Iraqis. The Government of Iraq must ensure that it encourages ex-militants from ISIS and the members of various Shi’a militants currently fighting ISIS to become productive and integrated members of a post-war Iraqi security.

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Iraq will also have to either consolidate its current federal arrangement with Kurdistan or opt for a new approach with a form of confederalism that benefits the Sunni Arabs, the Shi’a and the Kurds.

As the Iraq Government, Kurdish and allied forces attempt to dislodge Da’esh from Mosul, increased human suffering is inevitable. Even more Iraqis will be forced to either flee their homeland or become internally displaced. Conditions in the squalid refugee camps, which may become their destination, are often miserable. As the scenes of anguish in the camps and conflict zones pull on our collective heart-strings, it is important to think about a meaningful response. There may be a tendency for anger and disillusionment to inform this response. The logic of this response breaks down when it is more closely inspected. Rather, there is an urgency to formulate a response shaped around inclusivity and peace.

Islamic State (IS) overtaken control of the Iraq city of Mosul in the summer of 2014. Operations to retake the city started on 17th October using a combination of Iraq security forces, Sunni Arab tribesmen, and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters – all assisted by a US-led coalition of warplanes and military advisers. The entire operation is expected to last months. There could be as many as 1.5 million civilians living in Mosul, which makes reducing the number of civilian casualties of paramount importance. However, there are reported to be between 3,000 and 5,000 IS fighters in Mosul. Intricate tunnels have been built under the city, allowing IS forces to navigate their way about relatively unharmed. According to the UN almost 6,000 people fled Mosul in the first three days of fighting. They predict that about 200,000 people will flee the city in upcoming weeks. Some estimates place the number currently displaced within Iraq as being over four million.

The Battle of Mosul remains a bitter fight. Progress to retake swathes of Daesh territory has become painstakingly slow as Iraqi forces are forced to fight street to street due to the  presence of civilians. Iraqi forces have been closing in from the north and south but have only broken into the city on the eastern front, which has densely populated neighbourhoods. Just a few Daesh militant hidden in populated areas are causing tremendous chaos. Daesh militants have started strewing the roads with welded antitank missiles and car bombs. Also, Daesh fighters have started to blend in with civilians. On November 11th, Iraqi Special Operation Forces captured some 50 wanted Daesh fighters who shaved off their beards making it hard to distinguish between Daesh fighters and civilians only prolongs Iraqi forces liberating Mosul. Daesh forces are bucking and it only a matter of time before Iraqi forces regain Mosul, however, not being able to use air power or artillery ensures the mission  to recapture Mosul has become both hazardous and arduous.

The world has become numb to the horrors of Iraq in the past two decades. However, the very nature of this specific operation and its large prospect of success means that it should have been built upon a pre-determined civilian plan of action. It is disturbing that more was not done to warn and relocate civilians before the attacks began. Surely more should now be done to mitigate the numbers of civilian casualties. The various reports sent to UN human rights staff of the atrocities being committed by many of those involved begs the question as to how much the people of Mosul were considered when the plans to liberate the city were put in place.

Insurgents like Da’esh recruit foreign fighters by framing conflicts as posing a threat to the global Islamic community. This recruitment narrative has been used by insurgencies in other historical contexts – it is not restricted to recent Islamist insurgents. In this case, they purport to protect the lives of Muslims in a dangerous conflict but the data suggests they tend to heighten the levels of human suffering.

There is a strong correlation between internally displaced populations and levels of extremist violence. Countries with larger internally displaced populations are more likely to experience a higher rate of suicide bombing. Critically, the deficit of human rights in conflict zones fosters a favourable environment for suicide bombing. None the less, being attracted to a group claiming to unite and protect a religious community through violent means seems to lead to greater instability and disunity for all. The Sufi idea is that the way to peace requires the coming together, through inclusivity and unity.

A more open and purposeful dialogue becomes possible with greater clarity on the issues. This type of dialogue, in which The Khawatir Movement believes, expressed inclusivity and encourages compassionate rather than violent responses to painful conflicts. It is increasingly clear that shaping responses around the latter propel the cycles of suffering that needs to be mitigated. We need to use the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear) as our ethical base. In these moments of reflection, drawing upon Gandhi’s idea of being the change you want to see in the world could certainly be valuable on the long road to peace.

Marcus Lomax, Saif Sarwar and Elinor Davies

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