Interview with Sahr Muhammedally: How to Protect Iraq’s Civilians

Iraq’s government can implement civilian protection policies to promote national reconciliation and reduce tensions between the country’s ethnic, religious, and sectarian communities.  To learn more we spoke with Sahr Muhammedally, a Senior Program Manager at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) dealing with civilian protection and harm mitigation in the Middle East and Asia, as well as US counter-terrorism policy.

Mosul residents cross a bridge damaged by an airstrike.

This interview is the second in a two-part series examining the issue of civilian protection and prevention of civilian harm in wartime. Read the first installment with Sarah Holewinski here. The fight against ISIS has taken place in densely-populated urban areas, putting non-combatant populations in danger. Managing this type of counter-insurgency to minimize damage to non-combatant targets will be critical to ensure post-conflict stabilization. Here, Ms. Muhammedally discusses the dangers civilians face in Iraq, and what Iraqi and international policymakers can do to help. 


M. Schweitzer: During the lead-up to operations against ISIS in Mosul, Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish military commanders have stressed that minimizing civilian casualties should form a key strategic consideration in the fight to liberate occupied territories. What policies have these forces implemented in Mosul to protect civilians who remain in the city, and have these efforts proven effective — are policies adopted in Mosul different from those enacted in previous battles, including those in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Tikrit?

S. Muhammedally: It is good that Iraqi commanders and politicians are continuing to discuss civilian protection and the reduction of civilian harm in the midst of combat operations — from both a legal and strategic perspective. For many displaced people, the vocalization of civilian protection policies is an important step in the future reconciliation and peace-building process. Of course, implementing any civilian protection policies presents a wholly different challenge — through new rules of engagement and commanders’ guidance disseminated down the military chain of command, both on the Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga side. Thus far, Iraqi Security Forces and Peshmerga have taken some measures to reduce civilian harm. For example, commanders have placed restrictions on using certain heavy weaponry, including artillery, in some of the more densely-populated parts of Mosul. However, levels of civilian harm have increased as Iraqi forces move deeper into Mosul, given ISIS’s presence interspersed throughout civilian populations and its practice of using civilians as human shields. These rates could increase as political pressure to complete the city’s liberation grows.

The situation unfolding in Mosul today is very different from that in Ramadi or Fallujah. Those cities had been depopulated prior to the start of liberation operations, whereas the majority of civilians in Mosul have stayed in the city. In the first few days following the launch of operations in Mosul, interviews I conducted with the first few internally displaced people (IDPs) arriving in transit camps indicated that a significant number of civilians attempting to flee the city had been injured by ISIS-planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and not as much by crossfire between Iraqi and ISIS forces. This risk, combined with other factors such as ISIS’s policies of executing those caught trying to flee its territory, encouraged many civilians to stay. As the tempo of fighting picks up in Mosul, however, many more of these remaining civilians have been caught in the crossfire, and injured or killed as a result. These non-combatant casualties are a product of fighting such an intense battle in heavily-populated civilian areas. Some IDPs have described situations when ISIS fighters would be firing from the roofs of their homes, drawing coalition aircraft  into the area and creating a great deal of fear and confusion. How Iraqi and coalition forces continue to fight in a way that can ensure civilians that their protection remains a priority will be a key factor as the battle progresses.

The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, too, have received training on civilian protection. However, most of the fighting they did was in villages held by ISIS but cleared of civilians. The Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) had conducted training with Peshmerga commanders prior to the Mosul operation on the best methods of protecting civilians, and it remains to be seen what scale of destruction occurred in the areas cleared by the Iraqi Kurds, or whether this guidance had any noticeable effect on the level of damage. The way ISIS fights — including through IEDs, vehicle-born IEDs, indiscriminate mortar and artillery attacks, and insurgent strategy — can create unavoidable damage, and more analysis needs to be done about how to counter ISIS tactics on the battlefield in order to avoid civilian harm. Ultimately, though, no armed force can achieve zero destruction.

While many aid and government agencies predicted that up to one million people could flee Mosul after operations launched, thus far the exodus has been smaller. How do considerations about how to ensure security for civilians inside the zone of combat operations differ from those about people sheltered in IDP camps?

This issue is critical — that is, how to access civilians who are located where fighting is taking place in Mosul. Thus far in the liberation operation there, it has been extremely difficult to deliver aid in areas where active hostilities are ongoing. Some IDPs said that they had been storing food and supplies for weeks before the liberation operation began, anticipating a siege before the opportunity to leave presented itself. Civilians who managed to flee have complained of the lack of aid going into Mosul over the past two years. Some people stayed behind because they did not want to leave their homes, and others stayed because they were too afraid of the difficult journey across the front lines. The choices many civilians face in Mosul are dire and heartbreaking.

The fact that many civilians have stayed in Mosul also presents an enormous problem in terms of screening non-combatants for alleged ties to ISIS. Many Iraqi policymakers, soldiers, and members of non-state armed groups like the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) assume that some Moslawis (though not all) were sympathetic to ISIS ideology. Interviews with IDPs indicate that, while some people may have welcomed ISIS in June 2014 — the group removed Iraqi government checkpoints and expelled a military force seen as an extension of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian agenda —  these people quickly realized the cost of occupation, and began to resent ISIS leaders for imposing such a strict regime. One mother had stopped sending her 12-year-old child to school in Mosul because ISIS was teaching the students how to build bombs.

Yet, a serious question now is: Where do these civilians go after Mosul is liberated, given their initial actions toward ISIS? What will happen to their homes and property? How will they be treated in transit camps, will there be retaliations from Shia groups or PMUs? Will they receive the same rights as other Iraqis? The answers to these questions remain unclear, and civilians in liberated areas are incredibly conflicted about what choice to make. The majority of people seem focused today on simply keeping their heads down and avoiding any confrontation with liberating forces. Many of the decisions these civilians made were not due to their espousal of ISIS ideology (although some initially were sympathetic because of Maliki’s marginalization of Sunni populations before 2014) — rather, they were simply about where they could survive. Unfortunately, the forces coming in to Mosul face a serious challenge because they do not know who is truly an ISIS sympathizer and who is not.

Today, men and boys over the age of 15 years are automatically being separated from other civilians leaving Mosul. These individuals are screened against apparent lists of suspected ISIS members, but there is a great deal of uncertainty, blaming, revenge-seeking, and guesswork involved in this process. In areas liberated earlier, some individuals and entire families had been accused of ISIS membership solely on the fact that one of their relatives was involved with the group in some capacity. In some cases, these families’ homes were bulldozed in revenge and their property seized. Moreover, the screening process itself is inexact and impacted by corruption. For example, if an individual has appropriate personal connections with security force personnel or screeners, they can be reunited with the rest of their families within days. For those without such a network, their detention — often in camps right next to their families — can stretch for weeks or months.

In areas around Mosul, it still remains unclear how individuals are being screened, or for how long suspected individuals can be held in detention. It is likely that some people will be detained for quite a long time, until the security forces are able to get enough information to prosecute them. Meanwhile, however, these people are being held far longer than Iraqi criminal procedure legally allows, which is 48 hours without charge — a period which can be extended up to nine months by a judge. Managing these detainees will be a growing challenge for Iraq’s security and judicial services.

While policymakers in Baghdad, Erbil, and abroad have voiced the importance of civilian protection in the fight against ISIS, ensuring their rhetoric translates into action is more difficult. How can various military actors — including the non-state armed groups fighting under the Popular Mobilization Units’ banner — be held accountable for actions on the battlefield that might affect civilian security?

Accountability is a form of deterrence. When there are allegations of abuse against civilian and non-combatant targets reported by Iraqi journalists or local and international non-government organizations (NGOs), they must be immediately investigated. If there is no assurance of accountability for soldiers and irregular forces, or if politicians cannot show that they prioritize civilian welfare as state policy, the tensions that exist between various ethnic, religious, and sectarian groups in Iraq will never heal. The government in Baghdad must show that it exists to protect all Iraqis, and to engage with populations across the country. While not all harm to civilian targets is unlawful, there needs to be effective investigative mechanisms to determine whether a given incident was deliberate or accidental — and to prosecute perpetrators of illegal destruction. Additionally, the government needs to develop ways to understand how that incident occurred, to ameliorate the effects of accidental damage, to express sympathy with civilians impacted by the given action, and to help these individuals recoup their losses through government or NGO channels. Such a learning and reconciliation process is just as important if damage was caused deliberately or by accident — and it must be applied equitably to all of Iraq’s communities and populations.

Ultimately, this issue strikes to the core of a critical question facing Iraqi policymakers today: What is the government’s responsibility to rebuild communities damaged or destroyed in the fight against ISIS? The answer illuminates the processes by which Iraq can foster reconciliation between aggrieved communities. For example, in Salah al-Din Province, there was a tribe that had refused to allow Sunni Arabs return to their village because some residents had joined ISIS. The only reason this tribe eventually allowed returns was because there was a compensation scheme developed to address its grievances. This solution highlights the need for creative ways of addressing inter-communal grievances, and the importance of holding those deemed guilty of crimes accountable under Iraqi law.

In previously-liberated areas like Ramadi, displaced civilians have been encouraged to return home, despite the fact that many perils, including mines, booby-traps, and resurgent militant activity, remain prevalent — ostensibly to make space in overcrowded displacement camps for people fleeing Mosul. What measures should the Iraqi government and its partners take before pushing civilian returns — what are the implications of rushing civilian returns before these conditions are in place?

Returns cannot be permitted until liberated areas are safe, IEDs removed, and other unexploded ordnance clearly marked. In Ramadi, there was a push to facilitate civilian returns that resulted in deaths among returnees. Some community leaders were afraid that, if they did not urge civilians to go back to Ramadi, these people would lose their property and homes. The central government must not encourage this narrative. Additionally, local security and police forces — which are responsible for providing returnees with a safe environment — must be properly trained to address alleged revenge-attacks and defend against ISIS re-infiltration in cleared areas. This stabilization force plays a critical role shaping the post-liberation environment, and must not practice predatory or vengeful policies. Ideally, these forces should be drawn from the community they are tasked with defending, thus fostering dialogue between civilians and security providers.

The government ultimately needs to show that it is trying to remove tensions between various sectarian, religious, and ethnic groups. It can do this by administering the necessary training to local stabilization forces, so that they respond fairly to incidents and do not seek revenge after an insurgent attack. For example, a few days after the October 2016 ISIS assault in Kirkuk City, the Iraqi Kurdish security forces — the Asayish — expelled Sunni Arab civilians from the area; some of these civilians had been living there for several years, but the Asayish viewed them universally as a threat. Where are these civilians supposed to go, given the ongoing fighting throughout parts of Kirkuk Province. Such forced displacement breeds future resentment and tension between protector and those they ostensibly safeguard. It is thus critical for security forces not to condemn an entire community after an incident occurs.

Since 2014, minority communities — including the Yazidi, Assyrian Christians, and Sunnis — have voiced desires, or mustered, local self-defense groups to fill the void left by the Iraqi Army’s collapse. How do these groups create added challenge in terms of establishing effective means of monitoring potential abuses against civilians or ensuring accountability — what role can the central government in Baghdad play in tracking these local organizations?

Civil society groups, which are generally quite robust in Iraq, have an important role to play in the case of non-state security actors. These organizations can take complaints and allegations either to the accused security actor or to the government officials who can conduct an investigation. To build this role, there needs to be greater emphasis in Baghdad on coordination between civilian and military spheres, specifically at the street level. When abuse is committed against a civilian or a militia member takes a bribe at a checkpoint, these actions widen divisions between security forces and the civilian population. Baghdad has a role to play ensuring that local security forces are trained properly, that they are subject to oversight through a provincial ombudsperson, and that complaints against them can be lodged without threat of retaliation. In turn, civil society organizations can act as mediator between populations and these institutions.

By investing in stronger accountability mechanisms, the government can show that it is willing to take civilian concerns seriously. Moreover, this work would foster better community engagement between civilians and military or police forces, leading to greater security. Building dialogue between community and police helps create an environment in which civilian concerns can be quickly and effectively addressed. Iraqi policymakers should focus on developing this role and the necessary mechanisms to support it in the future.

This interview was originally posted at the Post-War Watch.

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