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Treating Iraq’s Sunnis as ‘fifth column’ could backfire

Sunday, 03 March 2019 16:32
Hard task. Iraqi men distribute food to poor families in the old city of Mosul. (Reuters) Hard task. Iraqi men distribute food to poor families in the old city of Mosul. (Reuters)

Iraq’s Sunnis have been abandoned by their government and are at the mercy of killers and war criminals who rival ISIS in their brutality. 

Humanitarians have always faced a hard task in Iraq. Not only are there literally millions of people in need of aid, with the United Nations saying there are at least 1.3 million internally displaced persons in the country, but the length in time of the crisis has increased difficulties for aid workers.

It would seem sensible to assume that a humanitarian crisis that has been going since the US-led invasion in 2003 would mean that aid agencies would have had a longer time to establish themselves and become acclimatised to providing aid in such a difficult environment.

But Iraq has bucked that logic because of corruption, mismanagement and outright violence of government-affiliated sectarian militias and police and security officials looking to profit off their fellow countrymen’s suffering.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported February 25 that aid workers attempting to provide help to people in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province had been subjected to arrest, abuse, harassment, death threats and violence.

HRW described the situation as “corruption and discrimination intertwined,” alluding to the corrupt and sectarian motives of those preying on humanitarians.

Mosul, the capital of Nineveh, was named as one of the cities where aid workers were unlawfully detained, beaten and threatened with death if they did not hand over aid to sectarian militias linked to the Shia jihadist Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which operate formally as part of the Iraqi armed forces but informally under the command of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In one instance, a guard at a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) was arrested, beaten and robbed by federal police for preventing their entry to the camp, which HRW states is consistent with global humanitarian principles on the nature of camps containing vulnerable people.

The guard was accused of Islamic State (ISIS) membership and was released only after colleagues intervened. He was later approached by the same officers who tortured and robbed him and they threatened to kill him and the other camp guards if they dared stand in the way of the federal police.

This is not the first time that the PMF, police or military personnel extorted humanitarian workers and organisations, seeking to sell vital medicine, food and equipment on the black market while depriving predominantly Sunni Arabs of much-needed sustenance.

Throughout the war against ISIS, and even during the days when al-Qaeda was the primary threat in Iraq, aid organisations were told that any provisions had to be “screened” by security personnel, who would almost invariably pilfer whatever they could. Some humanitarian supplies ended up in the camps but residents had to pay for them with what little they had left.

Despite a 2017 decree by then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that police and other armed units could not enter or interfere with camps, no one has been indicted or charged.

This tells the Sunni Arabs of Iraq that, while the pro-Iran Shia government may fly the national flag all Iraqis identify with, it sees the Sunnis as a sort of “fifth column” that may one day threaten its despotic power and ability to pillage Iraq’s wealth and resources at will.

These people are desperate, have been abandoned by their government and are at the mercy of killers and war criminals who rival ISIS in their brutality. If they continue to be treated as a security threat, one day they may well become exactly that.

Source: Arab Weekly