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The Iraq Report: Shia militias fill mass graves, then blame IS

Date of publication: 10 January, 2018

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This week in Iraq: The Islamic State group were monstrous, but they were not the only ones.
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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In a country littered with mass graves, the tragedy of losing family and loved ones is compounded when the issue becomes politicised and when the true perpetrators are not brought to justice. Iraqi families – who have confirmed that their loved ones were abducted by government-linked sectarian death squads – are now being told that militants from the Islamic State group were responsible for their family members turning up in mass graves.

 

Making matters worse is the government forcibly returning internally displaced persons to volatile and dangerous areas in order to promote the illusion that Iraq is returning to normal, and people can therefore participate in democratic elections. The reality is that these IDPs are instead being exposed to violence and risk of death so that the government can press ahead with this year’s elections while the majority of voters who have historically voted against them cannot cast their ballots due to a lack of security. This raises critical concerns for the very notion of democracy in Iraq.

 

‘Mass graves’ blamed on IS actually perpetrated by Shia militias

 

Despite its destructive and barbaric legacy, the Islamic State group has become a convenience for those in power to justify a wide variety of abuses and atrocities. Rather than risk Iraqi troops during the battle for Mosul, IS snipers positioned on top of residential buildings were taken out by Iraqi-coordinated but US-led coalition airstrikes, inevitably resulting in civilian deaths. IS was always used as an excuse to encourage international observers to turn a blind eye.

 

It now also appears that IS’ brutality is being conveniently and cynically exploited by the Iraqi government and allied pro-Iran Shia militias to shift the blame for atrocities they have committed onto the armed group. IS’ well-deserved and global reputation as a savage terrorist organisation has been used to provide the perfect cover for the war crimes of other organisations, many of whom are directly connected to Baghdad and its main benefactor, Iran.

 

Journalists for The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister site have uncovered horrifying accounts of mass graves of largely Sunni Arab victims hastily dumped after they were murdered by Shia Islamist militants serving under the banner of the government-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hashd al-Sha’abi in Arabic. The reporters also discovered that Sunni victims killed by IS extremists were identified as Shia Arabs by the government in order to exaggerate sectarian tensions.

The families of the victims were allowed to re-bury their loved ones only to learn that the police had declared the dead men to have been victims of IS terrorism

 

On 8 May 2017, a mass grave was found south of the central city of Samarra by an Iraqi man who had noticed stray dogs attempting to dig up corpses. Local residents rapidly managed to identify three of the 17 corpses as men who had been abducted by the Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba militia, a pro-Iran Shia Islamist outfit connected to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Other locals who had been missing loved ones eventually came to the grave site, and managed to identify other family members who had been abducted by the same militant group.

 

According to witness accounts, the families of the victims were allowed to re-bury their loved ones only to learn that the police had declared the dead men to have been victims of IS terrorism. This despite the fact that the families all confirm that their Sunni Arab relatives were taken by Shia death squads.

 

A high-ranking source from within the president’s office also leaked documents to The New Arab confirming information that showed government tampering with victims’ identities in order to exaggerate IS crimes while playing down the atrocities of IRGC-linked Shia militants.

 

Speaking to The New Arab on condition of anonymity, the source said: “Some of the mass graves are filled with Iraqi victims killed in areas that are controlled by militias allied to Iran, and they were declared to be victims of [IS].”

 

“Other mass graves that were discovered in IS-controlled areas were determined to contain victims who were Shia citizens, who were then transferred to Najaf to be buried in the Dar al-Salam cemetery even though they were from [Sunni Arab areas].”

 

According to reports, Iraqi security forces have accessed these mass grave sites and contaminated the evidence, refusing to conduct DNA tests to establish the identities of the victims, and simply concocting a narrative which is then released via government and police spokespeople. Contamination of grave sites is nothing new, as reported by The New Arab in 2015, where Kurdish units were found to have mismanaged Yazidi mass graves, ruining potential evidence for war crimes investigations against IS militants.

 

Such mismanagement of crime scenes is sometimes suspected to be connected to attempts to exaggerate IS’ already considerable crimes to reduce the gravity of similar crimes perpetrated by those who are now being painted as Iraq’s saviours. PMF and government forces have been accused by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations of perpetrating a litany of sectarian atrocities that may amount to war crimes during the conflict with IS.

 

Iraq exposes IDPs to ‘death, violence’ in forced returns

 

The manipulation of narratives will be heavily utilised by political parties as they prepare for elections that are set for May. Politicians from the ruling Shia Islamist coalition, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, will be looking to play up their role in forcing IS out of all of Iraq’s towns and cities. Meanwhile, militias who have now formed political parties will be seeking to capitalise on their credentials as would-be saviours, in spite of the long shadow cast by allegations of sectarian atrocities.

 

However, one of the main concerns facing the legitimacy of any upcoming election is the fact that more than a tenth of the Iraqi population was displaced by the fighting against IS militants, and have spent years in refugee camps. Most of these IDPs are Sunni Arabs, but also contain large populations of Yazidis, Kurds, and even some Christians - historically some of the most vulnerable segments of Iraqi society.

 

While the International Organization for Migration said last Thursday that 3.2 million Iraqis had gone home with a further 2.6 million still displaced, further information has since surfaced that suggests that these repatriations have a darker side.

 

Iraq has been forcibly returning displaced civilians back to their homes, many of which are in highly volatile and dangerous areas, leading to accusations by aid agencies that Baghdad is exposing its citizens to the risk of death and violence.

 

One man who was forced out of a refugee camp and sent home with his family with only a tent to restart life in his shattered hometown of Betaya. The man tried to pitch the tent over the rubble of his old house, only for a hidden bomb to explode, costing him his eye, killing his wife instantly and covering his daughter in extensive burns.

 

Other refugees who were forced to return to unsafe areas were met by Shia Islamist militias, who sold the refugees their own possessions, looted by the militants when they came to “rescue” the city from IS.

 

While the government claims it is now time for refugees to return home following the defeat of IS, the Iraqi authorities have done little to make these areas safe for human habitation, and have in many instances left entire cities in ruins even years after recapturing them. Ramadi, the capital of Anbar governorate, is still more than 70 percent damaged or destroyed, despite being “liberated” from IS by Iraqi troops at the end of December 2015.

 

Sunnis, Kurds attempt to delay elections due to IDP crisis

 

Directly connected to the IDP crisis are attempts by Sunni and Kurdish politicians to delay the upcoming elections by several months, moves that are opposed by the ruling Shia coalition and Prime Minister Abadi.

 

According to Kurdish and Sunni deputies, IDPs are in no position to be considering participating in the elections as they have not been able to safely return to their homes. The government is now being accused of conducting the forcible return of refugees to compel the elections to go forward by claiming that Iraqis are already returning home and normality is being restored to the war-ravaged country.

 

Deputies are concerned that the IDPs – predominantly from demographics who would be unlikely to vote for the ruling coalition – are being denied the opportunity to participate in democratic elections in order to increase the proportion of seats Abadi is likely to acquire if he succeeds as expected. Even if they are returned to their homes, they are still exposed to grave dangers and are therefore going to prioritise survival over political concerns.

 

Any lack of political participation by these marginalised and vulnerable groups will encourage further division and discord, and will inflame already existing tensions that predate the rise of IS. If Abadi is seeking a solution to the insecurity that has buffeted Iraq for almost a decade-and-a-half, then rushing into elections to ensure a larger number of seats for himself may undermine that objective.

 

 

 

 

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

Click here to receive The Iraq Report each week in your inbox
 

Follow us on Twitter: @The_NewArab

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