“Sunnis are a minority in Baghdad, but they’re the majority in our morgue,” a doctor in Iraq’s Health Ministry told researchers with Human Rights Watch.
Since the Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) swept through northern Iraq in a lightning offensive in early June, taking over Iraq’s second largest city and declaring an Islamic caliphate, the majority Shia population living in areas still under government control have retaliated with violence against their Sunni neighbors. ISIS is guilty of massacring Shiites and driving them from their homes, as well as persecuting a host of other ethnic and religious minorities including Turkmen, Shabaks, Yazidis, and Iraq’s sizable Christian population. In this atmosphere of fear, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has essentially sanctioned the counterattacks against Sunni civilians.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch released a report exposing the Iraqi government’s role in backing militias that kidnapped and killed more than one hundred Sunni civilians in the area around Baghdad over the past several months. But the state-sponsored campaign of terror hasn’t cost Maliki’s government U.S. support. In the past month, with Israel’s assault on Gaza raging and Ukraine’s civil war ramping up tensions with Russia, American calls for Maliki to establish a more inclusive coalition government and protect Sunnis have grown quiet — while military aid has continued to flow.
“The government seems to think that if people blame militias for killings it can wash its hands of the matter,” said deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch Joe Stork. “In fact, the government needs to rein in these militias and call a halt to killing people just because of their sect.” After Iraq’s military practically dissolved rather than confront the advance of ISIS, shedding uniforms and abandoning expensive U.S. artillery in their retreat, Prime Minister Maliki set up three militias to guard Baghdad, of which Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq is the strongest.
Witnesses report that instead of policing, Asa’ib carried out collective punishment of local Sunnis, shooting Sunni store owners and kidnapping people off the street. In Hilla, south of Baghdad, militia members executed over 50 Sunnis and buried them in a mass grave that was only discovered weeks later. Despite an outcry against the atrocities, however, militiamen remain on the government payroll. An official with the Tourism Ministry told Human Rights Watch that Maliki even gives the militias permission to issue orders to the formal security forces. “The takeover of state security by militias is a sure sign that the remnants of the rule of law in Iraq are falling apart,” added Stork.
Prime Minister Maliki has pretty much fallen out of favor with all of his allies. His own Kurdish foreign minister made a statement Friday blaming him for the rise of Sunni insurgents like ISIS. The U.N., U.S. and Iraq’s highest Shia cleric have also all pushed for Maliki to step down. While Sunnis living under ISIS have been growing increasingly frustrated with the militants’ brutal rule, Maliki will be in no position to capitalize on this frustration if he continues to endorse sectarian violence. Even Maliki’s own Islamic Dawa Party is urging him not to cling to power.
In June, Secretary of State John Kerry joined the chorus demanding that Maliki reform the government to help reverse the trend of growing sectarian divisions. But he tempered his statement with a promise of “strong and sustained” support for the government, sending a mixed message that failed to resonate. In the past month, the U.S. has gone even further in toning down the criticism of Maliki, and although Iraqi government officials have complained U.S. military aid is insufficient, it has nonetheless continued to flow.
On Thursday, the Pentagon announced it would send $700 million worth of new missiles to Iraq’s security forces, proving to Maliki that America’s bark is worse than its bite. Some critics worry that the lack of meaningful international pressure on the Prime Minister to seriously pursue reforms is driving Iraq towards a point of no return, where holding together a unified country will become even more impossible than it’s proving today.
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.