About two months ago, I first wrote about a breakthrough in Iraq that marked the beginning of an important transitionary phase. Iraqi forces swept through various villages in the Anbar Province near Fallujah as part of the state’s attempts to take back areas controlled by Daesh. In the process, Iraqi forces faced a conundrum: how to deal with the members of Daesh caught in the process? How would it identify them if they did not announce themselves as such? They took a quick and dirty approach: Iraqi forces held informal open-air tribunals where village members were asked to publicly identify men captured as either being members of Daesh or not. It was a choice which expedited the process, avoided long and costly trials, but was nonetheless highly problematic. Evidentiary standards were nothing more than the vocal agreement of those present. I sketched out the long-term issues with this approach in that first blog as well. On top of all this, rumors swirled about the Hashd al-Sha’bi and their controversial presence at the time, more on this below.
Questions of transitional justice rose to the surface again this week when the Iraqi state executed 36 individuals convicted of taking part in the Speicher massacre (see here). One of the locations of the massacre was near Tikrit at a river police building inside former President Saddam Hussein’s palace complex. Daesh claimed responsibility for the massacres at the time. Yet there have also been claims, for some time, that others were involved. CNN Arabic ran a piece in September 2014 claiming that Ba’thists were involved in the massacre. A month earlier, there were claims by an Iraqi MP that Daesh was not responsible for the massacres, but that members of Saddam’s tribe in Tikrit (among others) were. See the video (Arabic) here:
Trials were already underway for the Speicher massacre when Baghdad suffered yet another terrible Daesh suicide bombing in Karrada that killed several hundred civilians in the heavily Shiite area. In response to the Daesh suicide bombing, Iraqi PM Hadiar al Abadi vowed to speed up the trials of the Daesh-collaborators in the Speicher Massacre, culminating in the executions this week. Amnesty International was direct in its criticisms:
The horrible conduct of these trials is a clear reason for questioning the guilt of those who were just convicted and executed. Just about everything surrounding the massacre was polemical and augured more violence and sectarianism in Iraq, still struggling to rid itself of Daesh and rebuild. If this were not enough, all of the victims killed were Shi’a, making overt sectarianism part of the crime and responses to it.
These details, along with persistent claims that the perpetrators were not part of Daesh but rather Tikriti tribesmen casts a dark cloud of suspicion over the trial and subsequent executions. That has some observers, like Dr. Abbas Kadhim, bluntly calling out the Iraqi government:
Needless to say, none of this points to Iraq being on the path toward transitional justice that faces the past and brings the truth to light so that it can be dealt with. Instead, it seems easier to blame Daesh and sweep the rest under the rug.
Finally, yet still more problematic for the future, are reports that up to 700 Sunni men and boys disappeared during the attempts to retake Fallujah from Daesh, leading to fears they were killed by Shiite militias working for the Iraqi government. If true, the ineffective and corrupt Iraqi government has a lot on its plate. Not only must it effectively ensure transitional justice for the crimes of Daesh, but it will find this very difficult if it cannot control the militias acting in its name. If it cannot even bring those responsible for the missing 700 to justice afterward, it will reinforce fears that the state cannot act independently of sectarian interests and actors. Given its recent track record, that is a real possibility, and an ominous one for Iraq’s future with the battle to seize Mosul from Daesh still looming on the horizon.