Nineveh Plains Transitional Justice Report: July
By Claire Evans
08/05/2019 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Iraq faced heavy international pressure during the month of July to disentangle from Iranian influence. This pressure had a heavy focus on the Nineveh Plains, where Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias took root following ISIS’s official defeat nearly three years ago. Even so, the militants continue to cause security problems in Nineveh. The combination of ISIS and militia activity further contributed to a sense of security instability within the governorate. Meanwhile, the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIS (UNITAD) have achieved a noteworthy investigative marker.
The United Nations released its quarterly report concerning ISIS, and confirmed that the group remains highly organized in Iraq. They warned that ISIS has an estimated $50 – $300 million remaining in revenues from their caliphate, although access to liquid funds is limited. They also confirmed that during ISIS’s occupation of Mosul, the extremists developed the capability to produce and deploy sulfur mustard gas. It was indigenously prepared, suggesting that the knowledge of how to prepare chemical warfare remains local to the Nineveh Plains.
On July 7, the Iraqi government announced the launch of a “Will of Victory” operation targeting ISIS sleeper cells located in the Nineveh, Salahuddin, and Anbar provinces. Security forces aimed to clear 1,000 ISIS fighters and hideouts during the first phase of the operation.
In Nineveh, public records indicate that the security forces launched at least 15 operations. As a result, 41 ISIS hideouts and 18 IEDs were destroyed. 33 alleged ISIS militants were killed during these operations, and an estimated 23 were arrested. Based on previous months’ records, this either indicates a sharp increase of ISIS activity in Nineveh and/or a sharp increase of counter-terrorist activities in the province.
It is noteworthy that one of these operations included the arrest of an ISIS sleeper cell code named “Baghdadi’s Men.” The cell’s leader was arrested, and it was learned that he was a senior aid to al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. The terrorist cell was specifically tasked with carrying out attacks against Nineveh institutions, foreign embassies, and churches in Syria and Egypt.
On July 19, Iraq touted the first phase of the operation as a success, and announced that the second phase would begin the following week. The second phase increases emphasis on counter-terrorism operations near Baghdad.
Iraq’s security operations against ISIS rely heavily upon Iranian-backed PMF forces. These forces have come under heavy international condemnation for serious human rights abuses. Due to global pressure, Prime Minister Mahdi issued an executive order at the beginning of July which would integrate the PMF into Iraq’s formal armed forces.
“In the interest of the public good and as per the powers granted to us by the constitution … the following is decreed: all Popular Mobilization Forces are to operate as an indivisible part of the armed forces and be subject to the same regulations,” the decree said.
Under the new directive, the PMF is forbidden from maintaining bases unless authorized by the state, having money-making ventures, moving forces, and storing weapons or manufacturing arms outside the knowledge of the Prime Minister.
A deadline of July 31 was placed on the PMF militias for integration, but the Prime Minister received heavy opposition. He made a surprise visit to Iran on July 22, where he sought assistance for ordering PMF compliance. Following the visit, the Prime Minister contradicted his previous statements by saying that PMF will not be integrated into the Armed Forces. The PMF announced on July 30 that the deadline would be missed.
It is unclear what the next steps are. However, the Chaldean Catholic Church has come out in strong support of the Prime Minister’s original executive order and has encouraged Christians to join official Iraqi or KRG forces, rather than local militias.
The Patriarchate shared in a statement, “Our mission as Iraqi Christians is consolidating whatever leads to harmonious coexistence on the ground. It will solidify the pillars of a strong government of law, citizenship, and equality.”
The contradictions within Iraq on PMF organization has prompted further polarization and security instability. However, within the PMF, there rose a unified voice of opposition against the US announcement of Global Magnitsky sanctions of four Iraqis associated with the PMF. Three of these individuals have played a substantial detrimental role in the Nineveh Plains following ISIS’s genocide of Christians and Yazidis.
The sanctions targeted two PMF militia figures—Rayan al-Kildani and Waad Qado—who have a reputation for serious human rights abuses. The third individual, Nawfal Hammadi al-Sultan, was the former governor of Nineveh who facilitated PMF corruption and stole funds intended for reconstruction.
The PMF responded to the sanctions through political maneuvering in Baghdad. They questioned the constitutionality of Iraq implementing the US sanctions and 102 signatures of parliamentarians were collected. However, Iraq’s Central Bank ordered compliance and froze all funds covered by the US sanctions.
Further pushback is expected. Hashd al-Shaabi, the largest PMF militia in the Nineveh Plains, is particularly angered at efforts to constrain their power and tensions are rising. At the end of July, Mosul Eye reported staged protests in Nineveh against efforts to move Hashd al-Shaabi from the area.
“The political scene is very unstable,” explained one local Christian observer.
A new report from Human Rights Watch highlighted how three prisons in Nineveh are filled beyond capacity by those accused of participating or facilitating ISIS militants. There are concerns that a lack of visible and diligent transitional justice strategy may lead to extrajudicial acts of revenge against accused ISIS members. One victim of ISIS’s genocide said, “I would treat them even worse if I have authority. They took everything. Their sin is that they stayed where there is ISIS.”
UNITAD announced significant progress on investigating the crimes of ISIS and that they expect to prosecute their first ISIS member in the coming weeks. The investigative team is pushing for trials modeled after Nuremberg. This would theoretically act as a counterweight to some of the problems Iraqi trials are experiencing.
Two challenges in particular stand out. Victims of ISIS’s genocide are not allowed to speak at local trials, but an international trial would give victims a voice. Second, a lack of due process in local trials exasperates local sectarian tensions. UNITAD hopes that a system modeled after Nuremberg would hold individuals—not entire communities—responsible for the crimes of ISIS and would serve an educational purpose that would discourage similar ideologies in the future. A UNITAD prosecution would allow nations with universal jurisdiction to prosecute ISIS crimes.
“It is my hope that within the next two months the team will have provided tangible support with respect to at least one ongoing case before national courts, marking an important milestone in the delivery of our mandate,” Karim Khan, head of UNITAD, told the UN Security Council.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is holding firm to the position that Iraqi courts will decide the fate of foreign ISIS fighters. “There are no deals. There are no contracts about such issues. There is a law. We will apply the law. And we will discuss everything in the correct time,” he said during a weekly press conference.
His insistence at applying the law, however, does little to boost the confidence of Christians. For years, Christians have remained insistent that the application of law is absent. One pastor explained, “All we can do is pray for the community to get better, most of our problems relate to ethics.”