On 9 July a coalition comprised mainly of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga, operating with United States air support, announced the successful recapture of the city of Mosul from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), dealing a serious defeat to the armed extremist group. It was from within the historic Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul's Old City where ISIL proclaimed its so-called caliphate in 2014. On 21 June ISIL completely destroyed the mosque in a deliberate explosion, although the group has claimed it was destroyed in an airstrike by the United States-led coalition.
The offensive to retake Mosul began on 17 October, and according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, throughout the subsequent eight months at least 920,000 people were displaced from the city. ISIL still controls territory in Tel Afar, Hawiga and western Anbar province, while sporadic clashes continue in Mosul and across Nineveh governorate, limiting the ability of displaced civilians to return home. At least 839,490 people currently remain displaced.
At the start of the offensive, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced that ISIL had abducted at least 8,000 families and moved them to strategic locations in Mosul to be used as human shields. Hundreds of civilians who resisted were killed. Human Rights Watch has reported that ISIL fighters regularly targeted and killed civilians attempting to flee the city. During June the UN announced a "significant escalation" of such atrocities.
OHCHR has reported that at least 70 mass graves have been found in formerly ISIL-held territory since October 2016. The ISF and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have discovered five additional mass graves in towns near Mosul. Three of the mass graves were discovered in Hammam al-Alil and likely contain the bodies of hundreds of missing Iraqi police officers. On 22 March Human Rights Watch reported that ISIL had also disposed of the bodies of an unknown number of executed ISF members in a sinkhole near Mosul.
The United States-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq since August 2014, following the Iraqi government's request for assistance after the group seized the northern town of Sinjar. The coalition has been responsible for hundreds of deaths so far this year, including up to 200 civilians killed in a single airstrike in Mosul on 17 March.
The United States-led coalition has admitted to using multipurpose white phosphorus munitions in both Syria and Iraq. White phosphorus can be used as an incendiary weapon that burns structures and people. The air-delivery of incendiary weapons in civilian populated areas is prohibited under international humanitarian law (IHL).
ISIL continues to systematically attack and persecute vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shabak, Yazidis and Turkmen, causing their mass displacement. The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and OHCHR have reported that ISIL's violations, "may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide." The Commission of Inquiry on Syria has also reported that ISIL "has committed the crime of genocide as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yazidis" in Iraq. It is estimated that approximately 1,500 Yazidi women and girls remain enslaved by ISIL. Numerous mass graves of members of the Yazidi community have been discovered in northwestern Iraq since 2014.
ISIL also routinely targets civilians from the majority Shia population in sectarian attacks. On 9 June two explosions, one in the predominantly Shia village of Musayyib and another in the holy city of Karbala, killed at least 21 people.
OHCHR has expressed concern at reports of forced evictions and killings committed by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and affiliated militias "against Sunni Arab communities in parts of Iraq that have been reclaimed from ISIL," particularly Fallujah and Mosul. On 5 June Human Rights Watch reported that at least 26 bodies of blindfolded and handcuffed men have been found in government-held areas in and around Mosul since October 2016. Since the city was retaken, further reports of torture, extrajudicial killings and other violent reprisals against suspected members of ISIL have surfaced, including the discovery of an execution site in west Mosul.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that as of June 2017, 11 million people in Iraq – one third of the population – are still in need of humanitarian assistance, with 3.4 million people internally displaced.
ISIL poses an existential threat to Iraq's ethnic and religious minorities, who face the risk of further mass atrocities. ISIL's sectarian violence also poses a direct threat to members of the majority Shia community. ISIL is committed to the extermination of all religious communities and minority cultures that do not conform to its strict interpretation of Islam.
The recapture of Mosul is a crucial step towards defeating ISIL in Iraq. However, ISIL still maintains control over territory in the west of the country and in Kirkuk governorate. As the territory controlled by ISIL shrinks the group will also likely increase terrorist attacks across Iraq. It remains essential that all parties combatting ISIL ensure the protection of all civilians and uphold their obligations under international law.
Despite a November 2010 power-sharing agreement between political parties representing Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, many Sunnis felt marginalized under former President Nouri al-Maliki. ISIL exploited widespread disaffection to build alliances with Sunni tribes and seize large swathes of territory and resources during 2014. Cultural identities and religious loyalties continue to be manipulated by various political forces in Iraq. Some Shia militias, mobilized by the government to fight ISIL, continue to pose a direct threat to Sunni civilians.
As internally displaced persons return and reintegration and rebuilding efforts get underway, the Iraqi government must take practical steps to facilitate reconciliation amongst the various ethnic communities and religious populations represented in northern Iraq to minimize the risk of recurring violence. The Iraqi government needs ongoing international assistance to uphold its Responsibility to Protect.
In addition to international support for the Iraqi government, several European Union member states, as well as Albania and Canada, have provided ongoing assistance to Kurdish fighters battling ISIL.
On 14 July the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2367, renewing the mandate of UNAMI until 31 July 2018.
On 18 August 2016 OHCHR and UNAMI released a report calling for Iraq to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and hold ISIL perpetrators accountable for "targeting and seeking to destroy" the Yazidi.
On 1 November 2016 the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, condemned crimes committed by ISIL and retaliatory violence against Sunni communities during the Mosul offensive.
The international community should continue to provide support to the Iraqi government to combat the threat ISIL poses to vulnerable populations, especially religious and ethnic minorities. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is also in need of international support to defend against ongoing ISIL attacks.
While confronting ISIL and other armed groups, it is essential that the Iraqi government protects all civilians and addresses the underlying sources of conflict between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. The government of Iraq and the KRG must strictly uphold their obligations under IHL. Iraq's international supporters must ensure that all parties participating in the military coalition against ISIL take effective measures to ensure the consistent protection of civilians.
The government must investigate and punish human rights abuses and actively prevent reprisals by the ISF and allied militias against Sunni civilians in areas recaptured from ISIL.
The UNSC, with Iraqi government support, should immediately establish an international investigative commission to collect and preserve evidence regarding mass atrocity crimes perpetrated in Iraq, including the genocide against the Yazidi and war crimes committed in Mosul. Perpetrators should be held accountable under international law.
Last Updated: 15 August 2017