During July 2014 the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized vast territory across northern Iraq. Since then, a coalition comprised mainly of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga, operating with United States air support, has been fighting to recapture cities from ISIL. Despite ISIL still controlling pockets of territory across northern Iraq – particularly in western Anbar governorate – the government of Iraq announced the successful liberation of Mosul during July 2017 and Hawija during October, marking two major defeats for the group. Sporadic clashes with ISIL fighters continue across parts of Nineveh governorate, where approximately 1 million people remain displaced.
According to a joint report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), at least 2,521 civilians were killed during the military operation to retake Mosul. During the battles for Mosul and Hawija ISIL fighters used civilians as human shields and targeted and killed civilians attempting to flee areas under their control.
Despite being in retreat, ISIL continues to systematically attack and persecute vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shabak, Yazidis and Turkmen. UNAMI and the OHCHR have reported that ISIL's past violations, "may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide."
OHCHR and UNAMI have reported that at least 74 mass graves have been found in formerly ISIL-held territory since June 2014. On 12 November the ISF reported the discovery of an additional mass grave near Hawija which contains up to 400 bodies of civilians and security personnel.
The UN 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 3,300 members of the Yazidi community remain in ISIL captivity, including over 1,600 women and girls. ISIL also routinely targets civilians from the majority Shia population in sectarian attacks.
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 civilian deaths this year, including up to 200 civilians killed in a single airstrike in Mosul on 17 March.
OHCHR has expressed concern at reports of forced evictions and killings committed by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and affiliated militias against Sunni communities in parts of Iraq that have been reclaimed from ISIL. Since Mosul was retaken, there have been reports of torture, extrajudicial killings and other reprisals against suspected ISIL members and their families.
Following an independence referendum on 25 September, growing political tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad threatened to result in armed conflict. On 15 October the ISF forcibly retook the city of Kirkuk from the KRG, resulting in sporadic armed clashes. The Peshmerga command released a statement saying that Baghdad, "bears the main responsibility for triggering war on the Kurdistan people, and will be made to pay a heavy price." On 27 October the ISF and Peshmerga reportedly reached a provisional agreement to end fighting between their forces in northern Iraq. Both the ISF and Peshmerga remain engaged in ongoing military operations against ISIL.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that as of September, 11 million people in Iraq – one third of the population – are still in need of humanitarian assistance, with 3.2 million people internally displaced.
Despite losing significant territory during 2017, ISIL still poses a 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 and Hawija marked major steps towards defeating ISIL in Iraq. As the area controlled by ISIL shrinks the group will likely increase terrorist attacks across Iraq. It remains essential that all parties combatting ISIL ensure the protection of 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, pose a direct threat to Sunni civilians.
Having jointly defeated ISIL across most of Iraq, growing conflict between the KRG and the central government poses a serious threat to the safety and security of vulnerable civilians. The Iraqi government must take practical steps to facilitate reconciliation amongst the various ethnic and religious communities in Iraq and minimize the risk of recurring armed conflict.
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 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.
Following a request by the Iraqi government for international assistance to pursue accountability for atrocities perpetrated by ISIL, on 21 September the UNSC authorized the establishment of an Investigative Team to support domestic accountability efforts by collecting evidence regarding potential war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Iraq. The team will be headed by a Special Adviser to be appointed by the Secretary-General, and will consist of both international and domestic experts.
While continuing to battle ISIL and other armed extremist 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 should actively prevent any further political polarization and armed conflict.
As anti-ISIL operations continue, both the government of Iraq and the KRG must consistently uphold their obligations under IHL. All relevant authorities should investigate and punish human rights abuses and actively prevent reprisals against Sunni civilians in areas recaptured from ISIL.
UN member states should fully cooperate with the Investigative Team established by Iraq and the UNSC, and provide technical assistance. The government of Iraq should adopt enabling legislation to incorporate genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity into domestic law. All perpetrators of atrocities in Iraq, regardless of position or affiliation, should be held accountable for their crimes.
Last Updated: 15 November 2017