The world will pay a price if it continues to ignore Iraq

The Middle East being a perpetual powder keg, it is hardly surprising that Iraq is no longer in the international spotlight.

By Arnab Neil Sengupta

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Published: Wed 19 Jun 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 20 Jun 2019, 5:08 PM

Since the defeat of Daesh in its last stronghold in Syria in March by a US-backed, Kurdish-led force, there has been a discernible drop in international interest in the situation in the battle-scarred areas that until recently constituted the "self-declared caliphate".
The Middle East being a perpetual powder keg, it is hardly surprising that Iraq is no longer in the international spotlight. Media gaze has since gravitated towards another area, the Gulf, which is the latest regional flashpoint as Iran and the US remain locked in a battle of nerves.
It would be a colossal mistake on the part of the international community, however, to assume that the mess left behind by wars that displaced at least 1.8 million Iraqis will sort itself out, or that the fractious Iraqi government can be trusted to clean it up.
If reports from Iraq are any guide, the feelings of deprivation, alienation and denial of dignity that gave rise to Daesh in early 2014 are being intensified, instead of being addressed, by the Baghdad government's lackadaisical attitude and heavy-handed policing.
For instance, the continued dominance of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the state-sponsored umbrella organisation of militias that was created specifically to fight Daesh, has become a menace to local populations in many parts of Iraq.
Instead of disbanding itself after the recapture of Mosul and other Daesh strongholds, the PMF has become a controversial feature of the country's security landscape. In fact, Iraqi government officials have been considering pay raises for PMF fighters and making them equivalent to Iraqi soldiers.
In its latest report on Iraq, Human Rights Watch paints a grim picture of rights abuses, violations of freedom of expression and women's rights, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions that ought to set alarm bells ringing in concerned capitals.
"Under the guise of fighting terror, Iraqi forces arbitrarily detained, ill-treated and tortured, and disappeared" men from areas where Daesh was active and "failed to respect their due-process and fair-trial rights," says the report.
In locations far away from international scrutiny, women and children are being denied security clearances required to obtain identity cards and other civil documentation such as birth and death certificates needed to inherit property or remarry.
Members of the Iraqi security forces and the PMF responsible for meting out what is effectively collective punishment do not realise that those who cannot remember even the fairly recent past are condemned to repeat it.
After all, Daesh was not just the final stage in the natural evolution of the Iraqi insurgency that began with the US-led invasion of 2003. Equally, it was a symptom of the sectarian polarisation that afflicted Iraq's body politic in the wake of the power shift that resulted from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Now that the barbarians of Daesh have been rooted out of their strongholds, with a lot of the heavy lifting done by Iraq's Kurdish Peshmerga and Syria's Kurdish-led SDF, Iraq should ideally be waging a moral equivalent of war against the root causes of the emergence of the extremist group. Instead, powerful actors are sowing the seeds of a fresh round of discontent.
With summer once again witnessing protests in long-neglected southern and central Iraq, it is clear that public confidence in the federal government's ability to provide access to basic services, clean water and electricity, create jobs and tackle corruption remains at rock bottom.
As for the large expanses lying in ruins since the military offensive that defeated Daesh in a series of battles, the ambitious plans for their reconstruction seem to have taken a back seat to operations aimed at altering the local demographic composition.
So, what should the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi do under the circumstance? For a start, it should rein in the PMF to prevent it from worsening sectarian divisions in areas liberated from Daesh's control. No matter how powerful the bonds between Iraqi political parties and Iran, Baghdad can ill afford to put Tehran's interests ahead of its own.
Instead of dealing with survivors of Daesh rule and families of Daesh fighters according to the doctrine of guilt by association, the government should kick-start the process of rehabilitation, deradicalisation and reconstruction. The mere act of ceasing to treat the people of former Daesh-run areas as second-class citizens would go a long way to win their hearts and minds.
Prior to Baghdad's crackdown following the September 2017 referendum, the Kurds were governing large swathes of contested territory seized from Daesh and rebuilding their intelligence networks. That responsibility should once again be handed back to the Kurds before Daesh diehards in remote areas can regroup and regenerate to a dangerous extent.
Finally, Baghdad should move to assert its authority on key security and economic issues. As long as the country remains a near-failed state with little oversight of private militias and vulnerable to browbeating and arm-twisting by its powerful neighbours, Iraqis, whether Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians or Turkmens, will keep looking for escape routes, both legal and illegal.
In sum, the world can ill afford to avert its eyes from the mess in Iraq.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East

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