Since ISIS’s losses of 45% of its Iraqi territory over the past two years, we may be approaching the end of the war on ISIS. The conflict’s progression nevertheless raises hard questions on the potential resurgence of Sunni insurgencies like ISIS as American and Iraqi governments have failed to rein in destabilizing groups operating in Western Iraq. So long as murder, torture, and other human rights violations recur with impunity among Shiite forces operating in Sunni Iraqi provinces, there will be little reason to remain optimistic for the stability of Iraq.
During the capture of major Sunni cities from ISIS, the Iraqi army’s inefficiency demanded supplementation from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a counterinsurgency umbrella group composed of 100,000-120,000 volunteers operating under numerous, mostly Shiite, militias. In many of the largest battles, Shia PMF militias have played a larger role than indigenous Sunni militias – they’ve made up a third of the forces recapturing Ramadi and Fallujah and two-thirds of the fighters retaking Baiji and Tikrit. In Tikrit, Shiite PMF outnumbered Sunni militiamen by 20,000 to just 1,000. In each of these cities, Sunnis comprised the majority of the population, with as many as 90% of Ramadi civilians being Sunni.
Contrary to pro-Shia sources, the PMF’s commitment to the fight against ISIS has demonstrated sectarian aims with little respect to Sunni civilians, not the rebirth of Iraqi nationalism. In Tikrit, 200 Sunni civilians were abducted, and several hundred homes to Sunnis were demolished by the Shia Hezbollah Battalions and League of the Righteous Forces. Reports of Shia PMF indiscriminately targeting civilians in Ramadi remain unclear, but more recently in Fallujah, they tortured more than a thousand civilians, beating them while dragging them by car. In every Sunni, they see an inhuman enemy, with a militiaman saying that “80%” of Sunnis are part of ISIS.
The PMF’s human rights violations have virtually become a national security risk – the intelligence community has said that because of fears of the Shia militias’ participation in the fight against ISIS, “Iraq’s Sunnis will remain willing to endure some deprivation under ISIL rule.”
To reign the PMF in and perhaps because militias are prohibited by Iraq’s constitution, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi adopted the PMF as part of Iraq’s armed forces earlier this year, while calling for the appointment of thousands of Sunnis to the PMF. A prison was also established for human rights offenders last year, but these measures have translated into little accountability.
According to the Human Rights Watch, more than 90 men of the Hezbollah Battalions tortured at least 600 civilians during last month’s Fallujah assault, but as of July, only “four or five” were arrested. Basam Ridha, the Washington representative of the PMF, said that “The reality is that they do cover for each other,” making it impossible to find credible witnesses. “They have done a lot of vicious activities… but they get away with it.”
American narratives have hardly helped. Brett McGurk, the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, dismissed the PMF’s violations as “isolated atrocities” just as reports of the mass murder of 300 civilians by PMF forces were appearing.
Today’s incidents of murder, torture, and genocide are not “merely” issues that only diplomats have the luxury to debate – they are tomorrow’s paths to Iraq’s downfall. The US cannot possibly expect Sunni civilians to root out insurgents so long as the justice system remains broken and Shiite militias can freely murder and torture any Sunni that vexes them. When the Islamic State falls, the dominance of the Popular Mobilization Forces will renew insurgencies fighting against Kurdish and Shiite rights violations and tearing Iraq along sectarian lines. Today’s wars require the construction of societies and governments respecting the rights of all, for, without them, there shall be no end to war. Thus far, despite the PMF’s valuable contributions to the fight against ISIS, after each battle, they have only served to tear it all down.
Anhvinh Doanvo is a 2016 finalist for the US Department of State’s Graduate Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship and an MSPPM candidate at Carnegie Mellon University. He has written for numerous publications including The Hill, The Huffington Post, and the Tampa Tribune. His research has focused on a broad array of domestic and foreign policy issues, especially including counterterrorism strategy for CENTCOM against Boko Haram.