A grainy video posted to Twitter shows a bearded man, his hands raised, on his knees, pleading for his life. A few seconds later, a soldier in desert fatigues, and allegedly from the Iraqi Army’s 16th Division, enters the frame and pushes the petrified man over the edge of a cliff on to the banks of a river down below. The man appears alive, just, but as he attempts to slither to cover, the soldier unleashes a volley of a dozen or so rounds, leaving his bloodied body lifeless. His crime is unclear, though without jury nor trial his tormentors have accused him of being a member of Isis.
It is barely two weeks since Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared Mosul officially liberated from Isis. After a near nine-month campaign that has seen some of the fiercest urban warfare since World War Two, Iraqi government forces have secured a small triumph. But the government is also accused of carrying out a litany of human rights abuses. Dozens of videos have surfaced on social media in recent weeks showing everything from torture to execution. Human Rights Watch have described the mounting evidence as ‘relentless’.
The brutal, drawn-out fight for Mosul has left some Iraqi units suffering a staggering casualty rate of near 50 per cent. Combined with growing political pressure to mop up the city’s remaining pockets of Isis fighters, certain military units have developed a sense of impunity when it comes to human rights abuses. Journalists, both foreign and Iraqi, have been denied access to the city in recent weeks, particularly the Old City, where there remains sporadic fighting and many of the abuses are believed to be taking place. As one Iraqi journalist put it ‘they thought everyone would lose interest after it was declared liberated, they hoped the journalists would go home, but we are still here. The truth is, now we don’t really know what’s going in those parts of the city.’
That the Iraqi Government would eventually overwhelm and push back Isis was never in doubt. The international backing, and numerical advantages made a battlefield victory in Mosul a foregone conclusion in the eyes of many. But that was never the true challenge. The government forces needed to be greeted as liberators, not a sectarian beast like the one that helped create the grievances that gave rise to Isis in the first place. It may be a cliche, but defeating Isis in Mosul, and indeed elsewhere, really does require winning hearts and minds.
The early months of the operation suggested that military units had largely held their discipline. In Mosul’s liberated east, new-born babies were thrust into the arms of generals, and billboards were raised in appreciation of the efforts of the Iraqi soldiers. These men were genuinely seen as Mosul’s liberators. However, as the scale of destruction and death become more apparent – the UN have estimated as much as $50 billion could be required for reconstruction, and civilian casualty figures have been revised upward to some 40,000 – there are fears that Mosul may be developing into something of a pyrrhic victory.
Recent accusations, and the seemingly insurmountable evidence that atrocities have been committed by government forces, risk undermining all those efforts. Al-Abadi’s government currently appear to be either uninterested or powerless to stop them. As Human Rights Watch points out, despite the growing roll call of brutalities, the group does ‘not know of a single transparent investigation into abuses by Iraqi armed forces, any instances of commanders being held accountable for abuse, or any victims of abuse receiving compensation.’ Of course, those involved with Isis must see justice, but such egregious acts don’t come near to achieving that. The heavy lifting has been done, but if things don’t change fast, Mosul could be lost once more to an even more brutal regime than Isis.
Gareth Browne is a British freelance journalist covering the Battle for Mosul