During July 2014 the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized vast territory across northern Iraq. Following an eight-month offensive, on 9 July 2017 a coalition comprised mainly of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga, operating with United States air support, announced the successful recapture of Mosul, inflicting a serious defeat upon the armed extremist group. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, during the battle at least 920,000 people were displaced from the city.
ISIL still controls pockets of territory across northern Iraq. Between 20-31 August the ISF successfully liberated Tel Afar from the group. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 42,000 people fled the district ahead of the battle. Sporadic clashes continue in Mosul and across Nineveh governorate, limiting the ability of the 829,700 people still displaced by fighting to return home.
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 the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (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 3,300 members of the Yazidi community remain in ISIL captivity, including over 1,600 Yazidi women and girls.
OHCHR has reported that during military operations against ISIL the extremist group has abducted families and moved them to strategic locations to be used as human shields. Hundreds of civilians who resisted have been killed. ISIL fighters also targeted and killed civilians attempting to flee Mosul.
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 who were massacred. 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.
ISIL also routinely targets civilians from the majority Shia population in sectarian attacks. On 14 September coordinated attacks on a restaurant and security checkpoint in Nasiriyah, within the predominately Shia populated south of the country, killed at least 50 people.
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 so far 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 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 have emerged regarding torture, extrajudicial killings and other violent reprisals against suspected members of ISIL.
The OCHA estimates that as of June 2017, eleven million people in Iraq – one third of the population – are still in need of humanitarian assistance, with 3.4 million people internally displaced.
ISIL still 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 marked 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, pose a direct threat to Sunni civilians.
As internally displaced persons return and rebuilding efforts get underway, the Iraqi government must take practical steps to facilitate reconciliation amongst the various ethnic and religious communities in northern Iraq and minimize the risk of recurring violence. The upcoming independence referendum in Kurdistan is likely to further complicate regional politics.
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.
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 15 August 2017 the UN Secretary-General transmitted a letter from the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iraq to the UNSC requesting international assistance to pursue accountability for atrocities perpetrated by ISIL in Iraq.
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 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 Kurdistan Regional Government must strictly uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law. Iraq's international supporters must ensure that all parties participating in the anti-ISIL military coalition 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 September 2017