Harmeet Sooden NZ Herald Aug. 18, 2015
New Zealand's intervention in Iraq is being sold to the public as an exercise in stopping ISIS's atrocities, especially those against the people of Iraq. The reality, however, is that many of Iraq's civilians are caught between Scylla and Charybdis - between two dire alternatives: on the one side, opposition groups including ISIS; on the other, the US-led coalition and Iran. While human rights violations committed by ISIS are widely condemned, those committed by New Zealand's coalition partners, including Iraq, are underreported.
The Iraqi Government, in particular, is responsible for widespread abuses, mainly against Iraq's Sunni population. Iraqi security forces have engaged in: torture, hostage-taking, and summary execution of civilians, including women and children; beheading, lynching, and immolating captives, desecrating corpses, and celebrating the atrocities in photographs and videos posted online; looting and wanton destruction of property, and shelling and bombing residential areas and hospitals. Iraqi and Kurdish authorities sometimes prevent families fleeing the fighting from reaching safer parts of the country.
UN agencies warn that Iraq is "on the brink of humanitarian disaster" due to the escalating conflict between the US-led coalition and opposition forces, and the severe shortfall in international funding. At least 3.1 million Iraqis have been internally displaced since January 2014. A total of 8.2 million people now require immediate humanitarian support. The UN has concluded that civilians are the primary targets of the conflict in Iraq.
In late June, New Zealand's Task Group Taji completed its first eight-week training course for troops from the 76th Brigade, a formation within the Iraqi Army's 16th Division. The division was formed to replace the US-trained units that collapsed in 2014 when ISIS seized the Mosul region. It is composed of new recruits as well as soldiers who fled during last year's assault.
The training cannot address the root causes of the coalition's human rights violations, including the structural corruption and sectarianism introduced into Iraq's military and state institutions after the 2003 US-led invasion. As the 76th Brigade deploys to the frontline, possibly to join the Ramadi offensive, the NZDF cannot eliminate the risk of the training offering the Iraqi army greater means to worsen the human rights situation.
Several Iraqi soldiers being trained at Taji have openly told journalists that "they actively served on their days off with Shiite militia - some...still listed by the US as terrorist groups", some also sponsored by Iran. The UN has reported pro-government militias, including the popular mobilisation forces (PMF), "seem to operate with total impunity, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake" that often rivals the depredations of ISIS.
UNICEF has confirmed reports of children being recruited by militias from all sides, including those supported by the Iraqi Government. The PMF is reportedly providing combat training to children in summer camps established throughout the country. Militias fighting alongside Iraqi and Kurdish forces are using armed boys and girls on the frontline - some as young as 10. Enlisting children under the age of 15 or using them to engage in hostilities is a war crime.
NZDF personnel are also deployed in unidentified roles in Baghdad and other undisclosed locations. The military role New Zealand's intelligence services are playing in the conflict is secret. The full extent of New Zealand's activities in Iraq is therefore not subject to public scrutiny.
Sectarian abuses continue unabated under the government of the new Iraqi leader, Haider al-Abadi. Yet, the New Zealand Government insists on backing a regime that is showing little regard for civilians. When coalition forces were poised to re-conquer Tikrit in March, Prime Minister al-Abadi said in a speech to the Iraqi parliament: "There is no neutrality in the battle against ISIS. If someone is being neutral with ISIS, then he is one of them." His words epitomise the dilemma civilians face in areas where ISIS is active.
There is a straightforward way New Zealand can begin to protect the people of Iraq: namely, by withdrawing its support for the human rights violators in the coalition, and accepting that worthwhile alternatives exist.
Harmeet Sooden has recently returned from Iraqi Kurdistan, where he was working on a human rights project assessing communal tensions in a camp for internally displaced persons. [Abridged]