In a plain-as-beige conference room at Baghdad’s Babylon Hotel, the anger flared among the 16 robed Iraqi tribal leaders. The men, after all, carried into the room the outrage and fear from one of the country’s deadliest atrocities in recent years – the execution-style slaying in June 2014 of an estimated 1,700 young Iraqi air force cadets and soldiers at a base known as Camp Speicher. The accusations flew across the conference table – that tribes in the area supported the rampage by the self-styled “Islamic State” extremist group, and even joined in the killings. At one point, one of the highest-ranking sheikhs charged up out of his seat to leave the room. It was clear that others would follow.

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Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Ashley Gilbertson

That scene in a Baghdad hotel in late March represented perhaps the crescendo of tension in a series of meetings and negotiations since December, supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace to forestall a new cycle of killing. The talks were led by the Network of Iraqi Facilitators (NIF) and SANAD for Peacebuilding, Iraqi non-government organizations that were established with the Institute’s support and whose members sometimes work at great personal risk.

The Speicher discussions were part of a structured effort that had begun months earlier and continues today. The aim is to foster dialogue and ease the outraged cries for revenge on both sides that threaten to perpetuate a succession of violence over the massacre at the base, located near the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit and once used by the U.S. military. 

“If you do not take care of the tensions immediately, the government and the international community will have limited leeway once this spirals into more violence.” – USIP Senior Program Officer Sarhang Hamasaeed.

Drawing on Iraq’s own cultural norms, its tribal traditions and both governmental and unofficial contacts, USIP’s staff in Washington and in the field backed their partners in laying the groundwork, opening communication channels and connecting leaders who previously had considered each other adversaries.

“We have established a very large network” of contacts, said Haider al-Ibrahimi, executive director of SANAD, the Iraqi NGO. “The team is well-trusted by the big players … They listen to the NIF members. They know there is no political interest behind any activities of NIF, SANAD or USIP.”

This wasn’t the first time USIP and its Iraqi partners had negotiated peace between warring communities in Iraq. In 2007, the Institute and local facilitators worked with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division Brigade Combat Team to mediate a reconciliation among 31 Sunni and Shia sheikhs of the pivotal Mahmoudiya district south of Baghdad known at the time as the “Triangle of Death” for its high rate of Iraqi and American casualties.  In 2012 and 2013, the facilitators mediated tensions between the Christian and Shabak religious minorities in the Nineveh region in the country’s north. Still, the Camp Speicher conflict was challenging.

“The Speicher case was important because, if you do not take care of the tensions immediately, the government and the international community will have limited leeway once this spirals into more violence,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, a senior program officer at USIP who has been involved in the project.

Mass Graves

Because “Islamic State” is known as a staunchly Sunni Muslim group, and the victims in the Speicher massacre were mostly Shia Muslims from the country’s south, antagonists on both sides could – and did  seize on the anger with inflammatory rhetoric that exacerbated the risks of further violence. Fear and outrage flared again in March, after the mostly-Shia Iraqi Army and unofficial Iraqi militias called “Popular Mobilization Forces” recaptured Tikrit and quickly began to uncover mass graves. Sunni families fled the area in fear that the Shia militias would seek revenge. Both sides were desperate for their own idea of justice and a restoration of security.

As the Iraqi mediators and USIP worked to prevent further violence, the first break came at that March meeting in the Hotel Babylon. Each side agreed to take certain actions (more on that later). That was followed by a remarkable press conference in April by leaders of the two tribes that Shias had accused of complicity with the Islamic State group, al-Bu Ajeel and al-Bu Nasir. The leaders denied involvement in the massacre and pledged to help bring to justice any members of their tribes who might be found to have participated. The denial was extraordinary because taking such a step could have been seen by cultural norms as a sign of fear or weakness. Instead, the support of other tribes for that step made the declaration acceptable.

“They used the Iraqi way,” said Ali Sleiman, a USIP program officer in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. “When you are from a respected tribe and talk to others, they listen to you.”

Then in June, came an even bigger reward. The channels the peacebuilding team had opened among tribal sheikhs, militias and government officials had unlocked another door – the prospect that families who’d fled Tikrit, either during the 2014 Islamic State rampage or during the city’s recapture in March, could return. So in early June, more than 400 Sunni families piled into buses and safely made the journey back to their communities, even escorted and welcomed by members of the militias. Within weeks, the number of families who returned exceeded 1,000.

Whether the Iraqi government can achieve the return of families to areas recaptured from the Islamic state “could determine whether the country can recover its unity,” according to a June 19 report in the Washington Post, which said virtually the city’s entire population of 150,000 people had been driven out in the course of the war. The New York Times also reported the returns to Tikrit represented “a crucial test of the [Shia-dominated] central government’s ability to stabilize” and peacefully reintegrate Sunni areas retaken from the Islamic State group.

Deadly Raid

The “Speicher Intervention Team” organized by USIP and its Iraqi partners in December had its roots in a task force established with the facilitators’ network in May 2013, to detect early signs of potential violent conflict and analyze the tensions in order to intervene before they escalated.

That mobilization followed a deadly raid in April 2013 under then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who already was facing criticism for increasingly authoritarian actions. Iraqi security forces had cracked down on largely nonviolent protests by citizens in Hawijah in the country’s predominantly Sunni north who were challenging their increasing marginalization in what was supposed to be a power-sharing government structure. The April raid, in which dozens of people were killed, accelerated the tensions.

Maliki’s failure to address the country’s growing divides ultimately led to his ouster from power in 2014. But it was already too late. The Islamic State, which has its origins in the onetime U.S. nemesis al-Qaida in Iraq, had gradually gained strength in fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that grinding civil war next door. With that force, the group swept into Iraq, tearing across its north and west in June 2014 and taking control of the cities of Mosul in Nineveh Province and Tikrit in Salahaddin Province.

As reports of atrocities increased, the team of USIP, SANAD and NIF intensified their monitoring of the tensions. Once Maliki lost his bid to keep his seat in the aftermath of that year’s parliamentary elections, for example, opponents of the new government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi frequently accused the authorities openly of failing to deliver justice, further inflaming public opinion over the massacre.

By December 2014, USIP and its partners identified the Speicher massacre as an incident that was rife with the danger of escalating calls for revenge but also held prospects for prevention. The Iraqi government had formed a committee to investigate the incident but granted it limited scope. Initial findings by another investigative committee formed by the Iraqi parliament implicated entire tribes and groups, further heightening the pressure on all sides for another violent response.

How the Speicher Intervention Team negotiated and mediated among tribes, in part 2.

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