When Iraqi tribal leaders were forced to flee the city of Hawija in northern Iraq as the Islamic State seized the area in 2014, they weren’t much concerned with advancing the rule of law. But last year, as ISIS’s grip weakened and the possibility of returning to Hawija grew nearer, the leaders faced the prospect of an aftermath stained by revenge killings of collaborators and demand for “blood money” in compensation. Such tribal justice could set off new rounds of violence and instability.
UPDATED February 20, 2017
The Legacy of War—and Peace—in Iraq (new videos)
U.S.-backed Iraqi troops this past weekend launched their offensive to recapture the western part of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the last major stronghold of the ISIS extremist group. Sarhang Hamasaeed, USIP’s director of Middle East programs, explained in a recent Ted Talk-style presentation how USIP works with Iraqi civilians trained to guide community dialogues in areas retaken from ISIS to address lingering tensions and prevent a renewed cycle of revenge and violent power struggles. These excerpts weave his personal story into the work he now pursues to build a more sustainable peace. His full talk at USIP’s Passing the Baton conference to mark the foreign policy and national security transition from one administration to another last month is available here.
Explaining his childhood during the tumult of Saddam Hussein’s reign, USIP Middle East Programs Director Sarhang Hamasaeed talks about the inspiration that led him to a life trying to reduce violent conflict.
The violence of extremist groups such as ISIS, also known as Da’esh—and the chaos they spawn—takes place in towns, villages, streets and homes, explains USIP Middle East Programs Director Sarhang Hamasaeed. He tells the story of the notorious 2014 “Speicher massacre” by ISIS near Tikrit in northern Iraq.
Facilitated talks between Shiites and Sunnis in a violence-torn region of Iraq provide a case study for the possibilities of building peace in the aftermath of ISIS, also known as Da’esh. USIP Middle East Programs Director Sarhang Hamasaeed explains the careful process of conflict analysis and mediation.
The specter of revenge violence when a community is recaptured from the control of ISIS is a key barrier keeping 3 million Iraqis who’ve fled the violence from going home. USIP Middle East Programs Director Sarhang Hamasaeed describes how dialogue can foster reconciliation and, ultimately, a more sustainable peace.
February 13, 2017
Over the course of 2016, their perspective on the value of official justice mechanisms began to shift, as the result of a series of dialogues and consultations organized and led by two Iraqi groups, Sanad for Peacebuilding and the Network of Iraqi Facilitators (NIF), both supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The deputy governor of Kirkuk Province had asked USIP how to ensure that the peace that would come with the liberation of Hawija could be sustained over the long term. Iraqi forces, backed by a U.S.-led military coalition, already have recaptured parts of Mosul to the north, and Hawija’s displaced tribal leaders hope their city will not be far behind. The top U.S. commander in Iraq told the Associated Press this week that the remainder of the Mosul operation should be completed within six months.
As a result of the Kirkuk deputy governor’s request, Sanad and NIF organized a series of dialogues and consultations with 51 anti-ISIS tribal leaders and local authorities. The thorniest question that emerged was how to deal with ISIS members, collaborators and their families once the area is recaptured, said Osama Gharizi, USIP’s regional program manager for the Middle East.
The answer came in a pact unveiled in Kirkuk on Jan. 15 that, at its core, pledged respect for the rule of law. The accord, supported by the governor of Kirkuk Province and the mayor of Hawija, was the latest in a series of local reconciliation agreements that have emerged from dialogues shepherded by Sanad and NIF and supported by USIP. The aim is to reduce the risks of future outbreaks of violence caused by tensions that seed the terrain for violent extremism. In the process, USIP and its civil society partners also work with authorities of the government in Baghdad, including the National Reconciliation Committee of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Office.
“If you strike a national peace accord for Iraq in Baghdad, it won’t solve the situation in Kirkuk,” said USIP Middle East Director Sarhang Hamasaeed “But if you succeed on the ground in places like Kirkuk, that will increase the chances of a national accord. We have to work from the bottom-up and from the top-down.”
A Crucible for ISIS
Hawija was a kind of crucible for ISIS, which claims to represent Sunni Islam. With a population of 275,559 in 2012, the city lies in the almost entirely Sunni area of southwestern Kirkuk Province, an area that U.S. and Iraqi forces never fully controlled after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Subsequently, as the Sunni community felt the policies of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad marginalized and alienated them from state institutions and mechanisms, tribal identity strengthened, rule of law suffered, and tribal law and practices filled the gap, Hamasaeed said.
Conditions on the ground spiraled downward in April 2013, when a violent government crackdown on disaffected Sunni protesters left 50 civilians dead and more than 150 injured. The death toll in the following week reportedly rose to more than 200.
While ISIS has roots in Al-Qaeda in Iraq, an earlier terrorist organization, its explosive rise in 2014 was fueled by incidents like the Hawija massacre and by government policies that Sunnis say drove some to support the insurgents, Hamasaeed said. By June 2014, ISIS had seized Hawija and much of southern Kirkuk.
To monopolize power, ISIS sought to destroy “the longstanding bonds and peaceful relations” in the region with “atrocious crimes” against innocent civilians, according to a statement issued by Sanad for the announcement last month.
Some tribal leaders or members had sided with ISIS, others were forced to support the group under threat, and others fled rather than pledge loyalty to the organization or face execution of their entire families, Hamasaeed said.
In 2016, as ISIS suffered military defeats across Iraq, the liberation of Hawija drew closer. With that grew the likelihood of bloody retribution that would undermine stability and set the stage for another round of violent extremism, Hamasaeed said.
“For southwest Kirkuk, it is vital for us to work on programs that will prevent tensions and, therefore, further conflict in the region,” said Mohammed al-Jubbouri, the NIF lead facilitator in the discussions.
Under the accord, the leaders pledged to adhere to international human rights standards, condemn terrorism and renounce all forms of political and religious extremism. They further agreed to eschew tribal forms of retribution and instead to support official justice systems administered by judges and law enforcement authorities.
Finally, the agreement establishes clear rules to fairly identify and vet suspected ISIS militants and collaborators within legal frameworks. The leaders pledged to use their tribal authorities, however, to disown members convicted by law of affiliation with ISIS.
“This program has highlighted the role of tribes in achieving security and peace amongst the Iraqi community,” said Sheikh Sufyan al-Nu’aimi, the emir of al-Nu’aim Tribe, one of the leading tribes in the region.
In fostering the agreement, USIP, Sanad and NIF built on previous successful mediation efforts in Iraq. Most of the situations concern local-level conflicts that at first seem small in the context of Iraq’s sectarian strife, government dysfunction and ISIS terror. But much of that discord is the basis of the larger conflict, and each local resolution signals that the country’s divisions are not irresolvable,said Hamasaeed. The positive outcome of local interventions, particularly in areas recaptured from ISIS, creates a model and lays the foundation for a more peaceful future, he said.
The half dozen interventions concluded in recent years address a range of conflicts. In 2015, Sanad and NIF, again supported by USIP, facilitated a dialogue that averted acts of revenge over ISIS’s massacre the previous year of 1,700 mostly Shiite military cadets from Camp Speicher near Tikrit. The dialogue produced an accord in which tribal leaders disavowed members who participated in the killing and allowed them to be tried in the justice system. The agreement opened the way for an initial return of 400 Sunni families to Tikrit. More than 170,000 people have come back since.
In 2007, at the request of the U.S. military and Iraqi authorities, USIP and NIF—Sanad hadn’t yet been established—facilitated a dialogue in Mahmoudiya, a town south of Baghdad. Those efforts helped the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division stabilize an area wracked by a cycle of violence involving Sunni and Shia tribes and Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.
For Hawija, the new pact sets out concrete steps for monitoring and implementing the terms, to ensure its words are translated into action, Gharizi said. Methods include amending tribes' laws, urging authorities to pay compensation to victims and to fund reconstruction, and establishing local committees to track the security vetting processes.
“The principles have the support of key figures, so it’s a point of reference,” he said. “The flip side is that there’s a time horizon. If commitments aren’t carried out, things will move backwards. We need to watch for bottlenecks and obstacles.”
Stabilization will also depend on issues that go beyond the local level, such as Sunni inclusion and effective implementation of decentralization, he said.
“There’s only so much you can do from the bottom-up without connecting to institutional reforms,” Gharizi said. “Those top-down efforts can help consolidate the gains made at the local level.”
Watch this video that explains why the retreat of ISIS is not necessarily bringing peace to Iraqi cities and towns—and how Iraqi peace facilitators are building local reconciliation through dialogue.