In 2014, Islamic State militants committed genocide against religious and ethnic minorities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, across northern Iraq. Kidnapping, rape, and murder marked this campaign of terror; thousands fled their homes. Six years later, with ISIS defeated militarily and its leader, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, dead following a U.S. raid, many displaced Iraqis have yet to return to their homes. The obstacles they face range from bureaucracy to a fear for their lives amid signs of an ISIS resurgence to Turkish airstrikes against groups Ankara sees as threatening its national interest.

Iraqi Yazidis try to get better cell phone reception from atop boulders at a refugee camp in Derik, Syria, Aug. 10, 2014. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)
Iraqi Yazidis try to get better cell phone reception from atop boulders at a refugee camp in Derik, Syria, Aug. 10, 2014. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)

“The names Sinjar, Mosul, and Nineveh Plains are forever associated with unspeakable cruelty aimed at communities whose residents have made their home in the region for over two millennia,” said Robert A. Destro, assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, referring to sites of ISIS’ atrocities.

Destro said labeling ISIS’ actions a genocide was a “good first step,” but added that those concerned about Iraq’s minorities have since been asking “what’s next?” Returning Iraqis to their homes and addressing ISIS’ atrocities are far more difficult tasks, he admitted. Destro spoke during an online event hosted by the United States Institute of Peace on June 30.

The Challenges

In November 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was forced to resign following months of protests fueled by anger over endemic corruption, weak public services, high unemployment, and Iran’s role in Iraq. The protests have abated somewhat as Iraq grapples with the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new government, led by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, has expressed its commitment to protecting the rights of religious minorities and championing the safe return of internally displaced persons (IDPs). There are approximately 1.4 million IDPs in Iraq, according to the United Nations. “[S]afe returns are not yet a reality,” Destro pointed out, noting that some minorities do not feel safe enough to return to their homes.

Staying in IDP camps, however, has also become an unsafe option as a result of the pandemic. Minorities living in these camps, where access to proper health care and social distancing remains a challenge, are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, said Nancy Lindborg, president and CEO of USIP.

Given this fragile political, economic, and health backdrop, minorities, in particular, face a number of challenges.

'The Main Issue is Security'

Security is a top concern, especially for people driven from their homes by a genocide. Following ISIS’ defeat, Iran-backed armed groups have become a primary concern for religious minorities.

“The main issue is security” because minorities feel the government is not attentive to their plight, especially as new signs point to a reemergence of ISIS, said William Warda of the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities, a coalition of civil society groups. Warda participated in a panel discussion that followed Destro’s keynote remarks and was moderated by Lee Tucker, senior program officer for the Middle East at USIP.

When it comes to security, while minorities in Hamdaniya and Sinjar in Nineveh province in northern Iraq feel safer, there is still a high degree of mistrust toward security forces, said Osama Gharizi, Iraq senior program advisor at USIP, referring to data gathered by USIP’s Conflict and Stabilization Monitoring Framework (CSMF). Communities writ large want “more say” in security arrangements, Gharizi said, adding that there is “some mistrust toward security actors that don’t necessarily reflect the composition of those communities.” In Sinjar, Turkish airstrikes are an additional growing concern, he added.

Destro said the Trump administration has pressed the Iraqi government to take “significant action to end the environment of impunity for government officials, for Iranian-backed militias, for security forces, and anyone else who commits human rights violations.”

The Trump administration wants IDPs to be allowed to integrate into communities of their choosing and where they feel most safe, said Destro. To this end, it has asked the Iraqi government to replace Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) with security forces that are recruited from the communities which they will serve.

A Vindictive Security Clearance Process

IDPs also face the challenge of clearing a security clearance process—a critical step in their return home—that is believed to be vindictive. Destro expressed concern for those who are being harassed over their familial ties to ISIS militants. “Many of these individuals have committed no crime other than having a brother, husband, or other family member accused of being an ISIS member,” he said. “All we really need to know is are they a risk or aren’t they? At the end of the day that is not rocket science.”

The Iraqi government should provide a “fair and transparent process of reintegration into local communities,” Destro said, adding that for this to happen the government must “reform, standardize, and streamline the security clearance process.”

“Separately, [the Iraqi government] must also delink the security process from acquisition of civil documentation,” Destro said. This, he said, would allow IDPs to gain access to health and education services while they await their security clearance, and prevent yet another generation of Iraqis from becoming disenfranchised and susceptible to extremism. Destro warned that if IDPs have no hope of leaving their mostly squalid living conditions, these camps could become breeding grounds for extremism.

Back to ‘Step Zero’ on Women’s Rights

As Iraq has grappled with political and economic crises, and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, women’s rights have fallen by the wayside, said Susan Aref, director of Women Empowerment Organization in Erbil, Iraq.

In October 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, which acknowledged the importance of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts. “We cannot say because we have a national action plan for the U.N. Security Council Resolution it means we are responding to women’s needs and achieving peace and security,” said Aref. “Unfortunately, we are heading backwards in terms of women’s rights and peace and security.”

What’s more, she added, the women’s agenda has become politicized, by women. While quotas have allowed a greater representation of women in political bodies, these women are focused on implementing their parties’ agenda at the cost of women’s rights, said Aref.

Minority women, meanwhile, are suffering the effects of the atrocities committed by ISIS. The stigma associated with reporting incidents of sexual violence has meant that women’s ability to find jobs and justice has been severely hampered, said Aref.

Aref suggested that the perspective of female minorities and survivors of sexual violence is needed at the table in order to change laws in a way that benefits society. Peace will be out of reach if women and minorities are marginalized, she said, adding, “So, no peace with no rights.”

She also emphasized the need to institutionalize women’s rights. In the absence of this, she said, “we are back to step zero” with every new government.

Lack of Trust in the Judicial System

Many Iraqis do not trust their judicial system. This is especially true for women brutalized by ISIS, said Warda.

The Trump administration has been working to improve the judicial process in Iraq. “As Iraqis move their country forward, the United States [and the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor] will continue to provide support that helps protect and empower minority populations in Iraq,” said Destro.

A Need for Reconciliation

USIP has been supporting minority communities in Iraq for a decade. This support has been redoubled over the past six years as these communities struggle to recover from genocide, said Lindborg.

USIP developed the CSMF to gather data from Iraqis in conflict-affected areas in Nineveh province to inform policymakers and programs, promote social cohesion, and mitigate the potential for violent conflict. “The findings from this framework confirm that reconciliation is still very much needed and it is challenged by the very unique barriers to social cohesion that exist in and between these communities,” said Lindborg.

Destro acknowledged the invaluable contribution of the CSMF data. Gharizi said besides an improved sense of security among minorities, the data reveal minorities’ grievance with governance and a need for reconciliation.

A lack of governance has resulted in certain minority communities—Christians in Hamdaniya and Yazidis in Sinjar—to demand representation in local governing bodies. “They feel that more representation will equal better governance outcomes,” Gharizi explained.

Across the board, minority communities believe that reconciliation is needed, but Christians in Hamdaniya and Yazidis in Sinjar do not feel it is possible and cite various challenges, including perceived power imbalances and a lack of political will, said Gharizi.

Rebuilding Trust

Neglect by successive governments has led to mistrust among the minority communities in Iraq. “Many minority communities feel that the state has ignored their suffering,” said Gharizi.

Iraq’s new government will have to build this trust. Warda suggested it can do this by ensuring security and the rule of law with help from the United States and picking professional security personnel from local communities to build a sense of safety.

In June, the United States and Iraq conducted a strategic dialogue in Baghdad. The two governments said in a statement that they had “reaffirmed the importance of the strategic relationship and their determination to take appropriate steps to enhance it in the interest of both countries and to achieve security, stability, and prosperity in the region.”

Warda said the Iraqi government must also address economic stagnation and the shortage of essential services. The international community can help implement economic and service programs, and construct and maintain cultural sites, he suggested.

“What is needed now is to encourage people to return and to build trust,” said Warda. “If we cannot build trust the people will not return.”

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