Amid Iraq’s Turmoil, Tal Afar Builds Peace
In a former ISIS stronghold, tribes, civic groups, women negotiate a pact to bring displaced people home.
In a year of Iraqi turmoil, including protests that ousted a government and rivalry between Iran and Turkey, Iraqi tribal and community leaders are strengthening a new peace agreement in a locale that has seen some of the worst brutality of recent years—the northern city of Tal Afar. Civic, tribal and government leaders recently agreed to a pact that can open a path for more than 60,000 displaced residents to return home and rebuild following the war with ISIS. The accord also will help curb ISIS’ effort to revive. And in a startling change, it was negotiated partly by women.
Iraqi peacebuilding organizations supported by USIP worked for years with Tal Afar’s factions to reach the agreement, initially signed in August by about 20 tribal, community and other leaders. Twelve weeks later, the signatories, now numbering 35 leaders, are working to remove security and administrative barriers to the return of refugees, said Qasim Mohammed Sharif, the city’s mayor.
Tal Afar is the eighth Iraqi locality to negotiate such a local peace agreement with facilitation from USIP and its Iraqi partners. Most of the accords have come following Iraq’s bitter war against the Islamic State (ISIS) extremist group. “The agreements show the effectiveness of dialogues even after deep losses,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, who directs Middle East programs for USIP. “These dialogues harness a strong resolve in these communities to overcome disastrous outcomes of violent conflict and extremism, divides, and deep societal wounds to rebuild their lives and coexist.”
Tal Afar, a city that normally is home to perhaps 250,000 people, sits amid dry plains and rocky hills between Mosul and the Syrian border. ISIS turned it into a stronghold by exploiting decades of local, communal conflicts to recruit people to extremism. Tal Afar was one of the last Iraqi cities to be freed from ISIS’ rule. Its stabilization can play a significant role in curbing an attempted extremist revival under the group’s new leader, who was born in the city.
Tal Afar’s Struggle
Tal Afar historically has been dominated by ethnic Turkmen, from both the Sunni and Shia sects, who settled during centuries of rule by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein attacked and suppressed the patchwork of ethnic communities in northern Iraq—Turkmen, Kurds, Yazidis and others—and moved ethnic Arabs into the region, triggering communal conflicts that have stretched over decades. As ISIS evolved following Saddam’s ouster by U.S. forces, the group exploited those old communal grievances in Tal Afar to radicalize and recruit Sunni Muslim fighters.
ISIS seized Tal Afar in 2014, within days destroying seven Shia mosques and forcing the flight of 90 percent of the city’s Turkmen residents. In and near Tal Afar, ISIS fighters executed Shias, Turkmen and members of the Yazidi sect, kidnapping and raping thousands of women, many of whom remain missing. ISIS ruled the city for three years, destroying homes, the economy, the city’s physical infrastructure and even its public records, Sharif noted—“truly a disaster.”
Under ISIS’ rule, “some Sunni Turkmen decided not to flee,” and some of those became implicated in the extremist group’s war crimes, noted a 2017 study commissioned by USIP to analyze ways to stabilize the Tal Afar region following its liberation from the extremist group. That year, Iraqi government troops and Kurdish forces joined with a range of paramilitary-style units (called “Popular Mobilization Forces,” or PMF), composed largely of Iraqi Shia fighters, to seize back Tal Afar, Mosul and other northern cities. Some of the Shia-dominated groups including units that helped retake Tal Afar, operate under the influence of Iran. Some PMF units have committed their own human rights abuses, monitoring groups such as Amnesty International have reported. Up to 80,000 Sunnis from Tal Afar fled into exile in Turkey, according to Ali Al-Farhat, a former Iraqi army general from the Sunni community who helped negotiate the peace accord on behalf of those refugees.
Iran’s increased influence in Iraq through the PMFs and their associated political organizations has collided at Tal Afar with “Turkey’s desire to act as the protector of Turkmen interests, particularly the Sunni Turkmens,” noted Sarhang Hamasaeed, who directs USIP’s Middle East programs. When Iraqi government officials and civil society partners sought the Institute’s help in facilitating a peace agreement in Tal Afar and its surrounding district, the divisions proved so complex that the participants decided to focus on just one rural sub-district, Al-Ayadhiya, Hamasaeed says. A 2018 agreement there demonstrated a model that could succeed, and “now about 24,000 people, roughly half of the population, have returned” to their homes after years of having been uprooted, Hamasaeed said. Al-Ayadhiya’s peace accord helped persuade international donor organizations to fund services and projects to help stabilize the locality.
Building Peace Amid Destruction—and COVID
The Al-Ayadhiya example helped encourage participants in the city of Tal Afar to advance negotiations on a web of problems: how to address grievances by communities that had suffered abuses, how to return the populations forced into exile, and how to ensure that all groups were represented in the local government administration. “Research and experience across numerous conflicts underscores that inclusion of all groups involved in, and impacted by, a conflict is vital,” said Osama Gharizi a USIP staff member who has worked on the Iraq dialogues. “That inclusivity helps to ensure broad acceptance of a negotiated outcome, and to persuade all sides to pursue their grievances through institutions of law rather than through violent conflict,” he said. USIP worked with its Iraqi partner organizations, including the non-government Sanad for Peacebuilding, and with local authorities, to facilitate negotiations in Tal Afar city.
Simply returning those who have fled is a massive task, said Ali Al-Farhat, the former army general who represented Sunni residents now in Turkey. “First people have lost their homes due to the destruction of the war,” and they lack the funds or the economic opportunities with which to rebuild a shattered city. Youth and children have lost years of schooling. And many families “lost their identification documents” amid their escape from the city’s war, Farhat noted, leaving them unable to reclaim property—or even to defend themselves against accusations by Shias that they might have committed crimes on ISIS’ behalf.
The last stages of Tal Afar’s peace negotiations took place as Iraq largely shut down to contain the COVID pandemic. Participants held their talks wearing masks and taking other protective measures—and the Iraqi and USIP facilitators who had met with them over the previous years now participated from a distance, via video conference calls.
Unprecedented Role for Women
A revolutionary change for a region of Iraq dominated by its patriarchal traditions is that Tal Afar’s peace process included women. As Iraq recovers from the ISIS conflict, “survivors of violence should be given the opportunity to play an active role in the reconciliation and peacebuilding process,” said Amal van Leeuwen-Hamidallah, USIP’s director in Iraq. “In Tal Afar, it remains a taboo subject even to address sexual and gender-based violence, including cases from the ISIS conflict. Engaging women in peace efforts will empower them to address this, and it will strengthen the collective healing of this divided community.”
The inclusion of women in the peace process “gave a message to Turkmen society in general, and men in particular, of the importance of the role of women,” said Sukaina Mohammed Ali Younis, a Turkmen woman who advises the provincial government on social welfare issues. The peace process, in which she participated, “showed that women—and not only men—have the right to deliver their views through the dialogue process … and to participate in decisions,” she said.
Male participants in the negotiations initially tried to dismiss the presence and voices of the women representatives, “to show that the power was fully in the hands of the men and that women were unable to participate,” Younis said. But women persisted, making their arguments on equal terms, she said, an experience that “motivates every Turkmen woman.”
To implement its agreement, Tal Afar now must “encourage the return of the displaced and provide them with security and stability,” said Sharif, the mayor. Consolidating and widening the peace will continue to require a joint effort by the government and civil society organizations, whose “efforts are essential,” he said.
Meanwhile, USIP is working with Iraq’s government and its civic partners on dialogue processes in other localities—and is gathering data on its recent projects as part of assessing ways to improve those processes. “These local dialogues are cost-effective methods for building stability and reducing violent threats, including extremism, in countries like Iraq that either have collapsed into war or that risk doing so,” said Hamasaeed. “In Iraq, they help consolidate the military gains against ISIS, prevent the Iraqi and U.S. military from being pulled back into the conflict, and save U.S. and international expenditures that otherwise would be needed for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction.”