Iraq’s long-running civil war has spread and intensified again over the past year, and the government’s fight against a swelling Sunni insurgency now threatens to devolve into the sort of indiscriminate reprisals that could produce a new episode of state-led mass killing there.
The idea that Iraq could suffer a new wave of mass atrocities at the hands of state security forces or sectarian militias collaborating with them is not far fetched. According to statistical risk assessments produced for our atrocities early-warning project (here), Iraq is one of the 10 countries worldwide most susceptible to an onset of state-led mass killing, bracketed by places like Syria, Sudan, and the Central African Republic where large-scale atrocities and even genocide are already underway.
Of course, Iraq is already suffering mass atrocities of its own at the hands of insurgent groups who routinely kill large numbers of civilians in indiscriminate attacks, every one of which would stun American or European publics if it happened there. According to the widely respected Iraq Body Count project, the pace of civilian killings in Iraq accelerated sharply in July 2013 after a several-year lull of sorts in which “only” a few hundred civilians were dying from violence each month. Since the middle of last year, the civilian toll has averaged more than 1,000 fatalities per month. That’s well off the pace of 2006-2007, the peak period of civilian casualties under Coalition occupation, but it’s still an astonishing level of violence.
Monthly Counts of Civilian Deaths from Violence in Iraq (Source: Iraq Body Count)
What seems to be increasing now is the risk of additional atrocities perpetrated by the very government that is supposed to be securing civilians against those kinds of attacks. A Sunni insurgency is gaining steam, and the government, in turn, is ratcheting up its efforts to quash the growing threat to its power in worrisome ways. A recent Reuters story summarized the current situation:
In Buhriz and other villages and towns encircling the capital, a pitched battle is underway between the emboldened Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the extremist Sunni group that has led a brutal insurgency around Baghdad for more than a year, and Iraqi security forces, who in recent months have employed Shi’ite militias as shock troops.
And this anecdote from the same Reuters story shows how that battle is sometimes playing out:
The Sunni militants who seized the riverside town of Buhriz late last month stayed for several hours. The next morning, after the Sunnis had left, Iraqi security forces and dozens of Shi’ite militia fighters arrived and marched from home to home in search of insurgents and sympathizers in this rural community, dotted by date palms and orange groves.
According to accounts by Shi’ite tribal leaders, two eyewitnesses and politicians, what happened next was brutal.
“There were men in civilian clothes on motorcycles shouting ‘Ali is on your side’,” one man said, referring to a key figure in Shi’ite tradition. “People started fleeing their homes, leaving behind the elders and young men and those who refused to leave. The militias then stormed the houses. They pulled out the young men and summarily executed them.”
Sadly, this escalatory spiral of indiscriminate violence is not uncommon in civil wars. Ben Valentino, a collaborator of mine in the development of this atrocities early-warning project, has written extensively on this topic (see especially here , here, and here). As Ben explained to me via email,
The relationship between counter-insurgency and mass violence against civilians is one of the most well-established findings in the social science literature on political violence. Not all counter-insurgency campaigns lead to mass killing, but when insurgent groups become large and effective enough to seriously threaten the government’s hold on power and when the rebels draw predominantly on local civilians for support, the risks of mass killing are very high. Usually, large-scale violence against civilians is neither the first nor the only tactic that governments use to defeat insurgencies. They may try to focus operations primarily against armed insurgents, or even offer positive incentives to civilians who collaborate with the government. But when less violent methods fail, the temptation to target civilians in the effort to defeat the rebels increases.
Right now, it’s hard to see what’s going to halt or reverse this trend in Iraq. “Things can get much worse from where we are, and more than likely they will,” Daniel Serwer told IRIN News for a story on Iraq’s escalating conflict (here). Other observers quoted in the same story seemed to think that conflict fatigue would keep the conflict from ballooning further, but that hope is hard to square with the escalation of violence that has already occurred over the past year and the fact that Iraq’s civil war never really ended.
In theory, elections are supposed to be a brake on this process, giving rival factions opportunities to compete for power and influence state policy in nonviolent ways. In practice, this often isn’t the case. Instead, Iraq appears to be following the more conventional path in which election winners focus on consolidating their own power instead of governing well, and excluded factions seek other means to advance their interests. Here’s part of how the New York Times set the scene for this week’s elections, which incumbent prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition is apparently struggling to win:
American intelligence assessments have found that Mr. Maliki’s re-election could increase sectarian tensions and even raise the odds of a civil war, citing his accumulation of power, his failure to compromise with other Iraqi factions—Sunni or Kurd—and his military failures against Islamic extremists. On his watch, Iraq’s American-trained military has been accused by rights groups of serious abuses as it cracks down on militants and opponents of Mr. Maliki’s government, including torture, indiscriminate roundups of Sunnis and demands of bribes to release detainees.
Because Iraq ranked so high in our last statistical risk assessments, we posted a question about it a few months ago on our “wisdom of (expert) crowds” forecasting system. Our pool of forecasters is still relatively small—89 as I write this—but the ones who have weighed in on this topic so far have put it in what I see as a middle tier of concern, where the risk is seen as substantial but not imminent or inevitable. Since January, the pool’s estimated probability of an onset of state-led mass killing in Iraq in 2014 has hovered around 20 percent, alongside countries like Pakistan (23 percent), Bangladesh (20 percent), and Burundi (19 percent) but well behind South Sudan (above 80 percent since December) and Myanmar (43 percent for the risk of a mass killing targeting the Rohingya in particular).
Notably, though, the estimate for Iraq has ticked up a few notches in the past few days to 27 percent as forecasters (including me) have read and discussed some of the pre-election reports mentioned here. I think we are on to something that deserves more scrutiny than it appears to be getting.