Alarmed By Iraq

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)

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.

Watch Experts’ Beliefs Evolve Over Time

On 15 December 2013, “something” happened in South Sudan that quickly began to spiral into a wider conflict. Prior research tells us that mass killings often occur on the heels of coup attempts and during civil wars, and at the time South Sudan ranked among the world’s countries at greatest risk of state-led mass killing.

Motivated by these two facts, I promptly added a question about South Sudan to the opinion pool we’re running as part of a new atrocities early-warning system for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide (see this recent post for more on that). As it happened, we already had one question running about the possibility of a state-led mass killing in South Sudan targeting the Murle, but the spiraling conflict clearly implied a host of other risks. Posted on 18 December 2013, the new question asked, “Before 1 January 2015, will an episode of mass killing occur in South Sudan?”

The criteria we gave our forecasters to understand what we mean by “mass killing” and how we would decide if one has happened appear under the Background Information header at the bottom of this post. Now, shown below is an animated sequence of kernel density plots of each day’s forecasts from all participants who’d chosen to answer this question. A kernel density plot is like a histogram, but with some nonparametric estimation thrown in to try to get at the distribution of a variable’s “true” values from the sample of observations we’ve got. If that sound like gibberish to you, just think of the peaks in the plots as clumps of experts who share similar beliefs about the likelihood of mass killing in South Sudan. The taller the peak, the bigger the clump. The farther right the peak, the more likely that clump thinks a mass killing is.

kplot.ssd.20140205

I see a couple of interesting patterns in those plots. The first is the rapid rightward shift in the distribution’s center of gravity. As the fighting escalated and reports of atrocities began to trickle in (see here for one much-discussed article from the time), many of our forecasters quickly became convinced that a mass killing would occur in South Sudan in the coming year, if one wasn’t occurring already. On 23 December—the date that aforementioned article appeared—the average forecast jumped to approximately 80 percent, and it hasn’t fallen below that level since.

The second pattern that catches my eye is the appearance in January of a long, thin tail in the distribution that reaches into the lower ranges. That shift in the shape of the distribution coincides with stepped-up efforts by U.N. peacekeepers to stem the fighting and the start of direct talks between the warring parties. I can’t say for sure what motivated that shift, but it looks like our forecasters split in their response to those developments. While most remained convinced that a mass killing would occur or had already, a few forecasters were apparently more optimistic about the ability of those peacekeepers or talks or both to avert a full-blown mass killing. A few weeks later, it’s still not clear which view is correct, although a forthcoming report from the U.N. Mission in South Sudan may soon shed more light on this question.

I think this set of plots is interesting on its face for what it tells us about the urgent risk of mass atrocities in South Sudan. At the same time, I also hope this exercise demonstrates the potential to extract useful information from an opinion pool beyond a point-estimate forecast. We know from prior and ongoing research that those point estimates can be quite informative in their own right. Still, by looking at the distribution of participant’s forecasts on a particular question, we can glean something about the degree of uncertainty around an event of interest or concern. By looking for changes in that distribution over time, we can also get a more complete picture of how the group’s beliefs evolve in response to new information than a simple line plot of the average forecast could ever tell us. Look for more of this work as our early-warning system comes online, hopefully in the next few months.

UPDATE (7 Feb): At the urging of Trey Causey, I tried making another version of this animation in which the area under the density plot is filled in. I also decided to add a vertical line to show each day’s average forecast, which is what we currently report as the single-best forecast at any given time. Here’s what that looks like, using data from a question on the risk of a mass killing occurring in the Central African Republic before 2015. We closed this question on 19 December 2013, when it became clear through reporting by Human Rights Watch and others that an episode of mass killing has occurred.

kplot2.car.20140207

Background Information

We will consider a mass killing to have occurred when the deliberate actions of state security forces or other armed groups result in the deaths of at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians over a period of one year or less.

  • A noncombatant civilian is any person who is not a current member of a formal or irregular military organization and who does not apparently pose an immediate threat to the life, physical safety, or property of other people.
  • The reference to deliberate actions distinguishes mass killing from deaths caused by natural disasters, infectious diseases, the accidental killing of civilians during war, or the unanticipated consequences of other government policies. Fatalities should be considered intentional if they result from actions designed to compel or coerce civilian populations to change their behavior against their will, as long as the perpetrators could have reasonably expected that these actions would result in widespread death among the affected populations. Note that this definition also covers deaths caused by other state actions, if, in our judgment, perpetrators enacted policies/actions designed to coerce civilian population and could have expected that these policies/actions would lead to large numbers of civilian fatalities. Examples of such actions include, but are not limited to: mass starvation or disease-related deaths resulting from the intentional confiscation, destruction, or medicines or other healthcare supplies; and deaths occurring during forced relocation or forced labor.
  • To distinguish mass killing from large numbers of unrelated civilian fatalities, the victims of mass killing must appear to be perceived by the perpetrators as belonging to a discrete group. That group may be defined communally (e.g., ethnic or religious), politically (e.g., partisan or ideological), socio-economically (e.g., class or professional), or geographically (e.g., residents of specific villages or regions). In this way, apparently unrelated executions by police or other state agents would not qualify as mass killing, but capital punishment directed against members of a specific political or communal group would.

The determination of whether or not a mass killing has occurred will be made by the administrators of this system using publicly available secondary sources and in consultation with subject-matter experts. Relevant evidence will be summarized in a blog post published when the determination is announced, and any dissenting views will be discussed as well.

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