Since the start of Ramadan on June 17th, the Iraqi government has increased its airstrikes on the city of Fallujah in anticipation of a much prophesized assault to recapture the city. The Iraqi government has been indiscriminately bombing residential neighborhoods in its Sunni provinces almost daily since the start of this conflict over a year and a half ago, killing and wounding thousands of civilians. The recent increase in airstrikes on Fallujah has caused an alarming spike in civilian casualties. But what’s more concerning is lack of outrage from the international community.
Dr. Ahmed Shami Jasim, Chief Resident at the Fallujah Teaching Hospital, told me in a personal correspondence that 194 civilians had been killed as of July 9th, including 38 women and 49 children. But by the time of this writing on July 14th, the death count has risen to 218. And since the start of the conflict in January 2014, 5128 civilians have been wounded and 3139 have been killed in Fallujah alone.
Fallujah is seen by the Iraqi government and its allied Shiite militias as the Islamic State’s most important stronghold in Iraq. And many American commentators confer that an assault to retake Fallujah is necessary. All of this echoes the rationale for the brutal, US-led 2nd Siege of Fallujah in 2004 in ways that should not be ignored.
The airstrikes by the American and Iraqi governments are presumed in our national debate to be a good thing on the belief that the strikes only kill Islamic State fighters and that the sole source of instability in Iraq is the Islamic State. The logic follows that if we could simply kill every last member of the Islamic State, peace and security would ensue in Iraq.
These assumptions are not only factually inaccurate, they obscure a number of ethical questions that have not been asked about this mini-war against the Islamic State. The conflict has been described by pundits and politicians as a morally unequivocal fight between good guys (the US and the Iraqi government) and bad guys (the Islamic State).
However, the situation on the ground is far more complicated. The Iraqi government and its allied Shiite militias have committed crimes equally heinous as those committed by the Islamic State. And few analysts or observers have considered what a victory would look like that defeated the Islamic State and left the Iraqi government in place.
The new Iraqi government was a sectarian institution from its inception—it was dominated by the sectarian Dawa and SCIRI parties from day one. But it was when SCIRI’s armed wing, the Badr Brigade, was brought under the command of the Ministry of Interior that sectarianism in Iraq became institutionalized. This was the beginning of the dirty war tactics—the use of sectarian, paramilitary assassination units to terrorize the Sunni community—that came to define the US-led occupation and the new Iraqi government.
As brutal and oppressive as the Islamic State may be, they are the lesser of two evils for Sunni Iraqis. The US’s mission in Iraq, for them, is in defense of a sectarian government that has tortured and terrorized them for the better part of the last decade. The reality of the American mission in Iraq is that the US has chosen sides in a sectarian war. And if the US were to succeed in its mission, the result would be the permanent subjugation of Sunnis in Iraq.
During the occupation, it became a regular occurrence for the bodies of Sunni men to be returned to their neighborhoods with their internal organs removed and their torsos sewn back up with zip ties. These were the sort of crimes that motivated the Iraqi Spring, the year long, nonviolent protest movement that lasted most of 2013. Cities throughout Iraq held weekly Occupy Wall Street style demonstrations demanding an end to sectarianism, but specifically an end to discrimination against Sunnis.
While the protests were concentrated mostly in the Sunni provinces, and particularly in Fallujah and Ramadi; there were strong sentiments of nationalism throughout the movement, and the protests received considerable support from the Shia community as well. Even Muqtada Al Sadr, a populist religious leader in the Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad, voiced his support for the protests.
But rather than addressing the concerns of the Sunni community, the Iraqi government attacked the protestors repeatedly, most notably in Hawija where they killed at least 50 civilians. The Iraqi Spring finally fell apart on December 28th, 2013, when the government attacked the protest camps in Fallujah and Ramadi and transformed a nonviolent movement into an armed rebellion.
By New Years Day 2014, many tribes in Anbar providence, notably the tribes in and around Fallujah, were in full scale revolt against the Iraqi government. This explosion of violence gave ISIS an opportunity to come back into Iraq and find support (where previously they had very little) by helping the tribal militias fight against the government forces. ISIS seized this opportunity and quickly grew from being an auxiliary force fighting under the command of the General Military Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries to an independent force that took orders from no one.
These complexities were glossed over by the American media and politicians. The standard analysis was that Fallujah had “fallen” to ISIS in January 2014 and that all attacks against government forces were nothing more than the fanaticism of jihadist extremists bent on making their religious goals a reality by force.
However, there remains to this day two separate movements fighting agains the Iraqi government with very different goals and of very different moral characters. Even as the growth of the Islamic State has eclipsed the Sunni uprising, these movements are still, at times, cooperative—like when they jointly captured Mosul—and, at times, antagonistic towards one another, with attitudes and allegiances differing from militia to militia and even from neighborhood to neighborhood.
More importantly, this overly simplistic binary of good guys versus bad guys was assumed in the Iraqi and American military responses to the rebellion. All rebels were treated uniformly, whether they were associated with groups calling for government reform and equality for Sunnis or whether they were associated with the Islamic State.
The US continued to supply the Iraqi government with weapons and intelligence as it bombed civilian neighborhoods in Fallujah, leading to hundreds of civilian deaths and a new wave of internally displaced people. When the US decided to increase its level of intervention in August by renewing airstrikes, Obama preserved the basic contours of the news media’s narrative of the conflict, which begins with the Islamic State’s aggression in Iraq, not American and Iranian support for the Iraqi government’s internal repression.
Even when Maliki was forced to step down (and cleverly shuffled to one of Iraq’s three Vice President positions) the bombing of residential neighborhoods continued unabated. The new Prime Minister, Haider al Abadi, called for a cease to all airstrikes on residential neighborhoods on September 13, but then proceeded, the very next day, to bomb and shell Fallujah, killing six civilians and wounding twenty-two. Again on September 15th, two civilians were killed and fourteen were injured. And again on September 16th, three civilians were killed and nineteen wounded. And so on, and so on, with near daily regularity.
Barrel bombs, like those used by Bashar al Assad against his own people in Syria, have been a preferred weapon of the Iraqi government. But the use of this illegal weapon has received far less attention in Iraq. And civilian deaths, other than those killed by the Islamic State, have gotten minimal media coverage in general.
Our mini-war against the Islamic State has done little more than facilitate the Iraqi government’s internal repression of its Sunni population. Everything about the Iraqi government’s past conduct in Fallujah suggests that the planned assault on Fallujah will be conducted in a brutal and indiscriminate manner. However, even if the Iraqi Army and its allied militias were to abide by the international norms or armed conflict, there is no just outcome to this operation. A victory against the Islamic State would not solve the problems that the Sunni community is facing in Iraq.