As the Costs of War project has documented, the US invasion of Iraq and its aftermath (including interventions, the rise of militant groups and terror attacks) resulted in more than three hundred thousand deaths due to direct violence.
Twenty years later, the knock-on effects of war on Iraq’s environmental and public health, not to mention national and regional stability, are still mounting. The 20-year anniversary of the US invasion also provides an occasion to reflect on the fate of Iraq’s minority populations, particularly over the last decade, and the culpability of international actors in the processes of ethnic cleansing and minority flight.
While Assyrians, Yezidis and Shabaks were spared the worst of the aerial bombardments in 2003 and later from 2014–2019, these communities endured other forms of devastation that led to the disproportionate displacement and emigration of, especially, Iraq’s Christian populations. Nearly three-quarters of Christians (including Chaldean Christians, Syrian Orthodox Christians, Armenian Catholic and Apostolic Christians and Greek Orthodox Christians, as well as Assyrian Church of the East Christians and Assyrian/Syrian Catholics) fled the country in two separate waves, first in 2003–2010 and then in 2014–2019.
The political balance created under the US-led occupation of Iraq often worked against the interests of Iraq’s smallest minorities, such as the Assyrians, Mandaeans, Shabaks, Turkmen and Yezidis. State institutions in Iraq proper and its Kurdistan region were corrupted from their proclaimed functions and were used to bolster support for majority parties. In 2005, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released a report on Iraq’s non-Muslim religious minorities, detailing the discrimination against Iraq’s Christian populations–particularly in central and southern Iraq–as well as targeted persecution against Iraq’s Christian, Mandean and Yezidi communities, as early as 2004.
The targeted killings of Iraq’s non-Muslim minorities following the rise of ISIS has garnered more sustained attention, but persecution occurred in waves, intensifying during the height of the occupation and insurgency. Some of these targeted attacks on minority communities amounted to ethnic cleansing in their scale of devastation. In 2007, for example, the bombing of two Yezidi villages left almost 800 people dead and thousands injured. During this period, the governorate of Nineveh was heavily affected by internal displacement. In 2006–2008, thousands of Assyrians and Chaldeans, seeking refuge from a wave of death threats, killings and attacks on churches left Mosul–the capital of Nineveh–for surrounding towns and villages, from which many of them would be displaced again by ISIS. According to a report published in 2008 by the International Organization for Migration, 40 percent of displaced persons in Nineveh were Christian Assyrians, 12 percent were Christian Chaldeans and another 12 percent were Sunni Turkmen. The latter, according to the report, found themselves “caught between two unwelcoming environments,” as local authorities in Mosul tried to force their return to Telefar. The same report estimated that nine in ten displaced persons reported being targeted for their religion or sect.
The summer of 2014– only a few years after both regional and global powers had intervened in the Syrian civil war–witnessed the rapid expansion of ISIS into northern Iraq. Armed with US-made tanks from Mosul and advanced weaponry looted from government bases in Syria or imported from Turkey and the Gulf states, ISIS swept through Fallujah, Mosul, the Sinjar and Nineveh Plains regions and parts of the Baghdad and Erbil governorates. The Yezidis suffered several large massacres, especially at Kocho. About 300,000 Yezidis, 200,000 Christians and hundreds of thousands of other persons took refuge in displaced person camps, acquaintances’ homes or unfinished buildings or fled abroad seeking asylum or visas. Some cities and towns, such as those in the Nineveh Plains, were reduced to ruins in ISIS-led plunder and cultural destruction operations or, as with parts of Mosul, in NATO-backed coalition strikes against people living in areas where ISIS had bases. Several years later, Sinjar town and some surrounding areas, as well as parts of the Nineveh Plains and parts of the city of Mosul, still lacked clean water, reliable electricity, functioning hospitals and schools and other services.
In 2021, the Iraq parliament passed the “Yezidi Survivor’s Law,” which drew on a reparations framework, earmarking funds from its Emergency Food Security and Development law for Yezidis and other minorities who file criminal complaints and provide documentation of ISIS destruction. But two years on, the scheme has benefited a tiny fraction of victims. Moreover, due to economic sanctions in place against Syria and Turkey’s ongoing military operations in Kurdistan and in northern Iraq and Syria more broadly, the prospect of reconstruction in the northern governorates seems remote without major international funding. The scope of the need is vast: Not only do villages and neighborhoods need to be restored but so do public goods such as trust, a feeling of security, thriving trade along transnational roads and rivers, a robust educational system, access to sacred sites and hope for the future. A US effort to devote $380 million to these needs has proceeded slowly amid continuing insecurity and militia activity and possibly also corruption, political infighting and the Covid-19 pandemic’s impacts.
More needs to be done. The International Criminal Court (ICC) exists, on paper, to promote human security by criminally prosecuting the persons most responsible for the worst international crimes. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is an arm of the United Nations that oversees compliance with international treaties and legal principles in both state-to-state (contentious) and advisory cases. When it comes to Iraq, however, both the ICC and ICJ have failed to offer meaningful justice. The United States has rejected the jurisdiction of the ICJ in unlawful use of force cases, and the ICC initially found that not enough willful killings could be blamed on Britain to examine Iraq’s case (the United States not having submitted to the ICC).
While there could be a specific legal case to make around the complicity of foreign states in the targeting of Iraq’s minority communities, one has failed to materialize. The ICJ could provide a forum for Iraq to seek reparations for damage caused by other states’ failures to stop their citizens’ support for al-Qaeda and ISIS. Iraq has not pursued this route, perhaps disheartened by difficulties encountered by Nicaragua in its proceedings against the United States, by the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in its proceedings against Serbia and Montenegro and by the Democratic Republic of the Congo in its proceedings against Uganda. Meanwhile, the ICC has a Trust Fund for Victims that could support medical and psychological care for atrocity victims, but the ICC has declined to prosecute those persons (nationals of countries ratifying the court’s statute) who joined terrorist organizations in Iraq, Libya, Syria or Yemen and then targeted local people. In 2015, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor announced that while several thousand “foreign fighters” had joined ISIS from member states of the ICC, the court had no practical ability to prosecute them.
In February of 2022, Iraq paid the last of the reparations it owed for the first Gulf War. The payment of $52.4 billion was brokered through the United Nations Compensation Commission to individuals, corporations and governments that could prove damages due to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. In the decades following the US invasion, no entity has been held sufficiently accountable for the harm caused to Iraqis or to Iraq’s minorities. At the very least, there should be a “preliminary examination” of the international wrong upon their people and lands facilitated by foreign states, including member states of the ICC from which ISIS members emerged.
By Hannibal Travis