As Iraqi forces are confidently advancing through Islamic State-held territories in the country, the future of post-ISIS Iraq is slowly unraveling, and although some details might now be clearer, there is a lot of uncertainty looming over the fate of the country where more than half of the population has lived their lives knowing nothing but war, chaos and destruction. In Iraq, the future is deeply intertwined with the past — are Iraqis able to learn from it, or is the specific fabric of their society knitted long ago in the Saddam Hussein era going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Spot the ISIS Fighter
Three years ago, Islamic State militants took over large swaths of war-torn, exhausted and disenfranchised Iraq with relative ease, and news of their atrocities started reaching the world. It seemed that Iraq, as a state, became a part of history.
Yet in September 2017, Baghdad announced that over 2.1 million people, out of a total of 4 million who were internally displaced, have returned to their homes in liberated regions in order to rebuild their lives — and Iraq. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said his government drafted a program to repatriate the displaced people to the city of Mosul, which was declared free of ISIS on July 10. However, rebuilding peace and trust might prove to be more difficult than expected, and ultimately, some people will remain refugees indefinitely.
As some are trying to go back to their lives, some are heading to the scaffold — to die for the crimes they committed. At the moment, around 3,000 suspected ISIS members or collaborators are waiting to be prosecuted in Iraqi courts, with at least 50 hearings a day. For the most part, in Iraq, it is not too difficult to figure out who was an ISIS member or collaborator. In small villages and towns, where social and family connections run deep and people know each other well, witnesses and testimony are easy to come by.
In other cases, Islamic State itself helped by functioning as a real state with detailed records of its citizens — identifying them by full name, address, job and photographs. One thing that is keeping at least the most rampant vengeful violence at bay is camps for displaced ISIS members, collaborators or their families — who are now being ostracized by the local community.
“The idea of boycotting them is a relatively good and peaceful idea preventing further bloodshed. If these people do come back, their neighbors will name them and shame them, in the best-case scenario, but there is also a danger of vengeance,” says Dr. Ronen Zeidel from Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa. “So for the time being, it is better if these people are separated. They need to let some time pass, maybe let the blood money be paid. Only a small part of the population in Iraq was affiliated with ISIS, so, in a way, this is a very marginal problem.”
Yet despite organized attempts to separate grieving victims from crime perpetrators or people who were caught on the sidelines of those crimes, a certain level of violence has been steadily emerging. While some human rights groups are not fond of Iraq’s swift and strict hand of justice, it remains an open question how many people were denied it. Some soldiers reportedly decided to skip such formalities, taking judiciary authority into their own swifter and stricter hands. This naturally happened in Mosul, where some fighters lost their patience and humanity after nine grueling months of battle and confusion and many years of wars and insurgencies.