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A boy with a hunting rifle runs through the British Cemetery in central Baghdad during a sandstorm, March 2003. MAGNUM/Moises Saman

Fight or Flight: The Desperate Plight of Iraq’s “Generation 2000”

Iraqi youth who came of age during the post-2003 turmoil share a sense of hopelessness and disempowerment. Across the political spectrum, they feel trapped: join a protest movement or militia, or emigrate. Even amid the severe challenges the government and its partners face, this generation must be prioritised, lest Iraq’s most important resource become a major security threat.

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Executive Summary

Beset by political dysfunction, endemic corruption and a jihadist threat, Iraq is squandering its greatest asset: its youth. By failing to provide a vision and concrete prospects for the future, it is pressing young men into the straitjacket of jobs-through-patronage, pushing them into combat with either the Islamic State (IS) or Shiite militias or inducing them to emigrate. Arguably, the government faces more pressing challenges: pushing IS out, ensuring that subsequent governance does not further alienate the local population, instituting overdue reforms and tackling corruption. Yet, it will not succeed if it does not at the same time develop a strategy for creating a meaningful place in politics and society for the young. They are the country’s most important resource; abandoning them could turn them into the most important threat to national and regional security.

The leadership’s inability to forge a future for “Generation 2000”, which grew up after Saddam Hussein’s fall, has turned it into easy quarry for predators, be they IS, Shiite militias or populists preaching Iraqi nationalism. The potential for mobilising large numbers of young men at loose ends as pawns in violent conflicts has enabled both IS and Shiite militias to gain recruits. In the process, it has compounded sectarian polarisation and widened the divide between street and elites. Fed by fresh pools of fighting-age men, local tensions and conflicts proliferate and escalate, destabilising the country and the surrounding region. The most powerful Shiite militias receive training and advice from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, have an ideological orientation consistent with Tehran’s and can be deployed as proxies outside Iraq as well.

The familiar expression “youth radicalisation” distorts the reality that an entire generation is adrift, in need of a dramatically new state-led approach. Young Iraqis whose formative years were in the post-2003 turmoil have much more in common than they suspect, whatever side of local conflicts they are on, but they have been increasingly socialised within communal confines and left to the mercy of radical groups that promote dehumanised, even demonised perceptions of one another.

Before violence engulfed Iraq again, with the rise of IS, youth had attempted to peacefully hold the political class accountable for years of dismal governance. Sunni Arabs staged sit-ins in several towns in 2013, questioning national leaders, including senior Sunnis. They met with repression, leaving scores dead, many more in prison. These events paved the way for IS, which seized Falluja, the Sunni town nearest Baghdad, Mosul and other majority-Sunni towns in June 2014.

The collapse of the Iraqi army triggered a Shiite call to arms. Militia commanders quickly tapped into youthful disappointment with the Shiite political establishment, turning it into sectarian mobilisation against IS. By summer 2015, IS’s battlefield fortunes had turned, even as it continued to control territory and population. The absence of services, especially electricity shortages in the searing summer, stimulated a popular movement in Baghdad and other majority-Shiite areas reflecting a general sense of frustration with the political establishment.

Youths flocking to either side of the sectarian divide faulted ruling elites on the same grounds but ended up fighting each other. The political class’ response has been to protect its interests by divide and rule, redirecting anger into fratricidal tensions. Iraq’s external supporters compound the problem by boxing a rudderless generation into distinct categories – fighters, protesters or emigrants – and taking a different approach with each: a military campaign to defeat IS, pressure on the government to institute reforms to undercut demands and an effort to strengthen border controls to keep out migrants. Putting the emphasis on fighting IS, in particular, translates into tolerance of the Shiite militias, whose rise has contributed to sectarian polarisation and empowered a militia culture that compels young professionals to emigrate while boosting commanders’ political ambitions.

The government’s reform capacity may be limited, yet it must address its youth crisis as its top priority if it is to hold Iraq together. It will need the help of its sponsors, Iran included, which appear more concerned with the fight against IS. It should start by devising a youth policy, presented as a multiyear plan premised on the notion that young people need avenues for participation and advancement outside the political parties’ discredited co-option via patronage.

A first step would be to acknowledge that, isolated within the Green Zone, it has limited tools to harness youths’ energies, but also to recognise that it has advantages over non-state actors, including ability to legislate. Rather than create new structures and methods, it should embrace those used by the militias and IS and absorb youths into the state’s legal framework, security forces or civilian agencies, including as volunteers in public works. It should convert the volunteer combat groups set up in 2014 (hashd al-shaabi) into a civilian mobilisation directed to rebuilding communities within the framework of local administrations. It should likewise recruit Sunni youths in areas IS vacates and engage them in local reconstruction projects. Paying a new cohort of state employees salaries and benefits is a challenge, when reduced oil income forces significant belt-tightening, but the government should build a fund for this purpose and at least give written guarantees of a steady income, a pension and other benefits. It should also organise any further military recruitment strictly under the army.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and UN agencies must ask if their policies actually help the government in such an approach. External aid that reaches youths solely through local intermediaries risks further isolating the government in the Green Zone and reinforcing young people’s isolation in their communities, while driving them toward more dependence on local patrons and militia commanders. Unless such support gives the government a central role, it will contribute to the state’s erosion and encourage local struggles over power and resources without an effective national arbiter. Just as a country’s progress can be measured by the extent to which it engages its youth, so its demise as a viable entity can be predicted by the absence of a forward-looking youth policy and the drift of a generation into self-destructive combat or desperate flight. Iraq’s youth and the country deserve better.

Introduction

Two years after the Islamic State (IS) captured major Sunni population centres, Iraqi government forces struggle to regain them in a multi-front war, supported by a U.S.-led coalition and Iranian military advice. As they make halting progress, a largely youth-led protest, which erupted in August 2015, forced Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to announce an ambitious reform program to replace his party-dominated government with a technocratic cabinet and tackle corruption.[fn]See, International Crisis Group, “Iraq: Conflict Alert”, 24 August 2015.Hide Footnote In February 2016, the protests surged again, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, an activist cleric able to claim distance from the establishment and with unique appeal to Baghdad’s Shiite slums. The crisis climaxed on 30 April. Sadr’s followers scaled the walls of the Green Zone, the Baghdad area where government institutions are located, and stormed parliament to press Abadi on his promises. Tensions abated only as Abadi announced an offensive in Falluja, under IS control since 2014. Young men recruited into Shiite militias fought an enemy there drawn from the same pool of Iraq’s young, but Sunni. Others fled domestic turmoil for Europe.

These seemingly separate events are different faces of the same phenomenon. A pervasive aimlessness and lack of prospects among youths has fuelled recruitment to IS and Shiite militias, brought protesters into the streets and convinced others to emigrate. Iraqis between fifteen and 24 are nearly 20 per cent of the population.[fn]See “Demographic Indicators”, Central Statistics Organisation. A 2014 Index Mundi database reports that the fifteen to 24 age group has been steadily increasing in the last 30 years and is now some 6.5 million out of 32 million.Hide Footnote They grew up in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion in a deeply dysfunctional state, dependent on local patrons or Baghdad politicians who offered access to jobs, resources and careers. Economically and communally diverse, what unites these youths is a profound sense of hopelessness, disempowerment and lack of direction. A local NGO leader in Baghdad stated bitterly:[fn]Crisis Group interview, director, Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), Baghdad, 23 July 2015.Hide Footnote

I call them the “wearied” generation (al-jil al-taabaan) or the generation of chaos (jil al-fawda). The state has unravelled, the family structure is crumbling, and these young people cannot find work. They have come into a world that offers them no points of reference.

This report, which is based on research, including extensive interviews, conducted in Baghdad and the provinces, retraces the phases of this young generation’s emergence over the past fifteen years (outside the Kurdish region, where different forms of these dynamics are at play). While it refers at times to the situation of women, its primary focus is on young men, who are the ones to join fighting groups and the first in their families to go abroad in search of better opportunities. Women are active in some street protests and join settled husbands abroad; while they do not become fighters, they may give important succour to their male relatives who do. It should be clear, however, that the same failing youth policies that have produced a lost generation of young men are also reducing opportunities for young women, whose potential for Iraq’s development – and their own – is thus tragically forfeited.

I. The Degeneration of Iraq’s Youth

A. Pre-2003

The millennial generation’s plight flows from the cumulative impact of decades of state decline and decay. Despite much political turmoil during the first two decades after the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, the military leaders enabled considerable social mobility via land reforms that broke up a semi-feudal system, prompting rapid demographic expansion and urbanisation. Oil money helped address a growing urban population’s needs, including by giving students scholarships, social benefits and prospects for public-sector careers.[fn]Between 1958 and 1977 state employees rose from 20,000 to nearly a million, including soldiers and pensioners. After 1991, nearly 40 per cent of households lived on government salaries. Isam al-Khafaji, “War as a Vehicle for the Rise and Demise of a State-Controlled Society: the Case of Ba’athist Iraq”, in Steven Heydemann (ed.), War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East (Berkeley, 2000). The regime benefited from the formula its predecessor negotiated with international oil companies in 1952, which gave it a 50-per-cent profit share of operations, and other agreements that yielded larger sales revenues. Abbas Alnasrawi, The Economy of Iraq: Oil, Wars, Destruction of Development and Prospects, 1950-2010 (London, 2010), pp. 2-3. On modernisation, Isam al-Khafaji, “The Myth of Iraqi Exceptionalism”, Middle East Policy (2000).Hide Footnote The Baath party regime that seized power in 1968 implemented socio-economic policies that aimed to enable careers to which youths could aspire. It also provided housing and access to consumer goods, essential ingredients for starting a family, while keeping prospects for social advancement and political association under tight control.[fn]In Saddam Hussein’s words, “if you catch the youth, you catch the future”. Quoted in Eric Davis, Memories of the State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (Berkeley, 2005), p. 1. During the 1970s, the youth ministry promoted youth associations and sports clubs. During the Iraq-Iran war, the Baath party launched a literary journal, al-Talia al-Adabia, (The Literary Vanguard), dedicated to young writers praising the war effort. See ibid.Hide Footnote

Since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, however, youths have had neither normalcy nor a sense of progress. That war compelled the regime to shift from redistributive policies to military mobilisation and massive arms expenditures. Iraq lost hundreds of thousands of its young men while being saddled with a large financial debt and the burdens of a million-strong army. Cutting benefits and services, the regime fell back on paternalistic measures favouring only loyalists.[fn]In an example of the economic breakdown the war precipitated, university libraries stopped buying new books in 1986, beginning a twenty-year hiatus in education. Meanwhile, soldiers who had killed more than twenty Iranian soldiers were rewarded with 5,000 Iraqi dinars (ID) (nearly $15,ooo) or more. See Zaid al-Zaidi, Al-Bina’a al-ma’nawi li al-quwwat al musallaha al ‘Iraqiyya (Beirut, 1995), pp. 324-325. (Before the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq in 1990, a dinar was worth about $3. After sanctions, the dinar plummeted and at times fluctuated significantly. Today, the U.S. dollar is worth about ID 1,200. Dinar-dollar equivalents cited in the report attempt to reflect the rate at the time of the event or period discussed.)Hide Footnote Within two years, it invaded Kuwait, an attempted takeover of a wartime creditor that ended in defeat and was followed by brutally suppressed uprisings.

In the next decade, as state institutions crumbled and living conditions deteriorated under UN sanctions, young people, regardless of education or qualifications, had to get by on meagre government salaries or devise other means to survive in a ruined country that offered few prospects of return to the prosperity of the 1970s. Saddam Hussein’s regime stayed afloat by naked repression and recruiting young men from destitute areas into its security apparatus, including new militias such as Saddam’s Fighters (Fedayeen Saddam), and giving them status, uniforms, guns and a basic salary in return for blind loyalty.[fn]See Pierre Darle, Saddam Hussein, maître des mots: du langage de la tyrannie à la tyrannie du langage (Paris, 2003). Created in 1994, Fedayeen Saddam was a militia that recruited uneducated men in their twenties. Paramilitary youth organisations subsequently expanded, drawing ever-younger recruits. Founded in 1998, Saddam’s Lion Cubs (Ashbal Saddam) prepared teenagers to become good Fedayeen. Saddam’s Jihaz al-Himaya al-Khaas security guard recruited youths in their mid-twenties from poor areas, most of whom had not finished studies, and trained them in techniques like assassination and recruiting informants. Isam al-Khafaji, “State Terror and the Degradation of Politics in Iraq”, Middle East Report, no. 176 (1994), p. 18.Hide Footnote By 2003, society had been degraded materially, psychologically and organisationally.

B. The U.S. Occupation

Post-invasion blunders, combined with the UN embargo’s devastating legacy, burdened the U.S. struggle to control, rule and rebuild. The invasion and subsequent attempt to remake Iraq reshuffled the ruling elite, empowering regime opponents back from exile with little connection to the population, governing skills or experience.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°52, The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict, 27 February 2006.Hide Footnote The cadres trained (typically on scholarships abroad) and empowered in the earlier state-building process had reached retirement age, creating a gap filled by the returnees and those who benefited from the massive U.S. cash influx and resulting social mobility that disrupted hierarchies.

The new leaders inherited an oil-dependent country whose largest employer remained the state. Rather than diversifying the economy, they sought to control ministries to appropriate resources and build a popular base by offering supporters jobs in return for loyalty. The political system the U.S. created with the elected 2005 Transitional Government encouraged political-party appropriation of state institutions. Ostensibly designed to ensure equitable representation of ethnic and religious communities (the muhasasa, “allotment” principle), it encouraged the spread of party-based patronage networks throughout the public sector. Majeeda al-Timimi, a parliamentary finance committee member, explained:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 July 2015. After 2005, applicants needed a recommendation letter (tazkiya) from a party to be hired, especially in the bureaucracy’s upper ranks – directors-general (mudir aam) and their deputies (naaib). Crisis Group Middle East Report N°55, Iraq’s Moqtada al-Sadr: Spoiler or Stabiliser?, 11 July 2006, p. 15.Hide Footnote

Before 2003, the planning ministry was tasked with posting vacancies for each ministry and following up recruitment. After 2005, in order to respect the principle of muhasasa, we decided that each minister should be in charge of employment in his ministry. But each minister represented a political party and would recruit only from within his party.

The public sector remained almost the sole source of jobs, but Iraqis could access and rise in it only through affiliation with the newly empowered parties. This increased the gulf between politicians, ensconced within the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone, and ordinary citizens. Unable or disinclined to play the party-patronage game, some joined either a budding insurgency organised by ex-regime elements and Islamist radicals – initially mixed but ultimately mostly Sunni – or the Mahdi army (Jaysh al-Mahdi), a militia led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who recruited youths from impoverished urban areas and turned them into vigilantes. Beyond the prospect of earning an income, what mobilised these youths was a sense of empowerment and ability to confront a foreign occupation.[fn]Ex-Fedayeen Saddam were the most effective fighters against the U.S. in Basra in 2003 and Najaf in 2004 but soon split up into the Mahdi army and various insurgent groups. Sadr, youngest son of a prominent Shiite cleric murdered by the regime, portrayed himself as personifying poor, jobless youths unable to find a place in the new system. Peter Harling, “Iraq’s Lost Generation”, Al-Quds al-Arabi, 11 December 2007.Hide Footnote

Over time, these movements grew larger, more sectarian and more violent, engaging young members in a contest over ownership of the capital in particular. The Mahdi army expanded its reach over Baghdad, evolving into a gang-style militia even Sadr could not control.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°72, Iraq’s Civil War: the Sadrists and the Surge, 7 February 2008, Section II.Hide Footnote Al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups proliferated and grew in Baghdad’s outskirts and neighbouring Anbar governorate, where they found a deep pool of young recruits. Those who faced off in the growing sectarian war were each other’s peers.

Starting in 2007, the U.S. “surge” pushed back these groups and suppressed their appeal, but by largely relying on patronage to co-opt their upper echelons, a resurgent government further strained links between the youths and their nominal leaders. The U.S. military gave large sums of money to Sunni tribal chiefs who organised their youths in tribally-based militias (Majalis al-Sahwa, Awakening Councils) to push al-Qaeda out of their areas. The government replicated this in the south with the Majalis al-Isnaad (Support Councils), heaping money on tribal leaders to undermine the Mahdi army’s appeal among Shiite youth.[fn]On the tribes’ counter-insurgency role, see Crisis Group Middle East Reports N°74, Iraq after the Surge I, The New Sunni Landscape, 30 April 2008; and Iraq’s Civil War, op. cit.Hide Footnote

This policy gave Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen salaries and prospects of jobs as police or soldiers, but it also funnelled enormous resources to tribal figures who often pocketed them. Access to public-sector jobs remained limited to those with connections to political party figures, thus keeping some militia commanders and ex-insurgents off the government payroll. It was a quick fix, perhaps needed at the time to roll back al-Qaeda, but one that reinforced patron-client relationships and failed to reintegrate fighters into civilian life.

C. The Maliki Years

From 2009, the steady growth of oil production (based on new contracts with companies such as BP and Shell) gave Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014) and his party sufficient money to buy social peace and project an illusion of stability.[fn]From 2009, oil exports rose to above two million barrels per day at a time when the barrel price exceeded $100. Some 90 per cent of Iraq’s budget derives from oil exports, a sector that, in 2014, employed less than 2 per cent of the population. After 2009, state revenues doubled. “Iraq Budget 2013”, Joint-Analysis Policy Unit, January 2014; and “Republic of Iraq, Public Expenditure Review”, World Bank, August 2014, Chapters I-II.Hide Footnote However, Maliki’s bold style concealed a fragile, dysfunctional state.

Maliki’s Islamic Daawa party, an elitist group of middle-class professionals formerly in exile or underground, cleverly managed Green Zone politics but did little more than dispense public-sector jobs and funds to its constituents. Oil-income redistribution was limited to the public sector, including substantial allocations for recruiting youths to the security forces.[fn]Since 2009, defence expenditures have steadily risen, reaching 20 per cent of the state budget in 2013. Joint-Analysis Policy Unit, op. cit. The interior and defence ministries had nearly 700,000 and 300,000 employees in 2012, respectively, matched only by the education ministry, with nearly 650,000. See “Republic of Iraq, Public Expenditure”, op. cit., p. 115.Hide Footnote Government youth initiatives merely perpet­uated party dominance over local and national institutions. In 2006, Jasem Moham­med Jaafar, youth and sports minister and a member of the Turkmen Islamic Union, a Shiite Islamist party with close Daawa ties, established and funded youth local committees (lijan shababiya) and a Youth Parliament (Barlaman al-Shababi). Both were dominated by members handpicked by Daawa and allied parties. Recruitment favoured persons who shared family ties or a social profile with party leaders. Funds were thus redistributed to committees that essentially were a junior adaptation of the country’s leadership.[fn]A former Youth Parliament member explained the selection process: “The [youth and sports] ministry selected local youth committee members through an online selection process based on applicants’ course work, educational degree and experience. A high-school diploma was a minimum requirement. In turn, youth committees elected representatives to the Youth Parliament from among their members. Political parties fully controlled the selection process. Most … candidates … had political parties supporting their application, while those competing for the parliament even had parties funding their campaigns”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 12 March 2016. Following the change in government in 2014, the youth ministry had a minister from the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI), who removed Youth Parliament funding. Separately, in 2013, the Sadr-controlled planning ministry signed a four-year National Development Plan in coordination with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which identified youth among its targets. The plan had achieved little when a year later, a new minister from the Mouttahidoun bloc changed priorities and redirected funds to reconstruction in areas recovered from IS. Read text of National Development Plan.Hide Footnote

The revenue bonanza accelerated trends that had surfaced during the sanctions decade. Party leaders were the tip of the patronage pyramid, redistributing resources across state institutions and so perpetuating and exacerbating the favouritism and corruption long rife in public administration.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°113, Failing Oversight: Iraq’s Unchecked Government, 26 September 2011. Politicians would sell managerial positions to the highest bidders among their supporters to extract kickbacks. A 30-year-old engineer said, “The position of engineering college dean is highly profitable. To get it, you need to pay some 150 million ID [nearly $135,000]. Any companies that need their projects approved by the dean before submitting them to the government would have to pay him at least 25 million ID [nearly $20,000] for each project; in this way you can earn back quite quickly what you spent for the position”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 29 July 2015. Also, Zaid al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy (Yale, 2014).Hide Footnote Parties’ grip on state institutions and administrative corruption were mutually reinforcing. Lower-ranking members gave bribes for senior appointments, enabling them to take kickbacks from subordinates or clients in turn. This disproportionately benefited senior managers with party connections at the expense of mid-rank civil servants, whose salaries stagnated as costs rose, directly affecting the quality of services. Through party connections teachers tried to obtain posts that would give them the chance to demand bribes from students; party-connected officers received senior appointments that allowed them to take a portion of their subordinates’ pay.[fn]A teacher explained: “The education ministry decides where to post high-school teachers: in Baghdad or the provinces. Political parties influence the … choice by appointing their supporters in the capital where students tend to be wealthier and can pay bribes to pass exams or see questions in advance. Parliament will never approve a law to regulate teachers’ postings, because parties would lose their power over the process”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote

Education exemplified the vicious circle that directly affected youths. Many teachers supplemented incomes by giving private instruction, thus assuming a workload that conflicted with their day jobs. Students whose families could not afford to pay for private instruction in some form were less equipped to pass exams required for the public-sector jobs they coveted.[fn]A sixteen-year-old girl from Baghdad’s Sadr City neighbourhood said, “I have continued attending public school, because my family cannot afford a private teacher, who charges 50,000 ID (nearly $45) per class. The boys in our family quit their studies after primary school in order to look for a job”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote A private-school director said:[fn][1] Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015. The public health system suffers from similar dysfunctions. Only freshly graduated, inexperienced doctors are in public hospitals, working more than ten hours a day, six days a week. Older, more experienced doctors only work for money they earn by establishing private clinics. Crisis Group observation, Baghdad, July 2015.Hide Footnote

Private-school students have a greater chance to do well in exams. Their teachers know which topics to prep …. If something goes wrong, their families come to me and say, “but we are paying you!”, expecting their children to pass …. So teachers sell exam questions to students to make sure they succeed.

As services deteriorated, many Iraqis felt entitled to loot the state.[fn]In one example, some hospitals are known to sell drugs to people with privileged access, who resell them at a personal profit. Crisis Group observations, Baghdad, July 2015.Hide Footnote Many also turned to state jobs, less from a public duty sense than to ensure a basic livelihood. The survival culture fashioned in the sanctions era became further entrenched, reaching the point of putting a price on inter-personal relationships, as tribal leaders who benefited from state patronage monetised ties with members, losing youths’ respect and loyalty in the process. A tribal leader in Kirkuk complained:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, 20 October 2015.Hide Footnote

After 2003, we had to connect with the stronger parties to get money and weapons to protect our land and satisfy our members. Then insurgent groups came and supplied our young with more money and more powerful weapons than we could. The [“surge”] temporarily resolved the problem, but as soon as it ended, I had nothing to offer my tribe. Before 2003, the tribal leader was the intermediary between tribe and state. If any problem arose, it was up to him to negotiate and settle it. He was a symbol (ramz). But today the young just want weapons and money. If they can’t get them from us, they get them elsewhere. This has broken the line of allegiance between a tribe’s leader and members.

Even the nuclear family was weakened, to the point that, in some extreme cases, relatives began to abuse each other. Some fathers encouraged or even forced their daughters to marry and divorce repeatedly to collect a bride’s price multiple times; in other cases, parents turned a blind eye to sexual abuse of under-age children to extract compensation from the abuser’s tribe.[fn]The OWFI reported a rise in divorces as a result of parents pressing daughters to marry young or girls’ and boys’ haste to marry to escape their household: “In 2015 [w]e have registered at least 4,150 divorces in Baghdad, a record number. A family sees a man with a new car who proposes to their daughter, and they agree to marriage without even checking how he was able to buy the car. Then they discover he is jobless, and problems begin”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015. Crisis Group spoke with a sixteen-year-old boy from Sadr City who said he had been a victim of sexual abuse. His father threw him out of the house while obtaining financial compensation from the culprits, which he pocketed. Other interviews suggested a wider trend.Hide Footnote

II. Generation 2000

The patronage system that ensured Maliki’s and the political establishment’s survival froze politics around a small network of persons, undermined possibilities for leadership renewal within parties, further eroded governance and, while appearing to have achieved social peace, laid the ground for new turmoil.

The millennial generation has grown up with vanishing reference points in both public and private spheres and few prospects. Each task is an encounter with a Green Zone-controlled patronage network whose tentacles spread throughout the corrupt bureaucracy, seeming to envelop the country’s life.[fn]What should be simple bureaucratic procedures become interminable processes as a way of generating income throughout the bureaucracy. A 26-year-old man recounted his experience renewing a driver’s licence: “I wanted to do it without bribing anyone. I first did an eye exam at a health ministry branch, which I took to the traffic police … in charge of renewing driver’s licenses, and the process became endless. They asked me for an official paper from my neighbourhood administrator proving my residence in Baghdad …. Then they asked me for the signatures of the head of the provincial council and the mayor …. the owner of a nearby barbershop told me the only way to speed things up would be to pay an extra 50,000 ID (nearly $45) to the directorate’s cashier”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 July 2015.Hide Footnote In destitute areas, young men needing to contribute to family income abandon studies before finishing primary (ibtidaaiya) or middle-school (mutawasita) to take precarious day-labourer (kasaba) jobs.[fn]Baghdad day labourers earn on average 35,000 ID (less than $30) per week. They tend to live in neighbourhoods where they pay 200,000 ID (nearly $180) per month for a two-room flat, possible only through the family’s collective income and living under one roof with other relatives. A Sadr City teenager was typical: “I was born here in 2000. We grew up with thirteen children in the same flat of 36 sq. metres. When I finished primary school, I began working in the central market for 5,000 ID [less than $5] per day”. Crisis Group observations, interview, July 2015.Hide Footnote Entering the job market young, men may rush to marry, but those able to earn enough to pay the bride’s price often lack funds to rent a small apartment. Contin­uing to live with family can create tensions between spouses and in-laws and other problems. A twenty-year-old woman recounted:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015. A sixteen-year-old girl in Sadr City explained that, to save money, four families lived in her house, and “sometimes married couples share a room, using a blanket suspended from the ceiling to separate themselves from the others before going to bed”. Ibid. See also Rania Abouzeid, “Out of Sight”, The New Yorker, 5 October 2015.Hide Footnote

My father was murdered in the 2007 sectarian war. Three years ago I agreed to marry a man I had met only twice. I moved in with him and his mother. My mother-in-law continually asked me for money, and when I did not comply, she incited my husband to beat me. When I gave birth to a boy, my husband divorced me, and I never saw the child again. My family refused to take me back, so I found myself in the street. I had no other choice but to work in a night club in Karrada [Baghdad central district], where I got pregnant again. The police raided the club, and I went to prison where I gave birth to my second child.

Lack of prospects also affects the educated middle class. Professionals are no longer at the top of the social pyramid, as salaries have not kept up with costs. New doctors and engineers can hardly afford to rent in their own neighbourhoods, so are reluctant to marry on starting income. A university degree, unlike party ties, no longer guarantees that graduates can practice their professions.[fn]A schoolteacher’s average monthly salary does not exceed $400; a doctor’s average start is $600/$650. Neither is enough to rent an apartment and live in a Baghdad middle-class area like Mansour, Harethiya or Karrada, with $500-$1,000 rents. Crisis Group observation, July 2015.Hide Footnote Regardless of sect or economic background, youths are confronted with a choice: complicity with the patronage system, find a way to circumvent it, join a military group or leave. Many fight with or against IS or try a dangerous journey to Europe because it offers better prospects than trying to navigate a suffocating reality.

A. Isolation, Ghettoisation and an Evolving Sectarianism

Generation 2000’s early experience was the 2005-2007 sectarian war, which drew invisible, insurmountable boundaries between cities and provinces and between communities that demarcated themselves by ethnic and confessional identities. The “surge” reinforced isolation of groups in Baghdad, separating them by concrete walls. After the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal, the Maliki government retained these and imposed restrictions on mobility, in some cases limiting neighbourhood entry to residents. With the heritage of sectarian divide, these steps further restricted young people’s social connections. For many, relationships were limited to their localities, which often overlapped with their ethnic or confessional group.[fn]See on the civil war, Crisis Group Report, The Next Iraqi War?, op. cit., on security measures under Maliki, Crisis Group Report, Iraq’s Sunnis, op. cit., and Amin Sade, “Obstructing Reforms”, Sada, 8 August 2013. The divide affects practices, habits and relations. A Baghdad twenty-year-old said, “if you want to go out, you feel you cannot. Even friendship is complicated; you never know who you can trust”. Crisis Group interview, 29 July 2015. Most southern youths have visited only Karbala and Najaf for pilgrimages, never a Sunni area or Baghdad. Those born in Ramadi, have rarely visited Baghdad, not 90 minutes away. Crisis Group observations, 2013-2015.Hide Footnote

Those now in their late twenties participated in or saw the street fighting known as al-ahdath al-taefiya (the sectarian events). Relatives or friends were killed or forced to leave neighbourhoods depending on their sect. The millennials experienced displacements as children; by teen years, the barriers had solidified.

While the former generation knew sectarian divisions and participated in the fighting, the present one has grown up with sectarianism as an a priori condition that constrains friendships, mobility, marriage choices and daily practices.[fn]An OWFI member said, “the practice of intra-family marriage is on the rise even among middleclass professionals. Parents prefer to marry their daughters to family members or people of the same neighbourhood”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote Elders with civil war memories avoid certain areas, but young Iraqis barely know such localities. A twenty-year-old born and raised in Mahmoudiya, a Shiite town south of Baghdad, said of a neighbouring Sunni town he has never seen, “in Latifiya, they have services because they are Sunnis. Here, because we are Shiite, we don’t have anything, except the marjaeeya. If Daesh [IS] enters Mahmoudiya, the Latifiya Sunnis will transfer allegiance and side with them”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 23 July 2015. A Shiite from Baghdad’s Karrada neighbourhood called Latifiya an “al-Qaeda cradle”. Crisis Group interview, July 2015. The marjaeeya is the source of emulation in Shiite religious tradition, in Iraq embodied by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In a near-mirror image, a 30-year-old Sunni from Baghdad’s Mansour neighbourhood, echoing perceptions rooted in the civil war, said he considered Mahmoudiya dangerous: “you can hardly drive [there] and expect to get out in one piece”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, July 2015.Hide Footnote

Geographical isolation has nurtured sectarianism by locking youths within the boundaries of their community.[fn]Isolation cemented local identities even within the same sect. Thus, the large majority of Mah­mou­diya youth have never visited Baghdad’s Sadr City (its largest Shiite neighbourhood) despite it also being Shiite-populated and a mere twenty kilometres away. A Mahmoudiya resident said he considered this “a dangerous trip”. Sadr City residents, in turn, would be surprised to hear of anyone having visited Mahmoudiya. Crisis Group observations, July-September 2015.Hide Footnote While Sunnis and Shiites confronted each other in the streets during the sectarian war, young people from different sects now have competing representations of reality that depend on the narratives to which they are exposed within their localities rather than direct experience. The gulf between those competing representations has become sharper since the rise of IS. A Shiite student from Baghdad comparing 2006 with today said, “there is no longer a difference between Shiites and Sunnis in Baghdad. No one will ask you what you are at a checkpoint”, but this contrasted with the view of a Sunni youth in Baghdad, who perceived sectarian discrimination on the rise: “Now they know immediately who is Sunni or Shiite without even checking your ID or your name as before. They look at the type of car you drive, the way you dress, the way you greet them”.

B. Growing Anti-establishment Sentiment

The degradation of state institutions nurtured feelings among youths of disdain toward political leaders. Asked for an opinion, the answer frequently is “bas yaboog”, a dialect expression meaning “they just steal”. Youths regularly accuse them of pocketing public resources and constraining individual aspirations. In the words of a young man who frequents the park on Mutanabbi Street (a rare Baghdad place where youths still gather Friday mornings):[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015.Hide Footnote

In Iraq, nowadays, all you need to be a successful politician are weapons and fighters. The only thing politicians know well is how to steal, steal, steal [bug, bug, bug]. They are anti-people: they invade and occupy each corner and aspect of our life. They are the main reason for this [IS] conflict. The state is a failure. When I see a soldier, I do not respect him .… The army is a cowardly bunch.

Though these feelings are widely shared across sectarian lines, young people are divided in expressing them. The sentiments have surfaced within civil society initiatives that sought to broaden their local dimension, but isolation within localities and sects has made youth mobilisation on a national scale difficult. The protests that began in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria in 2011 had a unique character in Iraq. Protesters expressed a common theme of fighting corruption and bad governance, but the movements that erupted against local politicians in Baghdad, Basra and even Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan remained largely disconnected.[fn]See Marina Ottaway and Daniel Kaysi, “Iraq: Protests, Democracy, Autocracy”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 28 March 2011. Civil society initiatives remain largely local. Ahmad Thamer Jihad, “Don’t leave Iraq to thieves and murderers”, Niqash, 5 November 2015.Hide Footnote Youths shared an emotive impulse against the status quo but seemed disinclined to establish a political movement against the country’s leadership.

The millennial generation has an amorphous identity: depending on the context and who seeks to mobilise them, ethnic, sectarian, tribal, locally geographic or other sub-national identity will emerge as the avenue through which members see and challenge the establishment. Iraqi youth were the most vulnerable to deepening sectarian polarisation after the Syrian uprising, and this pitted young against young along sectarian lines even as they all shared an anti-establishment animus.

III. Mobilisation for Combat

A. A Dying Insurgency’s Revival

In 2012, Syria’s uprising became a full-scale war involving neighbouring powers (Iran, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey) that polarised the region partly along sectarian lines. Iraq, the geographic epicentre, was quickly affected, prompting re-mobilisation of ex-insurgents and militia members. A protest movement allegedly funded by Gulf sources emerged in Sunni areas. Anti-establishment feelings boiled over in protests whose civil-society character mixed with symbols of a sect or geographic area. Clerics, tribal leaders and branches of the old Islamist and nationalist insurgency organised tent sit-ins and “protest squares” in the main majority-Sunni cities, Ramadi, Samarra, Hawija and Mosul. Twenty-year-old clerics and tribal leaders enlivened Friday prayers, and teenagers joined in, making the protest squares a social gathering as well as expression of political engagement.

Compounded by government failure to offer prospects to especially the masses of idle entrants into adult life, the protests acquired a stronger political overtone. In May 2013, special forces cracked down on a tent sit-in Hawija, killing at least 50 and rekindling revenge sentiments among those in their late twenties who retained vivid memory of the sectarian-driven repression they had experienced the previous decade and whose insurgency had failed to defeat the Shiite-dominated government.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°50, Falluja’s Faustian Bargain, 28 April 2014, p. 9.Hide Footnote While elders tried to contain the situation, young and ambitious clerics and tribal leaders incited Friday audiences.[fn]Two clerics in their twenties, Sheikh Saeed al-Lafi from Ramadi and Qusay al-Zein from Falluja, emerged as prominent Friday prayer protest leaders in the squares. For an overview of Sunni youth protests and government response, see Crisis Group Report, Iraq’s Sunnis, op. cit.Hide Footnote Their aggressive rhetoric caught on among teenagers who had hardly been outside their own cities and whose experience of the government and Shiites was often limited to unpleasant interactions with security forces.[fn]A former insurgency member taking part in a sit-in said, “we think that the armed opposition did not achieve its goals in Iraq and that America handed Iraq to Iran and the Shiites. Factions of the former resistance have been scattered across the country, but we are counting on the success of the Syrian revolution, which will provide us with a surplus of men and weapons. Maliki’s government fully realises this. We see in these protests a chance to liberate Iraq from Iran”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, 14 February 2013; Crisis Group Report, Iraq’s Sunnis, op. cit., p. 23.Hide Footnote An elder tribal leader participating in the protests worried: “We have a hard time controlling our young boys in the protest squares. We organise football matches to keep them busy, but tension is growing by the day. They ache to take on weapons”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sheikh Majeed, Ramadi, 9 March 2013.Hide Footnote

The government’s attempt to end the protests by co-opting Sunni tribal and political figures disrespected by young people consolidated a partnership between ex-insurgents in their late twenties and Sunni teenagers. The former viewed the jihadist cells scattered across the Iraq-Syria desert since the time of the U.S. occupation as a temporary ally. Both groups welcomed the jihadists’ arrival euphorically, if for different reasons. To ex-insurgents, jihadists were a strong military partner in their desire to revenge the lost battle against the government. Teenagers, with no memory of the jihadists’ al-Qaeda in Iraq incarnation, welcomed them as champions of a new order.[fn]In 2005, under Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi’s leadership, al-Qaeda in Iraq proclaimed an Islamic State. Its authoritarian practices challenged local and tribal values, unleashing an indigenous, U.S.-supported revolt that pushed it out of urban centres into the desert; in 2011, it took advantage of Syria’s chaos to move there and grow. Crisis Group, Iraq after the Surge I, op. cit.Hide Footnote A resident of al-Qaim, who witnessed the fall of his border city to IS militants in June 2014, recounted:[fn]Crisis Group email communication, al-Qaim resident living under IS, October 2014.Hide Footnote

Fifteen fighters entered the city. During Friday prayers they announced they had come to end government injustices and terminate the amnesty police and soldiers enjoyed in the city. Young boys took to the street cheering victory. The jihadists recruited a number of these who had no connection to the insurgency and no affiliation with political parties but were supporters of the protests. They tasked them with ensuring protection of public and private property, without asking them to swear allegiance. Only after weeks of testing their potential were the youths asked to pledge absolute allegiance to Daesh.

Jihadist fighters advanced in city after city, village after village, declaring creation of an Islamic State in June 2014.[fn]For background, see Crisis Group Alert, “Iraq after Hawija: Recovery or Relapse?”, 26 April 2013; Reports, Iraq’s Sunnis and the State, and Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain, both op. cit.; and Middle East Briefing N°38, Iraq’s Jihadi Jack-in-the-Box, 20 June 2014.Hide Footnote Key to their success was ability to direct youths’ anti-establishment sentiments against the entire political class and redefine a confrontation that began between Sunni street and Sunni elites as a sectarian one opposing Sunni provinces and the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government.

B. Militia Commanders Return

Something similar swept across the Shiite provinces. As security in Syria deteriorated, the threat against the Shiite sanctuary of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus revived memories of the traumatic 2006 bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, apparently by al-Qaeda. From late 2012, Iranian Revolutionary Guards began recruiting Iraqis who had been militia commanders during the U.S. occupation and failed to integrate into the political process afterward. These men reorganised militias or built new ones and sent fighters to Syria under the tolerant eye of the Maliki government and the main Shiite political forces.[fn]Already in mid-2013, nearly 50 fighters weekly were flying from Iraq to Syria to join splinter factions of former Iran-backed militias (the Mahdi army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the Badr Brigade and the Hizbollah Brigades) under command of ex-militia cadres who had not re-integrated in the political process. “Iraqi Shi’ites flock to Assad’s side as sectarian split widens”, Reuters, 19 June 2013.Hide Footnote Shiite clerics, often militia commanders’ peers who had climbed to authority in Shiite religious seminaries (hawza) and been confined to the shadows after the militia fight ended, also found an opportunity to regain popularity by supporting such recruitment.[fn]For instance, a man known as Abu Zeinab (nom de guerre), an ex-Mahdi army fighter, was reportedly in charge of organising recruitment, equipment, bookings and security permits for those flying to Syria. Among others with similar roles in Syria were Sheikh Auws al-Khafaji, another Mahdi army splinter figure, and Sheikh Abu Kamil al-Lami, a member of the Mahdi army offshoot, the League of the Righteous (Asaeb Ahl al-Haq). In February 2013, Wathiq al-Battat, ex-Hizbollah Brigades (Kataeb Hizbollah), founded a new corps, the Mukhtar Army, with the purpose of defending Shiites against attack and sending fighters to Syria. “Iraqi Shi’ites flock to Assad’s side as sectarian split widens”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The 10 June 2014 collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul exposed the dysfunction and corruption of the government and Shiite political leadership.[fn]The government tolerated the smuggling; fighters flew from Najaf, reportedly directed by a Daawa party member. Yet, before 2014 none of the main Shiite political forces sent fighters to Syria, neither the Badr Brigade, formerly the armed branch of the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI), an Iran-backed former opposition group fighting Saddam Hussein’s regime, nor the Mahdi army, the armed branch of the Sadr movement, which received some Iranian backing during the U.S. occupation. Crisis Group interview, Basra, September 2015.Hide Footnote Scenes of IS massacring Shiite army cadets at the Speicher military base went viral on social media, further demonstrating Baghdad’s impotence.[fn]See “Iraq: Islamic State Executions in Tikrit”, Human Rights Watch, 2 September 2014; and Tim Arango, “Escaping death in northern Iraq”, The New York Times, 3 September 2014.Hide Footnote A 26-year-old Hizbollah Brigade fighter said:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 April 2015.Hide Footnote

We can no longer count on the army to defend this country. They are not motivated to fight, while we are sleeping in the dust on the front lines, risking our lives every moment. Army officers are corrupt; they spend their time in luxurious hotels with women and leave the jihadists on the loose in return for money. This country is in ruins.

The fear that IS could advance to Samarra, Karbala and Najaf validated for Shiites, teenagers in particular, the argument of militia commanders and clerics that they should rally to defend their shrines, because Shiite politicians had failed to create a functioning army.[fn]A 24-year-old who fought in Syria said, “the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards are our brothers; we are part of the same axis, which rejects state borders. I consider [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad a criminal, but we fought for the protection of Sayyida Zeinab”. Crisis Group interview, 4 April 2015. Another, interviewed on his way to fight in Syria, said, “it is my duty to go there and fight to defend Sayyida Zeinab. Should we see Sayyida Zeinab, the Prophet Mohammed’s grand-daughter, captured again?” Reuters, 19 June 2013.Hide Footnote Clerics opened Shiite prayer houses (husseiniya) for recruitment, as tribal leaders did with their guesthouses (mudhif). Acknowledging the imperative of fighting IS but also seeing the dangers in attempting to resist a mass call-up of Iran-backed militia fighters, the Shiite political and religious establishment tried to ride the wave rather than stem the tide. Iraq’s highest religious Shiite authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a binding religious edict (fatwa) on 13 June, calling on youths to volunteer in defence of the country. The call to sign up spread by word of mouth across the south and resulted in a massive mobilisation of young volunteers (mutatawaeen) in what was later called “popular mobilisation” (al-hashd al-shaabi). A hashd officer in Karbala recounted:[fn]Crisis Group interview, officer of the hashd Liwa Ali al-Akbar, Karbala, 29 July 2015. Though there is no accurate count of hashd recruits, in early 2015 it was estimated to be between 90,000 and 120,000. See Mustafa Habib, “Are Shiite militias growing more powerful than the Iraqi army?”, Niqash, 29 January 2015.Hide Footnote

We were already active before Sistani’s fatwa. Now our militia members with previous military experience and [Shiite army] officers are organising recruitment and training. We have recruited more than 3,000 fighters from the tribes to defend the holy shrines in Samarra. Now we are focused on safeguarding the Imam Hussein shrine [in Karbala].

The Sistani fatwa was a deft but desperate attempt to save the legitimacy of the Shiite clerics and the political establishment by giving a nationalist sheen to anti-IS operations under the aegis of the Shiite world’s most respected religious leader.[fn]The son and representative of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Hakim in Najaf said, “the state failed to protect the people from Daesh and also could not accommodate the volunteers, and so [Grand Ayatollah] Sayed Sistani had little choice but to call for popular mobilisation”. Crisis Group interview, Izzeddine Mohammed al-Hakim, Najaf, 28 September 2015.Hide Footnote It succeeded to an extent but had the unintended result of giving the Shiite community a leadership role in defence of the country, with Shiite teenagers eagerly compensating for the political class’ failings by fighting IS in a war against their Sunni peers – in other words, precisely the sectarian conflict IS wanted.

C. Volunteering to Fight

Joining the hashd was the only way for many youths to earn a salary and benefits for their families if they died. Most who enrolled had been working as day labourers or in the lower public sector ranks, with no possibility of a decent living.[fn]The large majority of hashd volunteers have not finished primary or middle-school studies and worked in precarious conditions as day labourers, making a maximum of 25,000 ID per week (barely $20), too little to pay monthly rents in the area of some 200,000 ID (nearly $180). Hashd pay differs from group to group. A member in Baghdad said he received 750,000 ID (around $630) monthly, one in Karbala 875,000 ID (some $735): 500,000 ID as salary, 250,000 as danger indemnity and 125,000 for food. Crisis Group interviews, Baghdad, Karbala, July 2015.Hide Footnote Still, while income was an incentive, their motives cannot be reduced to material interest. The hashd attracted many destitute youths in part because recruitment targeted the most densely populated, poorest areas (like Sadr City in Baghdad, Basra, Diwaniya and Amara) or was done near the frontline (for example, Shula and Hurriya neighbourhoods in Baghdad and Karbala). Young men continued to volunteer even when the government or militia defaulted on pay. In 2015, volunteers joined training sessions for reservists that offered no remuneration.[fn]Crisis Group observations, Baghdad and the southern provinces, July 2015.Hide Footnote

It is likely that youths were driven by enthusiasm and the prospect of heroism, which circulated in their communities, more than by rational motives or religious belief.[fn]The largest proportion of recruits appear to come from the Baghdad and Basra peripheries, while Shiite religious centres, such as Najaf and Khadamiya (in Baghdad), home to religious holy sites, send only a small number. Many come from Karbala, a city with two holy shrines close to the front line with IS in Anbar.Hide Footnote After Sistani’s fatwa, hashd symbols spread throughout Shiite towns and neighbourhoods. Teachers and parents lauded volunteers and encouraged students and sons to join them. A father who lost his son in battle showed a picture of his body in the hospital and said, “we could not stop him from going. He slipped out to the recruitment centre during the night. He was only seventeen. We are very proud of him. After he joined the hashd, he married and brought us his salary”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mahmoudiya, 26 July 2015. A twenty-year-old said: “My uncle is part of the hashd. I decided to join the training to help him. My dream is to become an army officer! My father also encouraged me to join to help the country. I’m not afraid to die; everyone has to die sooner or later”. Crisis Group interview, hashd training centre, Basra, 17 September 2015.Hide Footnote

Young people were also attracted by the instant fulfilment, even martyrdom, the hashd offered, when no other prospects existed.[fn]A recruitment officer said, “we receive an increasing number of recruits. The problem is with the youngest. Some behave without thinking on the battlefield. The largest problem is with those who join because they want to die”. Crisis Group interview, Karbala, 28 July 2015.Hide Footnote IS’s sudden arrival produced a sense of unpredictability and collective precariousness that persuaded youths to live for the moment rather than plan. Adnan, a 21-year-old from Mahmoudiya, was an exception in his neighbourhood for finishing high school and entering an engineering college in Baghdad, but the fatwa dramatically changed his direction:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mahmoudiya, 26 July 2015.Hide Footnote

Once [Grand Ayatollah] Sayed Sistani issued his fatwa, I left university and signed up. University is useless at this moment. We must fight and defend the country that the politicians left to Daesh. Politicians are all robbers. Religious figures are not.

The hashd also gave youths unprecedented symbolic and material power to play a dominant role in their direct environment and a social ladder that bypassed the patriarchal family, tribal groups and patronage networks of Iraqi society. Many Shiite youths perceive themselves as having the role of saving an Iraq that is theirs to own and reshape within an exclusively Shiite identity ever since Shiite parties won the 2005 elections. Unlike the 2005-2007 war, however, when youths killed one another in their neighbourhoods, the fight against IS leaves room to demonise a less direct and personal enemy whom many have never seen or met.[fn]A sixteen-year-old volunteer, depicting the enemy he believed the hashd was fighting, said, “this is not a war against Sunnis. What we are fighting is similar to the Mongol invasion”. Crisis Group interview, hashd training centre, Basra, 17 September 2015.Hide Footnote

D. Genie Unleashed

Neglected for a decade, youths unwittingly became the drivers of a political transformation that the political leadership was ill-equipped to ride or contain. The sharp fall of oil prices, which coincided with IS’s ascendancy, reduced funds and further weakened the political class’ ability to use patronage to broker social peace.[fn]A Badr cadre and provincial council member said of political class unpreparedness, “the problem is that there is no politics. When the situation changes we adjust policy, not the other way around. We are never prepared for the next step”. Crisis Group interview, Basra, 17 September 2015. The government calculated the 2014 budget and expenditures on the 2013 average oil price of $80-$90 per barrel, setting an ambitious export level of 3.4m barrels per day. In June 2014, the price was $70 per barrel, and exports were 2.2m barrels. By September, the country had a $75bn deficit. Al-Arabiya website, 26 September 2014. The 2015 price fell further.Hide Footnote The ruling elites began to look to mobilisation as the best way to secure political and economic assets.[fn]Parts of the security apparatus, such as the Badr Brigade, which dominates the police command structure, took off their uniforms and joined the militias. A Badr member said that after the Sistani fatwa, “Badr members left the police force and sped to the hashd recruitment centres”. Crisis Group interview, Sheikh Ahmad Sleaybi, Basra, 18 September 2015. See also, “Iraq crisis: Rebranded insurgents gain whip hand on streets of Baghdad”, The Guardian, 22 June 2014.Hide Footnote Maliki used his position to move money to the hashd, in order to align it within the framework of the state and gain leverage over it. The government ended financial aid for tribal leaders, transferred much of the defence and interior ministry budgets to finance the hashd through Maliki’s office and the national security organisation (jihaz al-amn al-watani), and compelled each hashd unit to register with the defence ministry.[fn]Faleh al-Fayyadh, the national security organisation’s head and national security adviser, has minister rank and is close to the Daawa party. The organisation pays each hashd brigade commander (Abu al-Hashd) according to the registered fighters under his command and distributes their salaries. In November 2014, Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, proposed to give families of those killed in action the same benefits as those killed while fighting in the army: a pension and plot of land. “شمول شهداء الحشد الشعبي بكامل الامتيازات العسكرية” [“Full military benefits for the martyrs of the popular hashd”], Council of Ministers, http://faily.iq/default/?p=28376.
Hide Footnote

Despite government and Daawa efforts to control the hashd within the state, the fatwa’s aftermath saw chaotic attempts by Shiite political and religious figures to protect their support by registering the largest possible number of recruits, each to his own faction. Fatah al-Sheikh, a former parliament member, said, “the government has demanded a list of volunteers to fight Daesh. The politicians today are galvanised to collect lists of names to sell to the hashd”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 29 March 2015.Hide Footnote

They engaged in fundraising and redirected money from religious endowments and religious taxes (khums) to secure salaries for their fighters and benefits for the families of those killed in battle, who were deemed martyrs.[fn]Beside the national security organisation, religious personalities close to the Sistani marjaeeya relied on the religious endowments (awqaf) of the Karbala and Najaf shrines and religious taxes (khums), 20 per cent of a follower’s income. Politicians have also organised fund-raising campaigns by placing collection boxes (sunduq) in shops and mosques. Crisis Group observation, Baghdad and southern provinces, July-September 2015.Hide Footnote Thus, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) of Ammar al-Hakim funded its brigades from its affiliated civilian ministries and family benefits through the Hakim family’s charitable association.[fn]A Sadrist militant critically observed: “The youth ministry [held by an ISCI member] has re-directed the youth and its resources toward the war. The minister spends his time inspecting the hashd brigades”. Crisis Group interview, Sadr City, 4 April 2015. The Hakim charitable foundation in Najaf organises collection of money to compensate families of those killed in battle. Crisis Group observations, Najaf, September 2015.Hide Footnote Charitable entities connected to party figures have proliferated in the south. Ostensibly set up to address the large influx of Sunni displaced (IDPs) or conduct other civil-society activity, they have direct access to international aid, mostly from UN agencies.[fn]The strategy of UN agencies and the World Bank has been to partner with local NGOs to implement stabilisation programs and civil society initiatives in the provinces, where organisations receive funding without governmental oversight. A UN official said, “we chose to partner with local organisations to prevent losing reconstruction and stabilisation funds to government corruption”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 10 June 2016. However, this procedure has inadvertently invited party figures to establish NGOs to attract funding, which they use to maintain constituents’ support and subsidise families of those fighting in their affiliated militias.Hide Footnote They redirect part of this to sustain party patronage networks of individuals, families and tribes the state budget had financed and families of militia volunteers linked to the party they support.[fn]A 30-year-old former Daawa-sponsored Youth Parliament member from Karbala began investing in civil society initiatives in 2015, after the new youth and sports minister cut the parliament’s funding. His experience shows the Daawa party’s flexibility in sustaining its network and dexterity in exploiting international organisations’ poor auditing. He said, “political parties have become boring to people. Now is the time of civil society organisations. In 2016 alone, 70 new ones have been established in Karbala. We receive direct funding from UNICEF to help displaced people in Karbala and sustain families in need, with no distinction between Sunnis and Shiites”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 29 May 2016. Another civil society activist said, “I have been part of a youth organisation in Diwaniya. We have received one million ID [nearly $861] so far. Poor demographic data complicate the auditing and evaluation of these projects. Unintentionally, the UN and other donors have replaced oil income in the parties’ efforts to dispense patronage”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 27 May 2016.Hide Footnote

Yet, overall, parties lack flexibility to reach large numbers of youths. The familiar channels, party offices, co-option of tribal leaders and leverage over local and central state institutions, are no longer effective.[fn]As the pro-government “support councils” (majalis isnaad) faded, tribal leaders lost along with their finances much of their power over younger members, who were now recruited and paid by the hashd. Police and other public-sector employees joined different hashd factions while continuing to receive government salaries. Crisis Group observations, Karbala, July 2015.Hide Footnote Fundraising campaigns can only temporarily cover arms, salaries and benefits. Efforts to attract recruits have exhausted resources and fragmented each main Shiite political party by making their leaders more dependent on external supplies of arms and funding raised through donors.[fn]For instance, militias are dependent on Iran for weapons, vehicles and intelligence. See “Are Shiite militias growing more powerful”, op. cit.Hide Footnote This has largely resulted in the crumbling of traditional parties and empowerment of those party figures who secured local control through their affiliated militias and accumulated economic assets via their affiliated charities.

Militias began to splinter as well. For example, a struggle unfolded within the Daawa party, with Maliki, ousted as prime minister after IS captured Mosul and other cities, attempting a comeback by backing one of the militias. Even the Sadrist movement, which has mobilised thousands of youths since 2003, has failed to keep full support in its Sadr City stronghold now that it is part of the political establishment.[fn]A former Mahdi army fighter said, “many of those who would have joined us in the past no longer do so; they are now recruited by other groups. Our former fighters are 30; they have families and children and are no longer inclined to heroism and adventure. Even if we still keep strong in the south, we witness a decreasing capacity for mobilisation in Sadr City”. Crisis Group interview, Sadr City, 7 April 2015.Hide Footnote It experienced a sharp fall in supporters for its militia, the Brigade of Peace (Sara­yat al-Salam), while former Mahdi army fighters established a myriad of splinter groups, in addition to the League of the Righteous (Asaeb Ahl al-Haq), which broke from the Sadrists’ Mahdi army in 2008 over leadership and funding. Hosham al-Thahabi, an ex-Sadrist militant, commented:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 5 April 2015.Hide Footnote

The Sadrist forces are poorly managed; defections are accelerating, and new militias acting independently from Sadr are appearing. Akram al-Kaabi, a former Sadrist “defector”, joined the League of the Righteous and later established his own militia with Iranian funds. This is bad news, because Sadrist constituents make up the largest recruitment pool for all militias.

Shiite parties’ attempts to recruit members through their offices were overtaken by militias, which reached youths especially by recruiting at the local level via prayer houses. The militias promise swift promotions and responsibilities, allowing recruits to express their identity in ways unimaginable in the army, police or Shiite parties and so boost their social standing in their home areas. In contrast to middle-age Green Zone politicians in suits and ties, the militias promote a new generation of military and religious leaders with whom young Iraqis can identify.[fn]In Karbala, the police leadership forbade the militias to recruit in police stations, forcing them to use Shiite prayer houses (husseiniya). Crisis Group observation, Karbala, July 2015. A young man from Sadr City observed: “Each militia has its own way of cutting their eyebrows, or keeping their hair long or short. The most successful recruiters in Sadr City have adapted to the district’s style. Sadr City boys like to peel off their eyebrows, apply tattoos and wear tight trousers. In 2004, Mahdi army fighters would not allow such styles; now each militia in Sadr City accepts it and adopts its own distinct symbol”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 July 2015. Abu Azrael (“the angel of death”), a former Mahdi army fighter, now a member of the Kataeb Imam Ali militia, is an iconic figure with more than 150,000 followers on social media. See “Iraqi fighter gains social media following in fight against ISIS”, Al-Arabiya (online), 12 March 2015.Hide Footnote

Most hashd elements have close links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, whose military advisers train their affiliated militias into reliable fighting forces that have an ideological orientation consistent with Tehran’s and can be deployed even outside Iraq. An ISCI member said there are two types of Shiite hashd:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Alaa Mousawi, Baghdad, 17 September 2015.Hide Footnote

There are the marjawi and the walayi, the first under the leadership of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the second under [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ali Kha-menei. For us, supporters of the marjawi, the hashd is only a temporary project; it should reintegrate into the state, obtain funding only from the defence ministry and operate under the prime minister as a future National Guard, a force with power and training similar to the federal police. For the supporters of the walayi, the hashd should be a force that can be deployed in Syria or anywhere else where it is needed.

As the hashd evolved into a forum for intra-Shiite political competition, each faction developed its own icons, symbols and names, complicating any government effort to merge them under a single command within the state. With the government unable to produce an alternative plan for youth, the struggle against IS dragging on and provincial elections anticipated in April 2017, militias leaders and politicians supporting them may leverage external financial and military support to consolidate their power and undermine the Abadi government.[fn]An Asaeb Ahl al-Haq member explained the group’s aspirations: “We are not only a military organisation. We have a project of building a state. We want to reform state institutions and transform the hashd into a civilian hashd (hashd al-shaabi al-madani). Political parties’ governance has failed in Basra, and in Iraq generally. We have achieved military victories; we have participated in demonstrations calling for change, and we are now ready to become part of the governorate’s and country’s leadership”. Crisis Group interview, Basra, 28 September 2015.Hide Footnote Rather than producing a managed decentralisation, this development is handing extensive powers to local bosses without any central government oversight.

E. Disaffected Sunni Youth

Mobilising youth became equally vital for Sunni provincial and tribal leaders intent on countering IS. Without direct access to weapons, they had to give lists of fighters to the national security organisation in Baghdad or Kurdish parties in Erbil so as to claim funds and arms. Unlike at the time of the U.S. “surge”, they could not recruit in insurgent-controlled territories and trigger an indigenous reaction against the movement. Though they tried to blame youths’ turn to IS on the Shiite-dominated government’s failure to provide jobs, they themselves had prepared the way for the jihadists’ advance by their embrace of the credibility-destroying patronage system. IS military successes exposed them as persons with no anchor in their own societies and no authority over Sunni areas.

They never led but rather fled the Sunni uprising. Once protests began in 2013 and IS advanced, Sunni leaders moved to safer ground (Baghdad, Erbil, Amman), providing additional evidence to constituents of their self-serving policy. Their cooperation with Kurdish or Shiite militias, which they had condemned for years, undermined their legitimacy even more.[fn]A Mosul resident, expressing disenchantment about Atheel al-Nujayfi, the Ninewa governor, having called on the population to resist, then leaving before IS entered, asked: “Why did Nujayfi not defend us? Why he did not warn us? He accused the army so as to blame all on Maliki. He just used us!” Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 3 April 2015. A Falluja resident living under IS expressed similar feelings: “Young people see their tribal leaders as merchants (tujjar). They went to various countries, including Iran, to increase their fortunes and sell them out. As IS advanced, [young people] are on the ground dealing with the situation, while their elders sit in Baghdad hotels”. Crisis Group telephone interview, 20 June 2015.Hide Footnote Away from IS-controlled territory, provincial officials and tribal leaders could rely only on a limited number of individuals who benefited from their patronage (eg, senior police) or close family (ayyan al-ashira). Sheikh Ahmad al-Jibouri, a former sahwa member, noted:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad (al-Doura), 28 March, 2015.Hide Footnote

In 2006, I recruited more than 6,000 fighters and cleaned al-Doura [a Baghdad neighbourhood] of al-Qaeda. Sunni recruitment to the hashd is a masquerade! Some tribal leaders, who promise to deliver a certain number of fighters, submit names to the government only to obtain funds, then flee to Amman.

Once safe, Sunni leaders made little effort to assist those living under IS. Instead, like Shiite politicians, they have tried to rebuild patronage networks via externally-funded charities for IDPs, who need guarantors to access safer areas, obtain documents enabling them to resettle and obtain services in the areas of their displacement. These leaders hope outside powers will restore them to their old positions when IS is driven out – as a reward for not joining – and allow them to lead internationally-funded reconstruction.[fn]In Tikrit, a city taken back from IS in April 2015, members of the Jibouri tribe have set up NGOs to work in reconstruction. Crisis Group Skype interview, NGO worker, June 2016.Hide Footnote

On the other side of the front line, IS took advantage of the generational divide. As soon as it controlled a territory, it assigned responsibilities to local youths, recruiting them as fighters or giving those with low-ranking jobs a path to reach positions previously reserved for party members.[fn]In Rawa, Anbar governorate, top public jobs (hospitals, public administration, electricity) were in Islamic Party hands. When IS arrived, senior party figures fled, and IS promoted young, low-ranking employees. Crisis Group, telephone interview, al-Qaim resident, 20 June 2015.Hide Footnote One of its most effective policies was to give leadership posts to the youngest members of a tribe aligned with the government. Ramadi, which IS captured in June 2015, is an example. Its central districts resisted until elders of the Abu Alwan tribe fled to Baghdad, leaving younger members in charge. The latter struck a deal with IS, which included a general amnesty and their elevation to tribal chiefs.[fn]A Ramadi resident said, “each tribal leader has a younger cousin (ibn ammi) who can claim noble blood and become sheikh of the tribe. There is a new generation of sheikhs in Anbar. Often those appointed to high-profile positions are younger members of tribes whose elder sheikh sided with the government”. Crisis Group telephone interview, al-Qaim resident, 29 July 2015.Hide Footnote

The post-IS phase in Sunni areas will be especially challenging, because social hierarchies are developing under IS rule that are parallel with and disconnected from those in areas under government control. The two will be difficult to reconcile. Tribal leaders empowered by IS may be unwilling to step down and could challenge both Sunni political officials and the legitimacy of tribal elders. This, and because they may be vulnerable to retributive violence, might provoke new generational power struggles within tribes. National leaders will need to devise a non-discriminatory policy that targets youths in areas recovered from IS and prevents a Sunni leadership struggle that would exacerbate the generational divide. Otherwise, people will face a stark choice between collaborators with IS and a discredited political clique that out-sourced recovery of Sunni areas to the hashd or the Kurds and intends to use reconstruction funds to rebuild its local support.

IV. The Desperate Alternative: Emigration

Rather than devise a policy that might spare a new generation another conflict, the Shiite political class has attempted to use the hashd movement to contain discontent among Shiite youths and redirect it toward the confrontation with IS. Throughout 2015, hashd factions sought to absorb the growing numbers of volunteers without affecting military operations by creating reserve forces (qwwat ihtiyatiya) that gave students and day workers basic training but often made no other use of them. Under severe financial pressure, the government focused spending on youth mobilisation against IS, diverting it from jobs creation and other purposes. In June 2014, for the first time in a decade, ministries did not post new openings and have posted few since.[fn]Majeeda al-Timimi, a member of parliament’s finance committee, said, “in June [2014], more than 16,000 new jobs were unassigned for lack of funds, while 30,000 new positions were issued by the national security organisation and nearly $3 million was allocated to [Maliki’s] office to pay the hashd”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 July 2015. Party disinvestment from state institutions was apparent. An employee of the higher education ministry observed: “Since Mosul fell, the ministry has not had resources to complete projects and resume recruitment. The minister asked employees to donate blood for injured hashd fighters, and pictures of the hashd are on show in the ministry building”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 July 2015.Hide Footnote

Educated young people, the future professional middle class, are at the margin of political leaders’ attention, hard hit by the budget crisis and society’s militarisation and facing a choice of adjusting to rule by armed groups or emigrating. IS successes have deepened the divide between them and destitute youths empowered by militias. A 23-year-old female student at Baghdad’s College of Medicine expressed a common sentiment:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 June 2015.Hide Footnote

We tolerated many things after 2003, but we reached saturation point. After [the IS conflict], I decided to leave in order to complete my studies abroad. Here I have only a 20 per cent possibility to succeed in what I am doing compared to the previous generation, and we are no longer respected in this society.

Government policy coupled with the economic crisis have helped further marginalise the middle class. In areas the government controls, its fading ability to enforce the law in a militia-dominated environment compels young professionals to ask militias for protection. Armed groups (militias and IS alike) in need of their skills, in particular those of doctors, increasingly try to recruit them, either forcibly or by creating professional associations parallel to the state’s.[fn]Militia factions have established associations of doctors who volunteer to treat injured hashd fighters on the front lines. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjydjiBo5dgHide Footnote

Other strains result from the higher education ministry’s decision not to recognise diplomas from universities in IS-controlled areas. It has attempted to relocate those institutions to areas controlled by Baghdad or the Kurds, but professors and students have difficulty accessing the new sites due to movement restrictions and fear of retaliation.[fn]The higher education ministry has attempted to transfer Mosul College of Medicine to Kirkuk, currently under Kurdish control. Students displaced in Baghdad cannot easily access Kirkuk due to restrictions imposed by the Kurdish regional government. The ministry’s alternative proposal to move the college to Baghdad has also failed, since most Mosul professors have relocated to the Kurdish region and avoid the capital due to the Shiite militias’ control. A practicing doctor said, “whatever will be decided, we risk having a university either without professors or without students”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 20 July 2015.Hide Footnote In government-controlled areas, corruption that preceded the IS conflict has become even more rampant. Students who join the hashd are often allowed to move up a grade in school despite having failed their exams or stayed away from school, while the most prestigious colleges now have admission quotas reserved for private-school students regardless of their marks.[fn]Crisis Group interview, OWFI member, Baghdad, 23 July 2015. A young doctor said admission to the College of Medicine required a high school grade of 97-100 and that the higher education ministry has smoothed admission criteria by allocating a 10 per cent quota for students who did not reach that level, enabling a number of them to use personal connections to gain entry. Crisis Group telephone interview, 20 October 2015.Hide Footnote

As a result, a perception has grown among medical and engineering students that they can escape the destructive cycle only by leaving. Syria’s conflict pulled the trigger. Starting in 2015, as Turkey’s smuggling roads to Greece opened, Iraqis followed Syrians to Europe. The pattern of flight resembled that of militia mobilisation: contagious, spreading by word of mouth and social media, often within small circles of friends in a neighbourhood. But these professionals (particularly doctors) face special challenges. Those trying to leave IS-controlled areas often must pay smugglers heavily. Faced with a massive brain drain, the government has tried to make it difficult for young graduates to obtain the original copy of their diploma, which they need to prove their degree and practice abroad.[fn]Doctors can still obtain a copy of their diploma by paying as much as 70 million ID, nearly $60,000. Crisis Group interviews, Adhamiya hospital, Baghdad, 25 July 2015.Hide Footnote

 

V. Taking it to the Street

A. Protesters

In July 2015, Iraq’s youth found a third way to express discontent: rather than taking to arms or voting with their feet, they staged mass demonstrations to protest poor governance. It started in Basra in July, where resentment against the political establishment intersected with local anger at the provincial governor’s repeated failure to improve services.[fn]Waheed Ghanim, “Basra’s beleaguered governor under fire”, Niqash, 30 July 2015.Hide Footnote The protests were quickly replicated across the south and in Baghdad under the slogan of fighting corruption (fasaad) and demanding political reform (islah).

Though the protests were in majority-Shiite areas, they assumed a kaleidoscopic rather than sectarian character, reflecting the rich diversity of society. Protesters hailed from different class backgrounds, raising community symbols alongside nationalist ones. The latter revealed Shiites’ appropriation of a nationalist discourse that urban Sunni elites had defined prior to 2003. What started as an anti-corruption campaign soon evolved into an array of demands focused on the end of the post-2003 political system based on ethnic and sectarian quotas (muhasasa) and the establishment of a “civil state” (dawla madaniya). The insistent appeal for reform reflect young people’s rejection of the status quo and their search for a new status and role not currently available. A protester said:[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, 28 May 2016. Another 30-year-old, who did not join the protests, said, “people don’t know what they want or where the country is headed. The demonstrations are merely a channel to express a sense of loss”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 27 May 2016.
[1] See “Iraq: Conflict Alert”, op. cit. Tim Arango, “In bid to counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq may end up alienating it”, The New York Times, 1 November 2015.Hide Footnote

We are for reform: general, total reform! It has been fifteen years now with these same people. We should have popular committees instead of parliament, or a prime minister without a parliament, or a technocratic cabinet. I am not sure what the right formula is. I only know that we should start from scratch.

Like Sunni protests two years earlier, the inchoate nature of demands for radical change created room for radical politicians to capitalise and take charge.

B. Riding the Wave

Youths found in the new movement a platform for expression more than an avenue for political participation and change. Its hybrid identity made it easy to manipulate. The first to step into the vacuum in August 2015 were some Shiite militias that had led the fight against IS; with battlefield experience, they presented themselves as potent challengers to the faltering Abadi government. The country might have slid into chaos or a militia-led coup except for a second intervention by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who expressed support for Abadi if he carried out important reforms, including replacing his cabinet with unaffiliated technocrats.[fn]See “Iraq: Conflict Alert”, op. cit. Tim Arango, “In bid to counter Iran, Ayatollah in Iraq may end up alienating it”, The New York Times, 1 November 2015.Hide Footnote This was but a stop-gap, however, and quieted things only temporarily. Weak within his Daawa party and unable to gain support from other blocs, Abadi failed to join the energies unleashed in the streets to his broader reform agenda. Purging top officials accentuated intra-Daawa rivalries without bringing sensible change to everyday lives or answering youth’s thirst for direction. Embodying the ruling system, the political class was incapable of effecting genuine reform.[fn]On 11 August, parliament backed the first stage of Abadi’s reform program, cancelling the positions of deputy prime minister and the three vice presidencies, one of which was held by his predecessor, Maliki. The parties dominating the parliament could not agree on replacing ministers with technocrats, however. A Baghdad resident said, “Abadi changed some top-level figures, but our lives have not changed at all in the past months. So people found in Moqtada al-Sadr a new hope for change”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 27 May 2016.Hide Footnote

As the opportunity slipped from the prime minister’s hands, Moqtada al-Sadr, an activist with a clerical pedigree and history of resistance to the U.S. occupation, stepped into the breach. In February 2016, his political bloc, al-Ahrar (Liberals), took charge of the protest movement. Through a meticulously planned youth mobilisation strategy, it attracted segments of youth beyond Sadr’s close supporters. For three months, he commanded the street. On 27 February, he organised a mass demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir central square; a month later, he began a sit-in inside the Green Zone, while his supporters stayed outside, primed to follow him. On 30 April, they scaled the walls and broke into parliament and the council of ministers. According to a participant, “the al-Ahrar bloc set up demonstration committees (Lijna Tandhim al-Tadahur) in all Baghdad districts and the provinces, registering protesters’ names and giving them a special budget allowing them to participate in the demonstrations”.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, 28 May 2016.Hide Footnote

Sadr turned the street into a dynamic variable in politics, even a risky one vulnerable to misuse. Appeals for reform quickly became a populist call for the end of the entire political establishment and framework. Yet, his actions seemed mainly to benefit his own bloc in its bargaining with other Shiite parties.[fn]On 26 April, Abadi struck a deal with al-Ahrar, replacing five ministers with technocrats. Three of the five, who had been affiliated with Ahrar, were replaced with new figures who, though technocrats, are close to Ahrar and could work to increase the group’s influence. On the political crisis, see Maria Fantappie, “Iraq on the Edge of Chaos”, Crisis Group blog post, 14 May 2016.Hide Footnote They consolidated polarisation between mobilised youth and elites rather than building a bridge to overcome deep social rifts. Abadi’s announcement of the offensive against IS in Fallu­ja at the end of May defused the protest by rallying the nation, but the monster only slumbers, ready to be awakened by a crisis in services and politicians seeing an opportunity for advancement.

VI. Fixing Iraq’s Youth Challenge

Non-state actors have been the most successful in mobilising and framing young people’s lives. While the agendas may differ, they have recruited directly within localities (neighbourhood or village); provided a sense of belonging to a collective inspired by ideals (IS: establishing a caliphate; Sadr: fighting corruption); and given opportunities for advancement within informal structures (IS, Shiite militias, the Sadr bloc’s demonstration-organising committees), allowing youths to gain prestige in their home environments (family, tribe, neighbourhood).

The government and political parties have been unable to reproduce successful mobilisation and social mobility in their structures. Bewildered and in disarray, the political establishment appears to have opted for a default strategy, counting on the cost of prolonged conflict becoming so high that it may yet recoup some of its legitimacy. Shiite parties that oppose the militias’ de facto rule hope growing casualties will exhaust their support.[fn]Asked about future policy, an ex-lawmaker close to Abadi said: “Sooner or later people will tire of seeing their children die as martyrs”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 28 October 2015.Hide Footnote Sunni leaders waiting for IS defeat, hope to regain power and standing in their communities for lack of a better alternative. The risk inherent in such passive approaches is that the conflict’s heritage will be prolonged and difficult to overcome both in areas from which IS is dislodged and elsewhere in the country. And what will happen with the many young fighters once their combat role ends? Speaking from experience, an ex-Mahdi army fighter said:[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 10 April 2015.Hide Footnote

Once the [IS] fight is over, what will we do with those who have become used to fighting? They will blackmail society and claim this is their victory, that they have defended our houses, our families. They will keep their weapons and feel they are above the law. The government may have no choice but to fight them.

The conflict against IS has reshuffled social hierarchies and empowered and legitimised new leaders, creating a fresh reality with which the political class will have to contend sooner or later. In Sunni-populated areas, establishment politicians could try to regain legitimacy by distributing foreign aid and engaging local youths in reconstruction, but this is likely to resurrect the very patron-client relationships that proved unsustainable after the U.S.-led “surge”. And if they fail to engage young people beyond the patronage networks, they will be strongly resisted by commanders who fought for IS and could thus recoup a measure of local support. Shiite militia commanders and political figures supporting them, such as Maliki or Hadi al-Ameri, the foremost militia commander, could try to capitalise on the popularity they gained in fighting IS to bid for political power and turn their young fighters into supporters in future elections.

Lack of agility in adjusting to rapid change has enabled a cycle of escalating conflict that could precipitate political class demise. It might also destroy the state’s capacity to govern and foreign powers’ ability to safeguard their strategic interests through an Iraqi government they need to confront the transnational IS threat. A society increasingly drained of its middle class and populated by armed actors who are eclipsing law-enforcement agencies may cause a growth in micro-conflicts – intra-tribal disputes and gang fighting – that will increase young people’s dependence for protection and economic resources on local patrons or militia commanders, or both. Even when these actors are not fighting, their mobilisation efforts may undermine the state’s legitimacy and coherence. By calling youths to join street protests while blocking parliament from convening and legislating reforms in May, Sadr already exacerbated the divide between the street and political elites without providing a workable alternative.

Young people whose anti-establishment sentiments are being directed toward opposite poles of a sectarian agenda might become even more susceptible to crass political manipulation by actors intent on fuelling domestic and regional conflicts. Shiite youths have proved a critical resource for Iran, which has recruited them to fight its war in Syria, where one of its principal enemies is IS, which has a significant Iraqi component in both leadership and rank and file. As fighters or emigrants, Generation 2000 could become a transnational challenge.

The generation’s grievances and loss of hope can no longer be disregarded. The Abadi government and the international community must, at the eleventh hour, pre-emptively devise a youth policy grounded in the notion that young people need avenues for political participation and social advancement outside the parties’ discredited co-option by patronage. Any post-IS reconstruction and stabilisation campaign, even if implemented locally, requires a national vision for addressing the youth problem and a multiyear plan that targets this age group. Offering youth a clear direction is a greater priority than merely providing funds and jobs.

Until now, the government has used state legitimacy and institutional benefits to boost a mobilisation into militias it did not call for and could neither prevent nor control, and which is undermining state institutions. It should do the opposite: use the same legitimacy and benefits to “civilianise” the hashd al-shaabi into a hashd al-madani (civilian mobilisation) under its direct control, recruit youths in their communities and organise them within the administrative framework of provincial administrations. This would involve refocusing hashd neighbourhood-based recruitment centres from defence to local governance, thus filling a gap left by local authorities who have failed to provide adequate services or security.

Such an effort could resonate with fighters who profess political aspirations. It might allow Iran to preserve its interests in southern provinces, while giving the central government a measure of leverage against it. Most importantly, it could be replicated in areas freed of IS control, where a stability plan involving Sunni leaders should avoid repeating mistakes, including use of state resources to “purchase” local legitimacy. Local leaders should engage youths directly in reconstruction, regardless of tribal affiliation or who fought with or against IS.

More immediately, the government should tackle the militia problem and prospects for the young by organising any further military recruitment under the army, supervised by the defence ministry; developing a plan to provide these new state employees with the usual benefits, or at least guarantee a right to them once funds are available; compelling non-governmental entities to register with the planning ministry, while urging donors to fund only those that are registered and to assist in monitoring use of such funds; and developing a jobs plan for high-school and university graduates and/or a professional-training, apprenticeship scheme, with guaranteed income and pension rights as funds become available.

International institutions that manage financial and development support for Iraq, such as the IMF, the World Bank and UN agencies, should consider whether to revise their approach. By giving financial help to charitable organisations and initiatives linked to party figures and affiliated militias that operate outside the law, or demanding to reduce state benefits and allowances, they contribute inadvertently to these groups’ active undermining of the state. This is something neither they nor the prime minister’s other external supporters who profess a desire for a stable, functioning Iraq have an interest in doing.

VII. Conclusion

The plight of Iraq’s young people is perhaps the gravest result of the turmoil of the past few decades; unless it creates viable prospects for them, the country is unlikely to escape further cycles of instability. The current vacuum sucks youths into one of three directions: protests (with aspiration to dramatically transform a non-functioning system seemingly immune to reform); fighting groups on either side of a sectarian divide; or migration toward Europe.

The issue is not one of youth radicalisation, as conventional wisdom suggests.[fn]UN Security Council Resolution 2,250, 9 December 2015.Hide Footnote Young Iraqis are not radicalised so much as recruited into organisations that provide community and direction, regardless of ideology. The solution lies not in de-rad­i­ca­lisation programs, with heavy emphasis on counter-narratives, as if the problem was addiction, requiring detox, but in giving them viable alternatives that can reduce fighting groups’ ability to attract them in the first place.

A fresh, state-based, internationally-backed approach by the Abadi government aimed at reconnecting young people to the society in which they live and breathe is the best formula to prevent destructive exploitation. The past has shown that fighting youths deemed “radicals” and co-opting the others through the usual patronage channels is not a sustainable solution and indeed worsens the problem, if only by pushing fresh waves of desperate emigrants toward distant shores.

Baghdad/Brussels, 8 August 2016[fn]Crisis Group receives financial support from a wide range of governments, foundations, and private sources, for more information please see Our Supporters. For a full print version of this report with a list of supporters please apply to brussels@crisisgroup.org.Hide Footnote

A displaced Iraqi man, who returns to camp after trying to go home and find the conditions in their towns unbearable, sits with his children in their tent at al-Khazir refugee camp on the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq, 23 July, 2019. REUTERS/Abdullah Rashid

Exiles in Their Own Country: Dealing with Displacement in Post-ISIS Iraq

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis remain uprooted and unable to go home after the war to defeat ISIS. The worst off are those, mainly women and children, perceived to have jihadist ties. Iraq and its partners should find ways to end their displacement.

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What’s new? Three years after Iraq’s victory over ISIS, more than a million Iraqis are still displaced. Hundreds of thousands are in camps. Those in the most difficult predicament are families with perceived ISIS affiliations, who face not only formal barriers to return but also rejection by people at home.

Why does it matter? Absent a solution for Iraq’s displacement crisis, the people stranded in camps risk being tarred as “ISIS families” and turning into a permanent underclass. With no legitimate prospects, they could be susceptible to recruitment into organised violence, including criminal and insurgent groups.

What should be done? The Kadhimi government should address the displacement crisis by removing informal barriers to return in consultation with community leaders and doing more to mitigate rejection of families with perceived ISIS affiliations in their areas of origin. It should approach the problem as one that especially affects women and female-headed families.

I. Overview

Three years after Iraq defeated the Islamic State (ISIS), more than a million Iraqis remain displaced. Hundreds of thousands reside in camps, unable or reluctant to return to their war-ravaged homes. One subgroup, in particular, faces an intractable dilemma: civilians with family ties to alleged ISIS members, who are stigmatised as somehow complicit in their relatives’ actions. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has rightly put a priority on helping the country’s uprooted people. Along with its partners, the Kadhimi government should work to end these Iraqis’ domestic exile – brokering either their safe, voluntary return home or some durable alternative. To do so, it will need to surmount not only official barriers to return or resettlement but also fierce public resistance to these displaced families coming home. It should approach the displacement crisis as both a matter of long-term national stability and a particular problem for women and female-headed families, given how vulnerable displaced women are and how their legal and social status hinges on that of their husbands and other relatives.

Hundreds of Thousands of Iraqis Are Still Internally Displaced

A short illustrated look at the story of Iraq's internal displacement crisis. CRISISGROUP

II. Lasting Displacement and Perceived ISIS Affiliations

On 10 June, Prime Minister Kadhimi marked the sixth anniversary of ISIS’s seizure of Mosul with a trip to the northerly city and its environs in Ninewa governorate.[fn]Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi Meets with Tribal Representatives and Ninewa notables”, Office of the Prime Minister, 10 June 2020 (Arabic); “Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi Visits Mar Eddie Church in al-Hamdaniya District and Meets with Patron of the Chaldean Diocese in Mosul”, Office of the Prime Minister, 10 June 2020 (Arabic).Hide Footnote Throughout the visit, Kadhimi stressed that Iraq would not repeat the sort of corruption and mismanagement that permitted ISIS’s rise.[fn]Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “PM vows IS will never again overrun Iraqi territory”, Associated Press, 10 June 2020.Hide Footnote In an important gesture, he also visited the al-Salamiya displaced persons camp south of Mosul. The camp hosts residents of Mosul and rural Ninewa who, even today, remain unable to return home and resume normal lives. Kadhimi promised to help the camp dwellers go home, even as he appealed to them for patience.[fn]eadout of Kadhimi’s visit circulated among humanitarian workers in Iraq on 10 June 2020, provided via messaging app, July 2020. See also “Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi Visits Displaced Persons Camps in Nimrod in Ninewa Province”, Office of the Prime Minister, 10 June 2020 (Arabic).Hide Footnote

As Iraq has faced numerous other crises since 2017 – most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and economic near-insolvency – the problem of protracted post-war displacement has lingered. Yet the Iraqi government has done little to resolve it. Kadhimi’s visit to al-Salamiya, the first by a prime minister to a displacement camp since ISIS’s defeat, marked a seeming course change.[fn]Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (2014-2018) visited displaced persons camps several times during the campaign against ISIS. For example, see “Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Visits Baharka Displaced Persons Camp in Erbil”, Office of the Prime Minister, 4 June 2015 (Arabic). His successor Adel Abd al-Mahdi (2018-2020) did not.Hide Footnote Kadhimi had earlier listed action on the displacement crisis among the ten “priorities” in his government’s ministerial program.[fn]Ministerial Program”, Office of the Prime Minister, 6 May 2020 (Arabic). On the other challenges facing Kadhimi’s government, see Lahib Higel, “On Third Try, a New Government for Iraq”, Crisis Group Commentary, 8 May 2020.Hide Footnote

Al-Salamiya’s roughly 15,000 residents are among the nearly 1.4 million Iraqis uprooted from their homes by the war to defeat ISIS.

Al-Salamiya’s roughly 15,000 residents are among the nearly 1.4 million Iraqis uprooted from their homes by the war to defeat ISIS.[fn]For profiles of camps including al-Salamiya, see “Iraq: IDP Camp Directory – Comparative Dashboard & Camp Profiles Round XIII, February-March 2020”, REACH, 8 July 2020; “Iraq Master List Report 116, May-June 2020”, International Organization for Migration (IOM), 16 July 2020.Hide Footnote  The total includes roughly 330,000 in camps, mainly in Ninewa, Dohuk and Erbil governorates in areas ringing the Kurdistan region. Of the displaced nationwide, approximately 60 per cent are from Ninewa.[fn]Iraq Master List Report 116”, op. cit. Mosul was ISIS’s de facto capital, where it mounted its last major battle in Iraq against Iraqi and allied forces.Hide Footnote  Displaced people fled their home districts in waves, including some who left when ISIS arrived, and others who remained only to depart later, such as amid the military campaign against the group. Displaced people with perceived ISIS affiliations were typically part of the last wave.[fn]For example, see “West Mosul: Perceptions on Return and Reintegration among Stayees, IDPs and Returnees, June 2019”, IOM, 30 June 2019; “Managing Return in Anbar: Community Responses to the Return of IDPs with Perceived Affiliation”, IOM Iraq, 26 March 2020.Hide Footnote

There are many reasons why the camp residents have not returned home. Iraq’s stunted post-war reconstruction means that, for many, their homes remain in ruins or their areas of origin lack paying jobs or public services such as education and health care.[fn]For an account of how corruption and administrative dysfunction have hobbled reconstruction in Mosul, see Zmkan Ali Saleem and Mac Skelton, “The Failure of Reconstruction in Mosul: Root Causes from 2003 to the Post-ISIS Period”, Institute of Regional & International Studies, 10 June 2020. Iraq’s Integrity Commission says Ninewa’s former governor and his associates embezzled tens of millions of dollars, including nearly $10 million earmarked for the rehabilitation of two Mosul hospitals. “Iraq says ex-governor embezzled $10 mn in aid for displaced”, AFP, 30 July 2019.Hide Footnote  Some families lost their breadwinner in the war, or had members suffer debilitating injuries. In a camp, they at least have shelter and receive a regular package of rations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019. For a breakdown of barriers to return, see “Intentions Survey: IDP Areas of Origin, March 2020”, REACH, 15 June 2020.Hide Footnote

Other displaced Iraqis stay away from home for security reasons. That includes those whose towns – mainly in outlying rural areas – ISIS still preys upon at night. It also includes those who fear the security forces in their areas of origin, whether the army, federal police or state-affiliated paramilitary groups.[fn]Intentions Survey: IDP Areas of Origin”, op. cit. For more on ISIS’s continuing insurgency, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°207, Averting an ISIS Resurgence in Iraq and Syria, 11 October 2019.Hide Footnote  Many express special apprehension about Popular Mobilisation (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) paramilitaries, some of which operate without government oversight.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote Lastly, an unknown but significant number of what Iraqis typically call “ISIS families” (awail Da’esh) – people with perceived family ties to ISIS fighters – remain displaced because they would face a hostile reception in their home areas if they went back. Among those in their hometowns who might be hostile are the many victimised by ISIS, ranging from Shiites to Yezidis and other religious minorities to Sunnis whose beliefs ISIS deemed heretical or whom it accused of collaboration with the Iraqi state.

Many displaced people still in Iraq’s camps – perhaps the majority – are not “ISIS families” and have been unable to return home for other reasons. There is no fixed, agreed-upon definition of an “ISIS family”, moreover, and no confident estimate of how many remain stranded in camps. Many other “ISIS families” are also dispersed elsewhere across the country, outside the camps. Even the term “ISIS families” – though used widely – is misleading. Humanitarian workers and human rights activists push for the somewhat less stigmatising term, families with “perceived affiliations”. They also stress what these families have in common with other displaced people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers, remote via messaging app, July 2020.Hide Footnote

The stigma attached to these alleged militant affiliations is the main reason why it is impossible to count “ISIS families” and hard to determine whether a given family falls into this category, however it is labelled. Camp residents who have such ties have every reason not to be forthcoming about why they cannot go home.[fn]An international humanitarian aid worker said she expected that many female-headed families in the camp where her organisation works had alleged affiliations. But, by way of clarification, she added: “We have no clue how many are directly perceived as ISIS-affiliated. We have no idea if anyone can say”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Nor is there a single authority to provide a definitive verdict. The security services have multiple lists of alleged ISIS members they can check to assess whether someone has family ties to such a person. But these lists are not necessarily reliable. Furthermore, the residents of a family’s home district may have their own definition of “ISIS family” that they use to declare the family unwelcome or seek revenge. Returnees who have not themselves been legally charged with wrongdoing could face retribution. If a man was allegedly involved with ISIS, anyone from his immediate family to entire extended families might be considered implicated in the group’s crimes.[fn]A camp administrator said, “Say someone comes from a village, and the village is small – everyone knows each other. Now, that family had an ISIS member. People don’t say the [rest of the] family had nothing to do with it. No, they say the whole family is ISIS”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote

As more of those displaced from 2014 to 2017 return home, Iraqis increasingly assume that anyone still living in the camps must have ISIS affiliations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international humanitarian workers, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  As a result, there is a risk that general resentment of “ISIS families” could extend to include all encamped displaced people.

Provincial and local governments have made some attempts to broker the return of the displaced, with the involvement of both local civil society bodies and national committees, as well as additional support from NGOs.[fn]Iraqi and international NGOs have worked with communal leaders and “local peace committees” to broker agreements on reconciliation and return. Previously, they coordinated with either the Committee for Pursuance and Execution of National Reconciliation or the Supreme Committee for Coexistence and Communal Peace, both of which answer to the Prime Minister’s Office. In May 2019, the former committee was folded into the latter, which became the Committee for Coexistence and Communal Peace and the coordinating partner for these organisations’ efforts.Hide Footnote  Progress, however, has been slow.[fn]For one effort to negotiate displaced civilians’ return, see Viola Gienger, “In the Shadow of a Massacre, a Peaceful Return in Iraq, Part II”, U.S. Institute of Peace, 17 July 2015.Hide Footnote  In parallel, governorates have tried to paper over the displacement issue by closing and consolidating camps, despite protests from humanitarian and human rights groups.[fn]Anbar and Ninewa governorates both saw substantial consolidations in 2019. “Iraq: Snapshot on IDPs in Formal Camps – 2019 Summary”, CCCM Cluster, 1 March 2020. On consolidations and expulsions in Ninewa, see “Iraq: Camps Expel over 2,000 People Seen as ISIS-Linked”, Human Rights Watch, 4 September 2019.Hide Footnote This approach reduces the number of camps without addressing what has kept Iraq’s displaced away from their homes.

Baghdad has produced no comprehensive program to facilitate the return of the displaced.

Baghdad has produced no comprehensive program to facilitate the return of the displaced. A draft plan developed by one of two reconciliation-focused committees would have concentrated “ISIS families” in newly built or repurposed rural compounds (complete with semi-permanent housing – trailers, not tents – and restrictions on movement), among other measures.[fn]Iraq: Confining Families with Alleged ISIS Ties Unlawful”, Human Rights Watch, 7 May 2019.Hide Footnote  The plan would have allowed them to return home only after residents of their areas of origin had agreed and the families had completed “de-radicalisation” programming. The plan appears to have been shelved, after Kadhimi’s predecessor as premier eliminated the committee that drafted it.[fn]See footnote 17.Hide Footnote  More targeted state efforts to address aspects of the displacement crisis, for instance an education ministry directive to allow children lacking official documents to attend school, have been implemented incompletely by local authorities or not at all.[fn]Iraq: School Doors Barred to Many Children”, Human Rights Watch, 28 August 2019.Hide Footnote

III. Formal and Informal Obstacles to Return

Many displaced Iraqis with alleged ISIS affiliations remain stranded. On an individual or family basis, some may have avenues for going home. But they face not only daunting official, procedural barriers to leaving the camps and securing their rights and entitlements as citizens, but also popular and communal resistance to their return. Sometimes, these reinforce each other.

A. Procedural Barriers

Family members of alleged ISIS fighters often cannot pass the official security clearance necessary for both their return and the renewal of civil documents they need to live normally. Some lost these documents when they fled their homes; in the case of young children, they may have never obtained them.

Security clearance is mandatory for displaced people seeking to acquire a range of official documents, including civil identification and nationality certificates.[fn]Barriers from Birth: Undocumented Children in Iraq Sentenced to a Life on the Margins”, Norwegian Refugee Council, 30 April 2019; “Paperless People of Post-conflict Iraq”, Norwegian Refugee Council, 16 September 2019.Hide Footnote  The clearance involves review by several security services and also typically relies centrally on the mukhtar, the local headman in the displaced person’s hometown or city neighbourhood. In coordination with the security services, a mukhtar is responsible for supervising his area and managing residents’ interactions with the state, including registering new arrivals. As part of the clearance process, security services will usually ask him to vouch that a returnee is not ISIS-affiliated, after consultation with area residents.[fn]Crisis Group interview, camp administrator, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Without these documents, the displaced cannot return to their areas of origin. They also cannot move freely to earn a daily wage, a bind that means they struggle to save enough to pay lawyers’ fees or other costs of return. Many are also barred from a range of transactions and public services, including state-provided health care and schools for their children.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced man, camp administrator and international humanitarian worker, Erbil and Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019. For example, see Maya Gebeily, “Born under IS, sick Iraqi children left undocumented, untreated”, AFP, 16 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Often, the only option people with alleged ISIS affiliations who do not receive a security clearance have is to file a criminal complaint in court against their relative suspected of joining ISIS, in a process called tabria, which translates roughly to “disavowal”. Once they have lodged the complaint, the court issues an arrest warrant for the relative. Plaintiffs receive a certificate attesting to their willingness to testify against their relative, which then allows them to receive a security clearance. To secure civil documentation, some people may also need to file a missing persons complaint for the relative to obtain a death certificate. That obviates the need for a husband to be present in order for a woman to secure papers for her children, for example.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international humanitarian worker, Erbil and remotely by messaging app, December 2019 and July and August 2020; Belkis Wille, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, remotely by messaging app, July and August 2020.Hide Footnote  Yet tabria is difficult, time-consuming, expensive and sometimes unpredictable.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, camp administrator, Iraqi journalist and international humanitarian worker, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  The cost can be prohibitive for displaced people with few means.

B. Communal Rejection

Formal barriers to displaced persons’ return have been substantially documented, including by organisations such as the Norwegian Refugee Council.[fn]For example, see “Paperless People of Post-conflict Iraq”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Yet even if these barriers come down, these uprooted people may still be unable to go home.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international humanitarian workers, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Families with perceived ISIS affiliations can face communal rejection that, while informal, is just as effective as any bureaucratic rule in impeding their return. Such rules can be amended or broken. The hostility of their old neighbours, on the other hand, is harder to dispel with policy changes – and it often comes replete with threats of physical attack.

The reasons for society’s resistance to displaced persons’ return differ from place to place. People in each area that ISIS once controlled have their own experience of its rule and the attendant atrocities, as well as their own recollections of which locals were, in their view, complicit. Ninewa governorate’s Sinjar district, for example, remains torn by the rupture between its Arabs and Yezidis: the Yezidis who survived the ISIS genocide reject the return of Arab neighbours whom they accuse of involvement in the abductions and killings. Elsewhere, the fault line may be tribal or between Sunni and Shiite residents, depending on the area’s history and demographic makeup.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi officials, Baghdad, February and June 2019.Hide Footnote

Sentiments behind communal rejection can also be hyper-local and even personal. An aid worker said the reasons for hostility seem “to vary not just from district to district, but from cluster of houses to cluster of houses”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Residents of post-ISIS areas say they remember every individual who joined or aided and abetted the group.[fn]A mukhtar said, “There were families who stayed [in areas under ISIS’s control] for material reasons [ie, because they lacked the means to leave]. We know them; their circumstances are difficult. But they didn’t join ISIS, so there’s no problem with them. … People who lived here under ISIS know who drank and ate with ISIS”. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019.Hide Footnote Yet allegations of ISIS links can be arbitrary and subject to abuse. People may feel the need to reject fellow residents with alleged affiliations as a way to shield themselves from suspicion.[fn]A displaced man from Ninewa claimed, for example, that his relatives had reported him and his immediate family as ISIS affiliates in order to burnish their own image. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Others may level allegations out of malice or because of old grudges.[fn]Many camp residents from the Ninewa countryside said such false accusations are a barrier to return, as did a camp administrator. Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons camps in Kurdish-held Ninewa and Erbil, December 2019. A reconciliation-focused Iraqi official said the same. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, February 2019.Hide Footnote

Many Iraqis also voice fears that civilians with perceived ISIS affiliations may have absorbed the group’s ideas.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraq, February, March, June, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Iraqi officials thus often propose solutions for “ISIS families’” that presuppose some program of “rehabilitation” or “de-radicalisation”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi officials, Baghdad and Ramadi, June 2019; Crisis Group telephone interview, international humanitarian worker, June 2019. “Iraq: Confining Families with Alleged ISIS Ties Unlawful”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  A Ninewa camp administrator reported that a small number of residents, who mostly kept to themselves, seemed still committed to ISIS, or to its extreme interpretation of Islam, but that the group’s influence had faded as time passed.[fn]Citing the example of school-age children, the administrator said, “The thing about them is that they don’t lie. They say whatever they feel. So, when you interact with the kids, it’s clear that [ISIS’s line of thinking] has reduced a lot. I’m not saying it’s not there, but it has reduced a lot”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote

The undercurrent to articulated objections to the displaced people’s return may just be strong emotions – which, far from making the objections less serious, likely makes them harder to address.[fn]An Iraqi humanitarian worker described the emotional response of some residents of post-ISIS areas when encouraged not to view returnees as “ISIS families”: “They’ll get angry. They’ll say, ‘This is what they were. … We suffered a lot because of them. Our house was bombed. We lost our property’”. Crisis Group Skype interview, July 2020.Hide Footnote

These Iraqis have survived a terrible trauma in which they believe some of their neighbours and acquaintances were complicit.

These Iraqis have survived a terrible trauma in which they believe some of their neighbours and acquaintances were complicit. That trauma is only a few years old, and Baghdad has been slow to assuage the anger and hurt. It has been dilatory, for example, in paying out promised compensation to those who suffered during the war with ISIS.[fn]On Iraq’s compensation regime, see “‘We Hope, But We Are Hopeless’: Civilians’ Perceptions of the Compensation Process in Iraq”, Center for Civilians in Conflict, 6 January 2019.Hide Footnote

Some of ISIS’s victims are prepared to act on this anger, even if that means threatening alleged ISIS members’ families. For Iraqis with perceived ISIS affiliations, then, the risk of attack in their areas of origin is real. A woman from Salah al-Din governorate said she and her family had been pushed out of the camp where they were living, but that residents of her hometown had told her she could not come home. She feared that if she tried to return, locals might hurt her teenage son.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  

Even if families with perceived ISIS affiliations can return and live at home safely for a time, residents may blame them for later ISIS activity.[fn]A displaced woman said she had received word that a tribal settlement in her home area in Salah al-Din would permit her to return, but that she feared locals would abduct her son or target her family if problems arose in the area. Even if things remained calm, she said the tribal settlement’s terms required her family to stay at home, with no mobile phones and unable to work the family land. She made a diamond shape with her hands to illustrate how her family would be confined within their house’s walls: “When we go back, we’ll be living like this”. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Some local government officials allege that returnees have abetted nearby ISIS attacks.[fn]Husham al-Hashimi, “ISIS in Iraq: The Challenge of Reintegrating ‘ISIS Families’”, Center for Global Policy, 7 July 2020.Hide Footnote  A camp administrator said his Ninewa camp had welcomed dozens of families who had been expelled from other camps but could not go home, many because they faced ostracism and threats if they returned. A fellow administrator said, “They say, ‘I just saved my children from dying. I’m not about to repeat that experience’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

C. The Compound Impact of Formal and Informal Barriers

Barriers such as communal resistance to return and formal obstacles such as security vetoes can reinforce each other in ways that make it harder to address any single problem facing Iraq’s displaced.

The best example of the convergence of the formal and informal is the mukhtar. The mukhtar’s role is two-sided; he is simultaneously a local agent of the state and the representative of communal sentiment to the state. Displaced Iraqis with alleged ISIS affiliations need their mukhtar’s sign-off for official documents and permission to return home.[fn]Crisis Group interview, camp administrator, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  The mukhtar, in turn, is responsible for ascertaining and communicating his community’s attitude regarding particular would-be returnees. If he thinks they would face real danger, he can hardly approve their return.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international humanitarian worker, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  When he declines these families’ applications for documents, is it the state, then, that is rejecting them, or is it their home community?

The distinction between the formal and the customary or communal is also blurred with regard to local security forces, which can prevent some families’ return. Camp residents express fears about the jumble of security bodies, possibly including Hashd paramilitaries, that may be patrolling their home areas.[fn]A man from Mosul said, “The police, the army, the Hashd – each one is a government on its own”. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  A single bad interaction at a checkpoint – including a case of mistaken identity, because of a common name – can have grave consequences.[fn]Iraq: Thousands Detained, Including Children, in Degrading Conditions”, Human Rights Watch, 4 July 2019. Even suspects who are eventually exonerated can face lengthy pre-trial detention in grim, overcrowded facilities. Detainees also can fear conviction in summary trials, regardless of their guilt or innocence; Iraqi courts have prosecuted thousands of alleged ISIS suspects under the country’s expansive counter-terrorism law, which stipulates capital punishment for ISIS membership, and have convicted some defendants based solely on confessions seemingly given under torture. See “Flawed Justice”, Human Rights Watch, 5 December 2017; and “Iraq: Key Courts Improve ISIS Trial Procedures”, Human Rights Watch, 13 March 2019.Hide Footnote  Many fear being disappeared, in particular by Hashd units that are formally part of the official security forces but can sometimes operate autonomously.[fn]For more on the Hashd and its relationship to Iraqi state authority, see Crisis Group Middle East Reports N°188, Iraq’s Paramilitary Groups: The Challenge of Rebuilding a Functioning State, 30 July 2018; N°194, Reviving UN Mediation on Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries, 14 December 2018; and N°215, Iraq: Fixing Security in Kirkuk, 15Hide Footnote  “In Mosul, when they take someone suspected of doing something, you don’t know where to”, a camp resident said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced man from Mosul, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Yet even as these various forces are part of the official security services, they can also be related and responsive to civilian residents, who can appeal to them to threaten would-be returnees. Even those the mukhtar has approved for return are not safe, said one man displaced from rural Ninewa: disgruntled locals might secretly report them to paramilitaries, who will detain them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Other camp residents pointed out that many security personnel, including members of local “tribal” Hashd units, come from families who reject the return of allegedly ISIS-affiliated people.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced people from Salah al-Din and Ninewa, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019. “Tribal” Hashd forces are locally recruited guard units, often with a senior tribal figure as a sponsor. See Erica Gaston, “Sunni Tribal Forces”, Global Public Policy Institute, 30 August 2017.Hide Footnote

Iraqi politicians who warn loudly of the threat posed by returning “ISIS families” represent another blurring of lines between public opinion and official attitudes. These politicians are both voicing what are likely their constituents’ sentiments and inflaming those same feelings. Iraq’s populist politics thus produces a dangerous feedback loop.[fn]These politicians have seized in particular on recurring rumours that Iraqi citizens in Syria’s al-Hol displacement camp will be repatriated to invoke the supposed danger posed by those Iraqis and by “ISIS families” generally. For example, see “Parliamentary statements regarding ISIS families in Ninewa”, Iraqi News Agency, 26 February 2020 (Arabic). The al-Hol camp now holds Syrian, Iraqi and other women and children taken into custody as ISIS’s last territorial pocket in Syria fell in March 2019. Arabic-language news media has featured lurid footage of a hard core of women in al-Hol angrily shouting ISIS slogans as well as accounts of them stabbing guards. “Female jihadists try to stab guards and flee from al-Hol Camp in north-eastern Syria”, video, YouTube, 30 July 2019 (Arabic). On European politicians’ fear-mongering about the return of their own countries’ nationals from al-Hol, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°208, Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS, 18 November 2019.Hide Footnote

IV. Gendered Impact

The challenges facing displaced families with perceived ISIS affiliations are significantly worse for female-headed households.

The challenges facing displaced families with perceived ISIS affiliations are significantly worse for female-headed households, largely because women’s legal status and social position are intertwined with those of their husbands and families. In practice, women must therefore traverse the same complicated pathways out of displacement as men, while facing additional obstacles.

The clearest illustration may be that a married woman usually cannot, by herself, obtain a security clearance or civil documentation for her and her children. Women whose husbands are detained, wanted by the security forces or otherwise missing and unaccounted for thus find themselves in an impossible predicament. The many such women in the camps typically cannot pass a security clearance and, without that clearance, cannot renew their documents. Even if they manage to pass a clearance and renew their own documents, in their husbands’ absence they may still be unable to get basic papers for their children.[fn]See “Barriers from Birth”, op. cit.; and “Paperless People of Post-conflict Iraq”, op. cit. A staff member of an organisation that helps displaced people renew their official documents said he works with dozens of women whose husbands are likely dead but who, in the state’s eyes, “aren’t exactly widows”. If a woman’s husband is missing and his death was not registered in a hospital or morgue, he said, the government treats the husband as a fugitive and refuses to issue documents to anyone in the family. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

These women’s main avenue for pursuing legal autonomy is tabria – disavowal – but this procedure is freighted with additional burdens and perils. By providing testimony that a detained or missing husband was involved with ISIS, a woman pursuing tabria can put him at risk. “It means acknowledging that her husband is with ISIS. It puts more stigma on the family, and it may expose the husband to danger”, a humanitarian worker said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Pursuing tabria can compromise a woman’s inheritance rights and other entitlements under Iraqi law, and it also risks alienating her in-laws. She may lose a desperately needed support network, which can offer her everything from emotional comfort to physical protection. She can even face threats of violent reprisal or removal of her children by angry in-laws who feel implicated by her testimony.[fn]Broken Home: Women’s Housing, Land and Property Rights in Post-conflict Iraq”, Norwegian Refugee Council, 11 May 2020; “Managing Return in Anbar”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The administrative hassle of the tabria process is also more onerous for women.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019. A woman whose husband was imprisoned for belonging to ISIS said disavowing and divorcing him would cost 400,000 or 500,000 Iraqi dinars ($332 or $415) in lawyer’s fees. As the head of a household of eight, she could not afford to pay such a bill.Hide Footnote  Rumours abound exaggerating the cost of the process, and the corruption surrounding it, which are particularly daunting for women who may have little formal education or experience navigating the bureaucracy – a task often assumed by the male head of household, especially in rural areas. “It can be confusing”, said a staff member of an organisation that helps the displaced renew their documents. “Now [this woman] has no husband to tell her what’s happening. She’s become the head of the household. She can get a mistaken understanding of things, until we clarify what’s happening”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Apart from finding the money for lawyers’ fees, single mothers must make multiple trips to municipal offices staffed by employees who can be hostile to perceived “ISIS families”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Some Iraqi organisations assist women with tabria. But many international agencies and donors refuse to do so, because they believe the process can violate the “do no harm” principle in stigmatising the women who go through it and incriminating others.[fn]Not all humanitarian workers agree. One international humanitarian worker criticised this position: “I think people can be a little patronising toward women who might be looking in a clear-eyed way at their situation. Sometimes I think the international discourse doesn’t give them enough credit, so that we’re not talking about these women as if they’re children, as well; rather, that they’re able to make decisions within a very poor set of choices”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 22 July 2020.Hide Footnote

On top of all this, the process is emotionally tormenting. It presents a woman with a terrible choice: publicly denounce her husband or remain, in effect, outside society.[fn]A woman whose husband had died fighting for ISIS said she had gone through with tabria because she felt she had little alternative. “What can I do?” she asked. “God knows the truth”, she said about her feelings for him. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  As a psychologist who worked in one camp said, “Many women are holding onto a glimmer of hope that their [missing husbands] are still alive”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019. A sheikh resident in one camp said he has told women seeking his counsel to divorce husbands who joined ISIS, because Islamic jurisprudence so dictates. “Some women get upset”, he said. “They love their husbands. But it’s sunnah [Islamic practice]” that they ought to emancipate themselves. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Women also face barriers to using customary mechanisms to get home. For example, women have only limited access and ability to participate in the tribal fora where sheikhs and notables arrive at settlements allowing returns. Normally, they would approach tribal sheikhs only with a male relative or intermediary.[fn]Haley Bobseine, “Tribal Justice in a Fragile Iraq”, The Century Foundation, 7 November 2019. On the other hand, an arguably paternalistic discomfort at seeing displaced women in these vulnerable circumstances has helped provide an impetus for tribal efforts to arrange their return. An international humanitarian worker said, “I think women have benefitted from many Iraqis’ deep sense of shame at the conditions they’re in. … People are uncomfortable with it. So that’s something that has allowed these tribal mechanisms to work, to protect this population that’s seen as vulnerable”. Crisis Group Skype interview, 22 July 2020.Hide Footnote

If these women are unwilling to break, officially and symbolically, with their husbands, many will be unable to get a security clearance. And clearance or not, many of their home communities will reject their return. According to an international humanitarian worker, “Residents say, ‘If they can’t [disavow their husbands], we don’t want them back’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote

The legal status issues and general stigma facing these displaced women only further limit their ability to cope with precarious circumstances.

The legal status issues and general stigma facing these displaced women only further limit their ability to cope with precarious circumstances. Getting paid work is particularly challenging for women with perceived ISIS affiliations. Employers checking references often go to local mukhtars, who report these women’s alleged ties; they are then typically not hired. Many of these women can only find economic opportunities with support from humanitarian organisations, which themselves may face pressure from locals not to help allegedly affiliated families.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, humanitarian worker involved with livelihoods assistance, August 2020.Hide Footnote  All these difficulties encourage some female-headed families to cling to life in camps.[fn]As a male camp resident put it, “If [these women] went back home, they could only survive by begging. Here at least they have a tent to themselves”. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

These women’s lack of legal and financial autonomy – their struggle to afford private living quarters in their home areas, for example – also acutely deepens their vulnerability. As divorced or widowed women, they already suffer from diminished social status and lack of physical protection. As a displaced woman said, “In Mosul, where is a woman supposed to sleep alone? At least here [in the camp], there’s safety”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Yet even in camps, women who are socially isolated and economically needy can be vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation by camp authorities or local security actors. It is hard to gauge the scope of the problem, but abuse appears to be occurring in some camps.[fn]See “Iraq: The Condemned: Women and Children Isolated, Trapped and Exploited in Iraq”, Amnesty International, 17 April 2018; and Sanar Hasan, “‘When one of them refuses, she’s threatened’… Displaced women in Iraqi camps victims of sexual and political exploitation”, Raseef22, 20 July 2020 (Arabic)Hide Footnote

There is no agreed-upon narrative about the degree of culpability or agency that should be assigned to women who were married or related to ISIS members. These questions about how to understand women’s involvement in ISIS are not singular to Iraq, although Iraqi women living in cities and towns seized by the militants were more caught up in ISIS by circumstance than were the foreign women who actively migrated to Syria and Iraq to join the group and marry its fighters.

In practice, though, these Iraqi women whose association with ISIS is more tenuous must still endure the persistent antipathy of their fellow Iraqis.[fn]Women with perceived ISIS affiliations can suffer from stigma even in camps. “Local [towns]people would spit on me and my children”, said a woman about her experience in one camp. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Many women who manage to return home face lingering suspicion and resentment.

Many women who manage to return home face lingering suspicion and resentment. Some suffer ostracism even from their own families, who may spurn either the women themselves, the children they had with husbands allegedly involved with ISIS or both. A mother of four described how her family invited her home, only to take her children from her and deposit them with her imprisoned husband’s family. They refused to take in children they viewed as the product of their ISIS father. She managed to recover her children, and then returned to the camp. “I haven’t thought of going back since then”, she said. “[My family] calls me, and they repeat, ‘Give up your children and come back’”.[fn]The woman said she could not secure documents for her children without her husband – yet she also feared that if she divorced him, his family would take her children. Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Aid workers call these sorts of U-turns, in which returnees leave once more for camps, “re-returns”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, camp administrator and humanitarian worker, Erbil, December 2019.
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V. Toward Government Action, Done Right

By requiring displaced people with perceived ISIS affiliations – who, again, face no criminal charges – to denounce their family members, the Iraqi state treats them as presumptively guilty by association. If they refuse, they are effectively sentenced to open-ended stays in provisional camps. This treatment amounts to extra-legal punishment of these displaced people in violation of their rights. The Iraqi government should work to remedy their situation, foremost out of humanitarian concern and obligation to its citizens. “We’re brothers – on one land, one Iraq”, said a displaced man from rural Ninewa. “We’re no different from people in Basra”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  Indeed, a solution for Iraq’s displaced and for families with alleged ISIS affiliations in particular is in Iraq’s national interest: it is important to the country’s recovery from years of violent conflict.

These encamped people are, in effect, exiles in their own country.

These encamped people are, in effect, exiles in their own country. Yet they are Iraqis, living inside Iraq. They cannot be ignored or wished away; they are part of the country’s future.

Alongside the moral imperative to act is a political one. It can be risky to warn that continued ostracism of these Iraqis endangers the country’s stability without further stigmatising them or encouraging narratives of their “radicalisation” for which there is little seeming basis. Yet without action to reincorporate these families into society, they do seem at risk of becoming a permanent underclass. Denied the chance to live as normal, law-abiding citizens, they could become targets for recruitment by criminal gangs, by ISIS or by something else like it.

Perhaps the most urgent aspect of this problem is the plight of children who, after the traumatic experience of war, are now spending formative years in camps. If they grow up in these conditions, with no prospects, they are at risk of being exploited and instrumentalised by violent actors.[fn]An Iraqi journalist said, “A child whose father was killed and whose mother was exploited and raped won’t be in his right mind. There’ll be a spirit of revenge there”. Crisis Group interview, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote To the extent that some Iraqis worry about these children having absorbed some of ISIS’s ideas, it is hard to see how isolation in camps will help. For their well-being and Iraq’s future stability, it would be critical to reintegrate them into society. Access to education is a major part of that. “These kids need to feel they’re part of something, and they need someone to help them”, said a displaced father from Mosul. “They need to see they’re part of society”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote

Absent proactive solutions, the country’s displacement crisis could just drag on. As time goes by, Iraqi authorities are moving the remaining displaced people into fewer and what seem to be harsher camps. Humanitarian workers worry that some of these camps, with very severe movement restrictions, are becoming effective detention centres.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international humanitarian worker, Erbil, December 2019.Hide Footnote  The concentration of these displaced Iraqis in a handful of camps that are assumed to be populated mainly by “ISIS families” could actually prolong these families’ hardship by making the residual displacement problem easier to ignore.

Yet even as Iraq should not leave its citizens in the limbo of protracted displacement, there are also grave risks to pushing these families to return to their home areas. Rushed or compulsory returns could expose them to violence.[fn]One vivid illustration of the risk of returns gone wrong came in late 2019, when Ninewa governorate authorities began busing residents originally from Salah al-Din to camps in that governorate. The buses were met with protests by angry locals who refused to receive “ISIS families”, as well as threats on social media and, reportedly, grenades thrown at a camp fence. “We’re not a dumping ground for bad people, or, as people say, a receptacle for outlaws and families of ISIS members”, a local notable told a television broadcast. “Popular rejection of harbouring ISIS families in al-Shihama camp in Tikrit”, video, YouTube, 3 September 2019 (Arabic). See also “Iraq: Camps Expel over 2,000 People Seen as ISIS-Linked”, Human Rights Watch, 4 September 2019.Hide Footnote  Some displaced families may never be able to safely return to their areas of origin and may have to resettle in third locations. Others may eventually be able to make a safe and voluntary return, but only after the government and its partners exert substantial effort to ensure that residents of their areas of origin accept them back.

Kadhimi’s visit to the al-Salamiya camp was a positive step. He reportedly spoke with camp residents about giving grants to rebuild displaced people’s houses and forming a government committee to develop solutions for return.[fn]Readout of Kadhimi’s visit circulated among humanitarian workers in Iraq, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The Kadhimi government’s seeming desire to address the displacement crisis is welcome. But if it hopes to ensure that displaced people’s return to normal life is safe, voluntary and sustainable, Baghdad, along with its NGO and donor partners, ought to additionally account for both the informal, communal barriers to return and the issue’s inescapably gendered nature.

Surmounting the informal barriers to return will require more efforts by Iraqi authorities and supporting NGOs to consult community leaders in displaced Iraqis’ areas of origin, and to sensitise residents to the return and reintegration of their former neighbours. The nature of that consultation and any agreements on return will necessarily vary by area, given the specific grievances obstructing return in each locale; in some areas, it may entail resorting to customary tribal mechanisms.[fn]For more, see Bobseine, “Tribal Justice in a Fragile Iraq”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Some communities may also demand that returnees participate in “de-radicalisation” programming. Even if the evidentiary basis for this programming is dubious – in Iraq and elsewhere – it may be unavoidable in order to reassure area residents, who may care about both ensuring that would-be returnees no longer harbour violent intentions and the signal sent by their willingness to participate in such programs.

Material incentives could also help. Iraq has little money to spare, and local resistance to return might be deeply personal. Nonetheless, the distribution of long-promised compensation to residents of post-ISIS areas would likely help temper ill feeling. Baghdad and its partners should also consider making strategic investments in areas where return is tough, linking additional services or reconstruction to community reconciliation.

Donors have an opportunity to step in, helping Baghdad rebuild the country physically and socially by encouraging the reintegration of tens of thousands of women and children.

Given Iraq’s financial difficulties, donors have an opportunity to step in, helping Baghdad rebuild the country physically and socially by encouraging the reintegration of tens of thousands of women and children.

Even for Baghdad to visibly pay attention to these areas’ residents – themselves traumatised by ISIS and the war to defeat it – could help soften their opposition to the return of the displaced. In that sense, the July visit by the minister for migration and the displaced to Ninewa’s Sinjar district was another worthwhile move, for the solicitousness it demonstrates for ISIS’s victims.[fn]Ministry of Migration and the Displaced”, Facebook, 5:10pm, 5 July 2020.Hide Footnote

Policy ought also to take into account how displacement disproportionately affects women and female-headed families, and how women relate especially to the law and Iraq’s customary structures. Wherever possible, the government and its partners should try to maximise these women’s autonomy and agency, so that they can themselves participate in deciding their fate. The government should explore and, if possible, institute administrative changes that would allow displaced women to secure civil documents for themselves and their children independently of their missing or imprisoned husbands. That may mean delinking security clearance procedures from access to civil documentation, or an “amnesty period” in which women could secure basic documents for their children without the father’s involvement.[fn]See “Barriers from Birth”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Baghdad and its partners should also look to support women materially in ways that give them greater independence in considering their legal options and choosing where to live – whether in their home communities or in other areas, where they might struggle to afford rent and living expenses.

It is also important to include women in decisions that affect them. Tribal settlements on return, for example, are concluded among men, despite being largely about the fate of women. These mechanisms thus risk further disenfranchising women. As an example, a displaced woman said she feared for her children if she went home to her Salah al-Din district but, after she was told of a tribal settlement there, felt she had no choice: “If we don’t go back now, [my children] will be fugitives forever. … I don’t want them to go back. But it’s our fate”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, displaced persons camp in Kurdish-held Ninewa, December 2019.Hide Footnote  However possible, Iraqi authorities and NGOs should consult women as part of these processes. They should not feel at the mercy of a “fate” decided by men.

Most important of all, of course, is that the Kadhimi government follow through on its stated commitment to investing attention, energy and resources in solutions for Iraq’s long-term displaced, including families with perceived ISIS affiliations. Otherwise, the likely outcome is more ad hoc camp closures, more unsafe returns and more concentration of people with perceived ISIS affiliations in semi-permanent camps, outside society.

VI. Conclusion

Prime Minister Kadhimi’s evident interest in solving Iraq’s displacement crisis suggests that, for displaced Iraqis and those with perceived ISIS affiliations in particular, a better life is possible. His government faces several grave challenges. Still, Baghdad and its partners ought to keep the displaced on the agenda.

Displaced people with perceived ISIS affiliations are Iraqi citizens in Iraq, charged with no crime. Without a solution, they could become lasting pariahs; excluded from normal life, they are in danger of turning instead to destructive coping mechanisms or even in some cases being recruited into organised violence. The Kadhimi government should ensure that resolving Iraq’s displacement crisis remains a priority, both for the country’s future stability and for the sake of these long-suffering Iraqi citizens.

Baghdad/Erbil/Brussels, 19 October 2020