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Iraqi Sunnis seek answers for those displaced in time of fighting Islamic State

Sunni politicians are putting pressure on the Kadhimi government to determine the fate of Sunnis displaced during the fight against the Islamic State.

In an attempt to pressure the Mustafa al-Kadhimi government to reveal the fate of Sunnis who disappeared during the operations to liberate the country from the Islamic State (IS), Iraqis rolled out the hashtag Waiyoun ("Where Are They") on social media. The demands also include revealing the fate of those who went missing during the October 2019 protests. As it went viral among Iraqis, international organizations such as Human Rights Watch also interacted with the hashtag and joined the popular demand. 

The issue of Sunnis who disappeared during the fight against IS has always been sensitive, as one rarely dared to talk about it because of militia involvement. It was also a demand made by just the Sunni political forces and was included in their political talks with the Shiite forces who consider the post of prime minister — the top executive post in the Iraqi administration — to be strictly theirs.

Those who were forcibly disappeared in Iraq are the ones who went missing when IS occupied nearly a third of Iraqi territory in 2014. Others disappeared during the operations conducted by official security forces affiliated with the ministries of the interior and defense and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to liberate the country from IS. The issue now also includes those who went missing in the protests that were held in 11 Iraqi provinces in October 2019. 

The International Commission on Missing Persons estimates that the number of missing persons ranges between 250,000 to 1 million since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Since he took office, Kadhimi promised that the forcibly disappeared persons’ fates would be revealed. Both former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi who resigned in November following the protests had made the same promise. Neither Abadi nor Abdul-Mahdi kept their promises. Today, there is a fear that Kadhimi will also fail to resolve this issue.

Wahda al-Jumaili, a member of the Iraqi parliament and rapporteur of the parliamentary human rights committee, is a staunch defender of resolving this issue in Iraq. She had even conditioned giving Kadhimi a vote of confidence if he added it to his agenda.

Jumaili told Al-Monitor, “None of the Sunni or Shiite political parties has been serious in espousing this issue.” She said the issue will be resolved when the popular movement demanding the fate of missing persons be revealed grows bigger and is able to pressure the government and the United Nations.

This particular issue is thorny and complex, as Kadhim al-Shimary, a member of parliament for the National Coalition, and Haibat al-Halbousi, a member of parliament for the Iraqi Forces Alliance, said. Yet while Shimary perceives that the issue is only linked to the judiciary, Halbousi affirmed that it is political.

Jumaili, Shimary and Halbousi believe that armed factions were involved in the disappearance of residents in Iraq’s northern and western Sunni areas — Anbar, Salahuddin and Ninevah provinces in particular. But they did not name these factions, and no one has the official figures in this regard.

Shimary indicated that thousands of persons have gone missing and their families know who is responsible for their disappearance.

He said the residents of Jurf al-Sakhar, south of Baghdad — who were displaced following the 2014 military operations and never allowed to return — told him there are forcibly disappeared persons in the armed factions' secret prisons. Shimary told Al-Monitor, “I cannot confirm whether this information is correct or not, in my legal capacity of representative, because I do not have sufficient evidence.”

Shimary, who is part of a secular coalition close to Sunni Arabs, added, “There is nothing new about the forcibly disappeared persons’ issue. Yet the political and popular pressure to resolve this issue is mounting.”

“The prevailing political environment is in favor of the opening of files,” he noted, adding, “Some parties have been negligent and must be condemned. The fate of thousands of persons is still unknown. It is unknown whether they are dead or still alive in the militias’ secret prisons.”

Shimary stressed the need to refer this issue to the judiciary and “the need to protect the judiciary in conducting urgent investigations away from any pressure.”

Halbousi, who is part of the Iraqi Forces Alliance that represents Sunni Arabs in parliament, said, “The judiciary was supposed to be inquiring into this case for months now in order to identify what happened to the forcibly disappeared persons.” He told Al-Monitor, “The forcibly disappeared persons’ issue is political in the first place before taking on any other character.”

Halbousi is skeptical about resolving this issue and holding those involved accountable. He said Abadi and Abdul-Mahdi had promised in the past that this issue would be resolved, but nothing ever changed. He added, “Kadhimi also promised that this issue would be over and those involved would be held accountable. Yet I cannot tell how serious he is in the absence of practical measures.”

Although Sunnis in parliament are skeptical about Kadhimi’s moves to resolve the issue, Human Rights Watch's senior Iraq researcher Belkis Wille told Al-Monitor that the Kadhimi government has an opportunity to reveal the fate of those who were forcibly disappeared, given that this government paves the way for the elections and is not involved in the forced disappearance of persons. He noted that Kadhimi formed a committee in this regard.

Al-Monitor could not obtain a statement from Kadhimi’s office regarding the committee.

Nevertheless, Kadhimi’s mission is seemingly complicated. Wille said that “many of the security forces divisions are involved in the issue of forced disappearance, including federal forces, the Ministry of Interior and PMU.” In addition, some of these forces have a strong presence in parliament and a major influence in the state’s key departments.

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