Amid ongoing unrest, Iraq refuses to receive IS detainees from Syria

Though Iraq previously said it would receive and prosecute foreign Islamic State fighters from Syria, it has now rescinded its offer.

al-monitor An Iraqi soldier is seen at the Iraqi-Syrian border after it has reopened for trade and travel, in al-Qaim, Iraq, Sept. 30, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani.

Nov 27, 2019

As protests and unrest in Iraq escalate, Iraqi officials have shifted their stance toward receiving foreign Islamic State (IS) fighters from Syria. Officials fear Iraq can no longer detain and prosecute IS detainees in light of the current political and security situation.

Agnes Calamar, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, said Nov. 5 that IS foreign terrorists detained in Syria and Iraq should be sent to their countries and tried, because Damascus and Baghdad cannot provide adequate and fair conditions for their trials.

Iraqi political sources spoke to the press about attempts by EU officials to persuade the Iraqi government to receive 13,000 IS operatives detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). If Iraq were to receive the detainees, it would receive financial compensation for the trials and imprisonment. Yet it seems Iraq will refuse the offer. 

The Iraqi government is dodging the issue of IS fighters despite EU pressure to transfer them to Iraq for trials, even including fighters who do not have Iraqi citizenship.

An Iraqi intelligence source told Al-Monitor there is no accurate count of IS fighters detained in Iraq, "but the number of fighters the SDF handed over to the Iraqi government amounts to about 1,500.”

The IS fighters with EU nationalities pose a threat to their home countries, thus EU efforts to have them tried in Iraq and to prevent their return to the EU.

The UN has demanded that IS fighters be tried in their own countries. Furthermore, human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch warned of Iraq’s inability to provide a proper environment for the trials. Europe, however, insists on not receiving the IS fighters and has ignored the lawsuits filed in the home countries of some these fighters.

An adviser to Iraqi President Barham Salih told Al-Monitor, “Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg has proposed to the Iraqi president to receive and prosecute these fighters in Iraq, but he refused.”

“There are 13,000 foreign IS fighters in Syria along with 75,000 members of their families who should be transferred to Iraq and put on trial, according to the EU proposals,” the source added.

He said that the EU had previously been wary of the trials taking place in Iraq, but today “they just want them transferred to Iraq, whatever the outcome of the trials.”

In recent months, Iraq sentenced 12 foreign IS operatives to death, 11 of whom are French nationals and one Tunisian.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry announced a new stance on the issue Oct. 20. “Iraq is only interested in receiving IS fighters who hold Iraqi nationality and their families," the ministry said. "They will be tried in Iraqi courts and in accordance with the laws in force.”

Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad al-Sahaf told Al-Monitor, “Iraq informed the EU officials who put forward such ideas that it will not change its position to this effect.”

This confirms that the negotiations in this regard have come to a halt.

During the visits by Norwegian Prime Minister Solberg and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last month to Iraq, the proposal to receive foreign fighters was put forward again, but the Iraqi government refused.

Le Drian, during an October visit to Iraq, focused on the judicial mechanisms to be followed by the Iraqi government in prosecuting foreign IS fighters. Yet he was shocked by Iraq’s refusal to receive them, a government source told Al-Monitor.

Hisham al-Hashimi, a researcher at al-Nahrain Center for Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “The Iraqi government is no longer willing to receive and prosecute IS fighters here, despite the temptations it has been offered to this effect.”

IS fighters’ families will also not be received because the government is not able to accommodate them. In September, 150 families arrived from the Shirqat district in Salahuddin governorate, where they were attacked.

The problem is no longer limited to the government’s refusal but now the community's refusal. This played a role in the changed stance of the Iraqi authorities.

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