What the UN wants: Iraq’s new dilemma

Salah Nasrawi , Saturday 18 Jun 2022

The UN is increasing its pressure on Iraq to repatriate thousands of former Islamic State fighters and their families from a Kurdish-controlled camp in Syria.

Jeanine Hennis
Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert


Last week, Iraqi security forces arrested two people in the Euphrates agricultural town of Mishkhab after a protest over water shortages and the lack of public services.

The authorities immediately charged them with belonging to Saddam Hussein’s former ruling Baath Party and attempts to glorify the notorious dictator.

The reason behind the detention was the slogans the protesters shouted, which praised the former tyrant’s rule and showed resentment towards his successors who have given them little of what they had hoped for in post-Saddam Iraq.

The Mishkhab incident may not signal the phenomenon of nostalgia for the Saddam era in Iraq, even though many Iraqis still believe their country was better under a dictator renowned for his brutal repression, but it underscores how its traumatic past is still haunting Iraq and dividing the nation.

This haunting question came to mind last week when a senior UN diplomat mandated to help Iraq rebuild, urged Iraqis to ignore the horror and the deaths in their recent history caused by the Islamic State (IS) group and suggested that they should suppress the trauma they had sustained.

On 8 June, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert urged the Iraqi authorities to repatriate thousands of IS-linked nationals detained in a camp in northeastern Syria, declaring that “the best and only durable solution is to control the situation, managing returns swiftly and decisively, in the spirit of partnership, to prevent the legacy of yesterday’s fight from fuelling tomorrow’s conflict.”

“Keeping people in restricted and poor conditions ultimately creates greater protection and security risks than taking them back in a controlled manner. Iraq is demonstrating that responsible repatriations are possible by finding dignified solutions anchored in the principles of both accountability and reintegration,” Plasschaert said in a statement released by her office.

She made her remarks after a tour with a UN delegation to the Al-Hol Camp designed to highlight a so-called UN-led support rehabilitation initiative to repatriate IS detainees in northeastern Syria. She was accompanied by the chief of Iraq’s National Security Service.

The camp, a sprawling complex of tents that has hosted tens of thousands of people suspected of having links with IS for many years, is under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led group which rules over much of northeastern Syria.

Plasschaert’s public appeal echoes the quiet diplomacy pursued by many Western stakeholders, which have been privately urging Iraqi government leaders to support the return of Iraqi families from the Al-Hol Camp.

The Western media have also been playing up the dire conditions in the camp, though some of it has blamed their governments for the plight of the families.

Iraq has said it is determined to repatriate all the families stuck in the Syrian camp after “security checks” are completed. It has also urged the international community to help it set up “re-integration programmes” for the returnees.

The Al-Hol Camp, where about 57,000 people, almost half of them children, live, is considered one of the most violent detention and displacement camps on earth. It has been branded a breeding ground for terrorism.

Since March 2019, there have been at least 130 murders in the main Al-Hol Camp, home to Syrian and Iraqi men, women, and children associated with IS. But the Al-Hol Annex, which houses displaced women and children from the Syrian Civil War, has also been insecure.

The already precarious humanitarian and security conditions have deteriorated further in recent months, making the risks associated with this slow-moving catastrophe ever clearer. A camp like Al-Hol fuels resentment and inspires terrorists to commit everything from breakout operations to large-scale attacks.

In October 2020, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) announced plans to release all the Syrian nationals from the camp, which account for about half of the population.

That process has been hampered by significant obstacles in areas outside of government control, however, while the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad remains uninterested in their repatriation.   

After the release of the Syrian nationals, there would still remain some 10,000 people from other nationalities in the camp from 40 other countries. There have been repeated calls from Iraqi officials asking the international community to repatriate its nationals from Al-Hol, but only a few countries have responded positively to the calls citing security concerns.

The UN is concentrating its efforts on over 25,000 Iraqis whom it wants Iraq to take back despite the fears of the Baghdad authorities, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the general Iraqi public that the returnees could be a time bomb.

So far, over 2,500 Iraqis have been repatriated to Iraq. But as the UN and some Western governments are increasing the pressure on the Iraqi authorities to take back more, leaving them in a quandary as they realise the country is not ready to provide the required post-return security and accommodation.

Five years after the conflict in Iraq ended, many of the physical, emotional, and psychological wounds of the war remain unhealed. The end of the conflict was nevertheless presented as the beginning of a new era of peace, national healing, and reconstruction in Iraq and the closure of IS’s bloody chapter.

For many people in parts of the country where the worst IS atrocities were experienced, there can be no reconciliation when so many scars of the war remain. On Saturday, Iraq marked the eighth anniversary of the IS massacre of 1,700 Iraqi soldiers during its 2015 blitzkrieg, with many of the bodies still unaccounted for.

On 8 June, an official in the Iraqi Anbar Province told the local media that the security forces in the province expect trouble next week when some 500 families of IS affiliates are due to arrive from Al-Hol.

He said that many local people have vowed to take revenge on the returnees, who are accused of committing atrocities after the group captured the province in 2015.

Local people in Mosul have also protested against the authorities giving accommodation to some 100 families returning from Al-Hol in the Al-Jadda Camp in the south of the province. Some of the women in the camp have acknowledged links to IS through relatives, but others have denied having had anything to do with the terrorist group.

Nearly three and a half years after the IS caliphate in Iraq was declared defeated, reports abound that the terror group is mounting raids in many parts of northern and central Iraq. IS militants have been carrying out daily hit-and-run attacks, killing soldiers, members of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), and civilians.   

On 20 January, IS-affiliated militants attacked a prison near the city of Al-Hassakeh in northeastern Syria in the hope of freeing their jailed comrades, leaving hundreds dead on both sides.

The brazen attack was the latest evidence of IS’s resurgence and sent a message to the Iraqi authorities that the group has significant military capacities and remains defiant about making a comeback.

The hasty rehabilitation of IS militants in Iraq also bodes ill for many countries in the Middle East that are engaged in their own wars against IS branches. Al-Hol serves as a key hub for the region’s violent extremists and terror networks, and many countries will feel threatened if their nationals in the camp are let go.

Moreover, Plasschaert’s suggestion will certainly undermine strategies adopted by many governments in the region to counter the radical hate-fuelled ideology of IS that is considered conducive to the production of extremism and terrorism.    

But rather than taking responsibility for the failure to address this overwhelming challenge, the top UN official in Iraq has resorted to the standard tactic of running away from the problem and blaming it on the weakest link in the global war on terrorism.

Media reports about the dire conditions in the Al-Hol Camp and its being a tinderbox for terrorism have served as a call to action, but the international community has not decisively answered calls to tackle the crisis involving facilities holding IS detainees, including foreign nationals.

Aside from the Iraqi children, there are over 7,300 minors from 60 countries across the globe living in the Al-Hol Camp, according to Save the Children, an international NGO, but its repeated appeals to these children’s governments to urgently step up efforts to repatriate them along with their families have fallen on deaf ears.

Instead of giving room to apologists for those governments that refuse to repatriate their IS-linked nationals or actors who want to exploit opportunities afforded by their inaction, the UN chief diplomat in Iraq should work for much-needed international efforts to address this global challenge collectively.

A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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