No one expected the former prime minister of Iraq Haider Al Abadi's appearance at the Sulaimani Forum last week to be controversial. He was to address the lessons he learned from his time in office and how he sees the country progressing.
Mr Al Abadi instead decided to argue against the strong evidence of the loss of civilian lives in the battle to liberate Mosul from ISIS. Despite reports of several thousand civilians killed in the 2017 battles, Mr Al Abadi insisted that only eight women and children died in the Old City.
The moderator of his session, Jane Arraf, has spent years covering Iraq and was one of the first journalists on the scene to cover the aftermath of the battle against ISIS. Despite her personal visits to Mosul morgue and seeing bodies of children beneath the rubble, Mr Al Abadi refused to accept that the actual number of deaths was any higher than eight. The exasperation of many attendees at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani was audible at his insistence.
The encounter at first appeared strange. Mr Al Abadi has a record to be proud of. He came to power in 2014, at a time when ISIS controlled or threatened a third of Iraq’s territory, distrust in the armed forces was high and sectarian tensions flaring. As commander in chief, Mr Al Abadi took it upon himself to oversee the fight against ISIS, rally the troops and push back against the sectarian rhetoric. Not only was he able to claim victory in liberating ISIS territory in 2017, but also the recognition that he brought Iraq back from the brink of absolute chaos. Iraqis rewarded him with the highest number of votes in last October’s elections. In the Sunni-majority city of Mosul, he received the largest vote, a first for a Shia-Islamist politician.
Why he would choose to argue a statistic that is impossible to uphold is difficult to understand. However, Mr Al Abadi’s position is indicative of a greater attitude towards the communities who have had to fight the scourge of ISIS. Victory is interpreted as not highlighting the challenges that remain, or accepting civilian deaths.
The problem is not limited to the fight against ISIS. There has not been a serious attempt to register the number of Iraqi civilian deaths for the past four decades of war. Calls for accurate tallies of the dead have been neglected, adding to the sense of loss experienced by the families of those killed. It remains unlikely that we will ever know the full scale of the loss of life.
The areas liberated from ISIS have gone through the hell of brutality, a devastating war, aerial bombardment, booby traps and economic destruction. Death, kidnap and intimidation threatened millions of Iraqis. Today 1.8 million Iraqis are internally displaced, while four million internally displaced persons have returned to difficult conditions. Post-liberation, expectations are for governmental support and at the least an acknowledgement of the losses that people have endured. Of course, there are bright spots, such as the expansion of civil society activism and the rise of small businesses dealing with everyday challenges. Yet those challenges are huge.
Mosul does not have one functioning general hospital. MSF facilities, small clinics and makeshift hospitals are trying to fill the gap. AFP has just published a worrying report about super-resistant bacteria plaguing emergency rooms in Mosul.
When these issues are raised, officials often say more time is needed. And yet 20 months have passed since the liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s second city.
An attempt to cover up the scale of losses in Mosul and other cities in Iraq is widespread. The unpopular governor of Mosul, Nawfal Sultan, has now banned any photography of the ruins of the Old City. The stripping of all metal from the destroyed buildings of Mosul, which Reuters reports is being handled by certain elements of the Popular Mobilisation Units to send to Iran, is difficult to document in part because of that ban.
The failure of some politicians and those in power to recognise the suffering of their own people has created a worrying gap between them. With a turnout of approximately 35% of Iraqi voters in the last elections, the legitimacy needed to claim a mandate to act is undermined.
Ali Al Baroudi, a prominent civil society activist in Mosul, was outraged after Mr Al Abadi’s statement. He confronted Mr Al Abadi privately and later spoke at a round table to express his frustration. “The people of Mosul accepted that half of their city would be destroyed to get rid of ISIS. We gave our votes to Al Abadi. And this is how we are treated,” he said.
An acknowledgement of the loss of life and the pain experienced by bereaved families is the least that can be done to enable the rebuilding of societal ties and faith in the politicians whose responsibility is to represent their people.