Iraqi government uses ISIL fears to attack Sunni minority

A group of Iraqi Sunni refugees had found shelter in an abandoned school, two families to a room, after fleeing fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. They were gathered in the school’s courtyard last week when the Iraqi Air Force bombed them.
The bombing, in Alam District near Tikrit, may well have been a mistake. But some of the survivors believe adamantly that the pilot had to know he was bombing civilians, landing the airstrike “in the middle of all the people,” said Nimr Ghalib, whose wife, three children, sister and nephew were among at least 38 people killed, according to witnesses interviewed last week, as well as human rights workers who detailed the attack on Wednesday.
The attack fit a pattern of often indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes on Sunni areas by the armed forces of the Shiite-led Iraqi government. The strikes have added to a long and bitter list of Sunni grievances, leading many to view the government’s leaders as an enemy — and some to regard the government as an even greater threat than the Sunni extremists in ISIS.
In Sunni neighborhoods and provinces pummeled by years of war and shaped by a legacy of mistrust that stretches back to the sectarian political order that rose during the American occupation of Iraq.
It will be a “mammoth task” to stitch the country back together and assuage Sunni fears, said Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, president of the Middle East Research Institute, a think tank in Erbil in Kurdistan.
“Sunnis are deeply fragmented, and winning the trust of those in Baghdad is not enough to win the hearts and minds of those under ISIS occupation,” he said. “With the violations of the constitution, with the burning of all these bridges, with the lack of focus on nation building, it finally made Iraq fail,” he continued. “To repair a failed state is a near-impossible task.”
As the price of their support, Sunni leaders have demanded that the government curb the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that have been deployed to Sunni areas, and seek the release of Sunni men imprisoned by the hundreds under vague charges during the previous government. They also claim that Sunni areas do not receive their fair share of the country’s wealth, and demand more autonomy, as the Kurds have.
“We are looking for a measure of good will,” said Sheikh Ahmed al-Shauki, a former army commander during Saddam Hussein’s rule and now a representative of the Independence Armed Group, a Sunni insurgent movement based in Anbar Province.
“We hope the government doesn’t ignore us, because it will tear Iraq apart.”
But in its war against ISIS, the conduct of the government seems to have only cauterized the divisions.
As ISIS seized vast sections of territory this summer, as Iraqi soldiers fled or were routed, the government increasingly turned to Shiite militias to counter the threat.
Iraq’s Sunnis vividly recall how militias linked to the governing Shiite parties staged attacks against Sunnis during the worst years of the sectarian conflict last decade, often in cooperation with Iraq’s military and police forces, or while wearing their uniforms.
Maliki was criticized for his inability or unwillingness to dismantle the groups, hardening Sunni mistrust of the government.
Now, new rumors of militia crimes — including summary executions and rapes — have angered and worried the Sunni population. The militias have also set fire to houses of suspected ISIS members or sympathizers in towns and villages that they have swept of ISIS control.
“We’re between two fires: I.S. and the militias,” said a professor at Tikrit University in Salahuddin Province, using the abbreviation for Islamic State, as the militants now call themselves.
Ghanim al-Aabid, a Sunni activist from Mosul, said that Sunnis in the city were “not used to living in the chaos brought about under ISIS.”
But the government’s reliance on the feared Shiite militias had left residents with no one to turn to. “ISIS will be the only Sunni militia who can fight against the Shiites,” he said.
Many Sunnis are also skeptical about Mr. Abadi’s promises that the government will be more inclusive toward Sunnis. They cite previous failures of similar programs: Mr. Maliki’s government also made a point of including Sunnis in the cabinet, and even hope for the new national guard program has been tempered by memories of how the Sunni Awakening militia forces were marginalized and shut down by the government.
Worse, a growing list of indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes by the Iraqi military has widened the gap between Sunnis and the government, while making the country’s violence seem ever more inescapable.
Khalid Abduljabar Ahmed, who arrived at the school in Alam last week minutes after the airstrike at the abandoned school, said he saw “horrible scenes.”
“Burning children. Half bodies, and blood everywhere,” he said.
Researchers for Human Rights Watch who investigated the airstrike said the school was sheltering roughly 70 people from about 10 families. ISIS fighters had occasionally based themselves in a police station about 500 meters from the school, and had been seen in the area hours before the bombing, witnesses told the group. After the bombing, the fighters also helped with the rescue effort.
A spokesman for the Iraqi military did not return calls seeking comment on the airstrike. Erin Evers, an Iraq-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that the
government had a poor history in terms of protecting civilian structures in its fight against ISIS.
“In some cases, we have documented that they purposely targeted protected structures like the Falluja General Hospital,” she said, adding that the government had shown little caution in protecting civilian lives.
The fatalities from the bombing threatened to alienate Sunnis in an area “that had been a pocket of local resistance to ISIS,” said Zaid al-Ali, the author of “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future.”
One of the district’s prominent tribes, Al Jabour, had been openly fighting with ISIS in the area, he said. Mr. Ali, who has extensive contacts in Iraq, said that residents of Tikrit, one of Iraq’s most important Sunni cities, had been clamoring for the army to rid the city of the militants.
The airstrikes at the school sent a “terrible message,” he said: “If you resist ISIS, you can still be attacked. You suffer at the hands of ISIS, and at the hands of the government.”

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