“The people of Mosul will receive their salaries, while the people of Basra will receive the bodies of their martyrs,” runs a bitter comment on Iraqi social media. Many Iraqis see the inhabitants of Mosul as willing collaborators with Isis during its three years in power in the city. In particular, there are calls for the punishment of “Daesh [Isis] families” whose male members had become Isis fighters or officials.
The desire for revenge runs deep among the victims of Isis in the wake of the fall of Mosul, which is scarcely surprising given the cruelty and violence of Isis rule. “I can always tell members of Daesh families when they ask for medical treatment,” said a volunteer medical worker in west Mosul. “They have plump faces and look well-fed, while everybody else in Mosul is thin and malnourished.”
Grounds for suspicion that a person was associated with Isis may be flimsy, but they are deeply held. “When women and children appear without any male relatives with them, it is assumed that the men were with Isis and have been killed, arrested or have fled,” says Belkis Wille, the senior researcher in Iraq for Human Rights Watch. “They may say that the men were killed in the bombing, but nobody knows what the truth is.” Young men from Mosul and Nineveh province, of which it is the capital, find it difficult to persuade the victorious Iraqi security forces that they spent years under Isis without doing some form of military service.
Revenge killings of suspected Isis activists and collaborators are still limited in number away from the battlefield, where few prisoners are taken. There have been some abductions and killings in the Sunni Arab villages south of Mosul, but no mass killings along the lines frequently carried out by Isis in Iraq and Syria. As many as 1,700 air force cadets, singled out because they were Shia, were massacred by Isis in June 2014, leading to the execution of 36 convicted perpetrators by the Iraqi government last year.
Yazidis who once lived to the west of Mosul, and Christians, are convinced that their Sunni Arab neighbours, with whom they had previously lived peacefully, were complicit with Isis in murdering, raping and stealing. They say they cannot return to their villages and towns if Isis collaborators are allowed to live there. In addition, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government and the Kurdish authorities have an interest in rounding off or expanding the territory occupied by their communities at the expense of the Sunni Arabs whose fortunes, willingly or unwillingly, have become linked to Isis and the foundering Caliphate.
Communal punishment in the shape of the forced expulsion of “Daesh families”, which may mean sanctions against whole villages, is taking place in different parts of northern and central Iraq. Ms Wille says that at the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps in Khazar and Hassan Shami in Kurdish controlled territory east of Mosul, Sunni Arabs in the camps can “see their former villages, but are not being allowed to return there. On the other hand, they are being told that they are free to take the bus to east Mosul any time they want to go.”
She adds that Sunni Arab tribal authorities are often taking the lead in expelling Isis families from their villages and sending them to IDP camps because they want revenge, saying they cannot protect them, or see them as tainted. She believes that a further motive is that “the Sunni community wants to show Baghdad and the world that they are not all Isis.”
Sectarian and ethnic cleansing by state authorities or militia groups in Iraq may have long term political objectives, but they also fulfil popular wishes. For instance, in the aftermath of the recapture of Mosul earlier this week, two hashtags in Arabic went viral on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The first one was a variant of either “Mosul is ours” or “Mosul is ours and we took it”. The second hashtag read “People of Mosul Deserve”, accompanied by photos of the destruction in Mosul. There are hundreds of social media accounts evidently from Iraqi Shias, accusing the people of Mosul of supporting Isis. One post has two photographs, one showing people celebrating in the streets as Isis seizes Mosul in 2014 and similar scenes of celebration when the Iraqi armed forces retook it this month. The writer comments: “This is ridiculous.”
Since the US invasion of 2003 Iraq has witnessed politically significant demographic change. The Shia-Sunni sectarian war in and around Baghdad in 2006-7 saw the Sunni compressed into smaller enclaves and mixed areas become wholly Shia. Since the counter-offensive against Isis began in 2014, Sunni Arabs have been forced to leave villages and towns in strategic areas south of Baghdad and in northern Hilla province. They are unlikely to be allowed to return because they could attack the roads between the capital and the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala.
The Sunni Arab community of Iraq, some six million strong, has suffered badly with all its main cities in addition to Mosul being heavily damaged by war. These include Ramadi, Fallujah, Baiji and Tikrit, many of whose inhabitants have been forced to flee at different times along unsafe roads through checkpoints manned by hostile Shia militiamen. There are still some 500,000 Sunni Arab IDPs in Kirkuk province, who are being allowed to return to wholly Sunni centres but not to those where Shia also live.
In both Iraqi and Kurdish controlled areas there are camps that are little better than “open prisons” says Ms Wille, where IDPs cannot come and go from the camp freely, receive visitors or even own a mobile phone. Enforced demographic change may be one motive for this, but there is also genuine, though probably exaggerated, fear of Isis “sleeper cells” waiting to strike. An Isis raid on Kirkuk in 2016 led to the destruction of villages from which the raiders were believed to have come.