Guest Commentary

EU parliamentarian Struan Stevenson: Ethnic cleansing in lawless Iraq

Lawlessness, terrorism, corruption and the systematic abuse of human rights are each a daily feature of life in Iraq. Although ancient Iraq was the cradle of civilization, with art works and artefacts of breath-taking sophistication and beauty dating back to 3,000 BC and beyond, modern Iraq is a dustbowl of violence and bloodshed. More than 5,000 people have died so far this year in bomb attacks and assassinations in an increasingly ugly insurgency that threatens to take the country back to the civil war that erupted from 2006-2008. 

The Syrian conflict raging on the borders of Iraq has poured petrol on the flames. In Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the few havens of peace in the country, terrorists have infiltrated groups of refugees fleeing to safety, setting off a series of bombs in the Kurdish capital Erbil some days ago that killed six people and injured dozens, the first terrorist attack in six years. Kurdistan is now swarming with refugees, not only from Syria but from the rest of Iraq, where ethnic minorities as well as minority women and LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) individuals are daily at risk from targeted violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, harassment, intimidation, displacement, political disenfranchisement and social and economic marginalization. 

The many ethnic groups who for generations lived in peaceful harmony side by side with the majority Shia and Sunni communities now suffer systematic abuse. Despite being guaranteed safety and security in a multi-faith society enshrined by the Iraqi Constitution, the reality is much different. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a puppet of neighboring Iran and its hard-line mullahs, has become increasingly sectarian, ruthlessly removing all Sunni politicians from influential government positions and cracking down hard on dissent. The predictable Sunni backlash has unleashed a storm of violence, directed not only at the Shiite community but inevitably targeting ethnic minorities.

The Christian population of Iraq, once estimated at more than 1.5 million, is now down to less than half that figure, with many Christians fleeing abroad or to Kurdistan for safety. Soon, some people think that one of the oldest Christian communities in the world may become extinct. But they are not the only minority facing ethnic cleansing. There are only around 3,500 Mandean-Sabeans left from a previous population estimated at 70,000 a mere 10 years ago. Iraq’s Jews have suffered extreme persecution since the 1950s and now there are now only an estimated 10 individuals left living in the country from an original population of more than 150,000, although it is reckoned that many others may be in hiding, literally practicing their faith in secret in the privacy of their homes.

Other ethnic groups like the Turkmen, Baha’i, Shabak and Yezidi minorities all suffer discrimination, despite their rights being guaranteed in the Constitution. The black Iraqis, an ancient community of African slave descent, are regarded as inferior by many of their Arab neighbors and live as almost total outcasts, mostly in Southern Iraq, where — despite numbering around 2 million — they are denied identity documents, marriage certificates or even access to basic education for their children, and live in abject poverty.

The plight of the black Iraqis may be desperate, but for the 60,000 largely forgotten Iraqi Roma community, known by the derogatory term Kawliyah (Gypsies), life means running a daily gauntlet of hatred, persecution and violence from officials and from the general populace. The Roma live largely in camps on squatted land without access to clean water, electricity, adequate shelter, healthcare, sufficient food, education and other basic services. Roma women are targets for sexual abuse, while Roma men face discrimination in employment, and many shopkeepers refuse to sell goods to Roma customers.

Increasingly, many Iraqis claim that things were better under Saddam Hussein. Iraq is teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state. Billions of dollars in oil wealth are simply disappearing into illicit bank accounts, with most of the population having only around 4 hours electricity daily and limited access to clean water or functioning sewerage systems. There is 60 percent illiteracy. Unemployment is now running at over 18 percent, and with more than half the population under the age of 25, many young Iraqis are being tempted to take the law into their own hands. The reaction of the government is to increase oppression. State-condoned torture and mass executions are now commonplace. 

On Sept. 1, Maliki ordered a hit squad of specially trained assassins to attack a refugee compound, Camp Ashraf, where they handcuffed and summarily executed 52 unarmed civilians, simply because they are opponents of the Iranian mullahs. Seven hostages were abducted, six of whom are women, and they are now being held in a so-called ‘secret prison’ inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. They face imminent deportation to Iran, where they will face certain execution. Maliki and his government deny any involvement in the massacre or the abduction of these people, and with limp pressure from either the U.S., U.N. or EU, this murderous regime looks set to continue on its killing spree unencumbered by international condemnation.

It is time the West woke up to the tragedy of Iraq. It was the U.S. and the U.K. — George W. Bush and Tony Blair — who invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam, declaring “Mission accomplished.” They boasted that they had left behind “a functioning democracy,” when in fact they have left behind a basket case. There is still time for the West to reassert its authority and make amends for its disastrous intervention in Iraq. Tell Maliki that this whirlwind of bloodshed, violence, corruption and abuse will no longer be tolerated. Tell him that the economic umbilical cord to the West will be severed unless he gets his act together. Give the minorities in Iraq a voice before it is too late.

Stevenson is a conservative Member of the European Parliament for Scotland and is president of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq.


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