Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi raised the Iraqi flag on the Iraq-Syria border in the town of al-Qaim on Sunday. It was a symbolic gesture more than three years after Islamic State took over a third of Iraq, committed genocide against Yazidis and mass murdered thousands of others. But Iraq is still deeply divided as the prime minister has attempted to roll back the rights of the Kurdistan autonomous region and as Shi’a militias run checkpoints throughout many Sunni Arab areas.
Iraq is emerging from years of brutal war with millions of internally displaced people and many cities damaged or destroyed by fighting. But even in the midst of the end of this conflict, Iraq has launched a new conflict against its Kurdish region, sending tanks to retake the disputed district of Kirkuk. Iraqi security forces have clashed with Kurdish forces as it attempted to break through to a strategic border crossing called Faysh Khabur near Syria and Turkey. Dozens have been killed since October 16. Although a kind of ceasefire is in place, the situation does not bode well.
There is a new sense of nationalism and religious fervor in Iraq. Shi’a sectarian flags fly from not only militia units but also appear in regular Iraqi Army units. When Iraqi forces rolled into Kirkuk they brought the flags with them. And in Mosul, a Sunni city, they hang them at the checkpoints. This triumphalism is about symbols and the Iraqi Parliament is also trying to ban symbols it doesn’t like. On October 31, the parliament sought to enforce laws that criminalize “Zionist symbols,” including the Israeli flag. This was likely in response to the numerous displays of the Israeli flag in the Kurdistan region during the lead-up to the September 25 independence referendum.
On October 30, a Kurdish journalist named Arkan Sharifi was stabbed to death in his home in Daquq. He was a cameraman for Kurdistan TV.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists “Sharifi had [recently] returned to the city near Kirkuk. The journalist, who is also a teacher at a village school, had left the city when the Iraqi-led Popular Mobilization Front seized Daquq.” The CPJ called on regional authorities to “investigate and prosecute” the perpetrators. It also noted that an Iraqi media regulator had ordered two Kurdish TV stations, Rudaw and Kurdistan 24, to cease broadcasting.
There is also worry over a proposal to resurrect a 2014 bill before parliament that would legalize child marriage for girls as young as nine. “Although the measure is unlikely to pass… there is concern that it underscores the rising tide of extremist sentiment in Iraq and threatens the constitutional guarantees for gender equality and other freedoms,” noted the United States Institute of Peace. UNICEF statistics show that 24% of women in Iraq are already married by age 18. According to a tweet by journalist Abdulla Hawez, “The new family law will turn Iraq into a religious country further, replacing the 1959 civil family law [with] a largely religious one.”
Iraq is also making it more difficult for journalists and foreign NGOs to access the country since it closed the two international airports in the Kurdistan region. Prior to September 29, many visitors to the Kurdistan Regional Government who flew into Erbil or Sulaymaniyah could obtain a visa on arrival.
This was specifically true for residents of the US, Canada, the European Union and several other countries.
After Abadi decided to reduce the rights of the Kurdistan region, telling The Independent that he sought to end many of the autonomous rights it has enjoyed for decades, imposing federal control of Kurdistan’s borders has become a priority.
This means that foreign journalists wishing to cover Iraq who were often based in the stable and safe Kurdish region will have to go through Baghdad.
It also means their ability to cover conflict areas, such as Iraq’s actions in Kirkuk or Sinjar, will be more difficult.
Already the amount of foreign coverage – of Yazidis, Christians in Nineveh, rebuilding of Mosul, internally displaced persons and sectarian tensions in Kirkuk – has been reduced.
This is in Baghdad’s interests because it means less light will be shed on issues facing Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and minorities.
The persecution of minorities, especially Yazidis, was the main reason motivating the US to intervene in Iraq in the fall of 2014. On November 6, Lamiya Aji Bashar spoke at the World Youth Forum at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, telling her story of being abducted by ISIS with thousands of Yazidi women and sold into slavery. It was a reminder that more than 1,000 women and children are still missing.
Even though ISIS has been largely defeated, the whereabouts of many abducted Yazidis are unknown and the international community that stepped in to fight it appears to have forgotten them. Forgetting about what caused ISIS to thrive in the first place – the ideology, intolerance and instability – might be shortsighted for post-ISIS Iraq. On November 5, two bombings rocked Kirkuk, killing five people. For the last three years, the city had been largely free from terror. It could be a symbol of worse to come.