Press Room

US Assistance to Iraq: Recommendations on Civilian Protection, June 2014

The deteriorating security situation in Iraq and fighting between Iraqi security forces and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and supporting armed groups poses significant threat to civilians. The United States has committed to sending up to 300 military advisors to assist Iraq Security Forces (ISF) to counter advances from ISIL and its armed allies.

US security assistance to Iraq must be matched with a commitment by the Iraqi government to reduce sectarian tensions and minimize civilian harm. The US must impress upon Iraqi leadership that the fight against ISIL, and its armed allies, should be fought in adherence to the laws of war and with a civilian protection mindset. It is a strategic imperative to minimize civilian harm during hostilities, to maintain the legitimacy of the Iraqi government, and to reduce the risk of inflaming more sectarian violence.

Specifically, US military advisors—who should be well versed on lessons learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, including progressive tools to prevent and appropriately respond to civilian harm—should assist Iraqi security forces in the following key ways:

  • Offer practical guidance clarifying the distinction between civilian and combatants to ensure that civilians are not unintentionally put in harms way;
  • Train soldiers on escalation of force procedures particularly when civilians might be present (e.g., at checkpoints) and respond appropriately;
  • Advise on issuing commander’s guidance on tactical patience and consideration of alternatives before lethal force is used;
  • Work with Iraqi planners to draft guidance on indirect fires and avoiding use of artillery and mortars on unobserved targets;
  • Advise on how to create a full civilian harm tracking analysis and response cell as part of the Joint Operations Center (Baghdad) to assess the impact of security operations on the civilian population, to analyze causes of harm and inform tactical changes, and respond to civilians harmed.

The US should closely monitor its assistance to particular ISF units and any Shia militias supported by the Iraqi government to evaluate compliance with the “Leahy law,” which makes it illegal for the US to provide equipment and training to units of foreign security forces that are believed to have committed “gross human rights violations.”[1]

The Iraqi government must fight ISIL responsibly if it hopes to gain legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. An all out disproportionate military response without the necessary precautions to mitigate civilian harm may trigger a protracted civil war and risks increasing support for the insurgents. The United States military can and should help its Iraqi counterparts by sharing best practices on civilian protection and harm mitigation.

[1]  Section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, 22 U.S.C. 2378d and FY2014 Department of Defense Appropriations. See generally, Congressional Research Service, “Leahy Law” Human Rights Provisions and Security Assistance: Issue Overview , January 20, 2014.

For more information please contact:
Sahr Muhammedally, or +1 202-256-8546.


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