KIRKUK, Iraq—Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Kurdish Peshmerga, the U.S.-led coalition, and other pro-government forces are all stepping up their planning here in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and Daesh in Arabic. But defeating ISIS also means prioritizing civilian protection before retaking populated areas. Protecting civilians and their property better is key to building a stable Iraq.
ISIS seized large swaths of Iraqi territory in 2014, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with a population of 1.5 million. But since then, it has lost more than half the territory it seized and there are plans underway to retake Mosul before the end of the year.
Since 2015, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) has been visiting Iraqi villages and towns retaken from ISIS. We have spoken to civilians fleeing military operations, met with military commanders and humanitarian groups, and are monitoring the challenges of protecting civilians during military operations. We have identified several areas of concerns, but we’ve also highlighted opportunities for improving ways security forces can better protect civilians and their property. We’ve followed up on our research by talking with parties to the conflict about tactics, and making recommendations for improvement.
The Kurdish government recognizes some of the challenges in retaking areas from ISIS. In May 2016, President Masoud Barzani issued Presidential Decree No. 3 ordering all forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to adhere to international humanitarian and human rights law regarding the protection of civilians and their property. The ICRC began international humanitarian law trainings to the Peshmerga forces.
In August 2016, the Ministry of Peshmerga approved CIVIC’s proposal to train the Peshmerga in civilian protection. We began these trainings with the Peshmerga commanders in charge of units likely to be involved in the liberation of Mosul and the surrounding villages shortly after. Our training module, Protecting People and Communities During Operations, reflects the legal, ethical, and strategic reasons to protect civilians and their property. We discuss community engagement and how to address challenges in distinguishing between civilians and combatants. We also discuss why it’s important to assess the impact of operations on civilians and how to conduct those post-operation assessments. Finally, we stress the importance of acknowledging civilian harm when it does occur. (CIVIC eventually plans to begin similar dialogue on civilian protection with Iraqi Security Forces.)
The Peshmerga care about their reputation and are proud of their history. They are committed to defending their homeland—but they also know the eyes of the world are upon them.
“We know civilians are watching us,” a Peshmerga commander told me today. “We know the international community is watching us. We must uphold our values and protect civilians in defeating Daesh.”
CIVIC has provided the Peshmerga with ideas on how to protect civilians and their property better, and how to engage with civilians fleeing violence. And attending a CIVIC civilian protection training session and an ICRC one on international humanitarian law are important first steps. But Peshmerga commanders have to take the next step to ensure that their commitment to protect civilians is translated into action.
“We have suffered injustice under Saddam,” one commander told me during the trainings. “Our homes destroyed and people killed. We cannot let that happen to others.”