Iraq’s security forces face a rising chorus of criticism that, with violence at the highest level in years, their heavy-handed tactics and alleged abuses do more harm than good.
Human rights groups, analysts, diplomats and lawmakers have become increasingly vocal over a litany of alleged abuses including mass arrests, prolonged periods of detention without trial, the closure of some neighbourhoods, and detainee abuse.
They say that, far from reining in Iraq’s worst violence since 2008, the tactics are radicalising moderate Sunnis and distancing them from a government that the minority community alleges disproportionately targets them.
“It’s impossible to ignore the connection between the abuses the security forces are carrying out and the really significant increase in violence,” said Erin Evers, Iraq researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, adding that a culture of impunity for both militants and security forces is exacerbating the situation.
Iraq is grappling with its worst protracted period of bloodshed since it emerged from the brutal Sunni-Shiite sectarian war that peaked in 2006-07 and left tens of thousands dead.
More than 6,750 people have been killed this year, according to an AFP tally.
The Shiite-led authorities and security forces have for months trumpeted massive operations targeting militants, which they say have led to the killing and capture of insurgents and the dismantling of training camps and bomb-making sites, insisting that they are making progress in combating violence.
But they have faced criticism for focusing on the security aspect of the problem and not doing more to address the underlying frustration in the disaffected Sunni community, members of which allege not only mistreatment at the hands of the security forces but also difficulty accessing government jobs and investment.
In particular, Sunnis say they are targeted by the army and police for mass warrantless arrests, long periods of detention, and physical abuse while they are being held.
“It’s a big problem,” Munjid al-Rezali, who heads Iraq’s Medical Legal Institute (MLI), said of torture in prison.
Rezali said that staff at the MLI, which receives court orders to test detainees for signs of torture, often find evidence of contusions, wounds and scars.
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Even when they do not, Rezali said, he believes it is because security forces have held the prisoners long enough for signs of beatings to heal, which he described as “a known old trick”.
Analysts say that while most Sunnis, who are mainly located in the north and west of Iraq, do not actively support militant groups such as the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), their anger means they are less likely to cooperate with authorities in providing intelligence or handing in suspected insurgents.
'They opened the door to the bad guys'
“As long as you had the Sunnis with you, you were ok,” said one Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “When they lost the Sunnis, they opened the door and the field to the bad guys.”
The diplomat said Iraqi security forces’ tactics and announcement of myriad successes were not helping the situation and were instead alienating Sunnis.
“Regardless of how many people they arrest, how many reports they write about their successes, they are falsified or illusory at best, because the violence continues and the people continue to be killed, and that's the real measure of success,” the diplomat said.
“That hasn’t stopped -- it’s only gotten worse and worse and worse. Clearly, what they’re doing, it’s not succeeding -- it is failing.”
The remarks largely echo those of UN special envoy Nickolay Mladenov, who said last month that Iraqi forces needed “massive amounts of re-training... in relation to human rights, and how they respect international standards of human rights, how they undertake operations.”
Criticism has also come from domestic sources, including Shiite lawmakers once loyal to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who have called for greater reconciliation with the Sunni community.
“The nature of the random arrests creates a sectarian gap,” said Izzat Shabander, who announced earlier this month that he was breaking away from Maliki’s bloc for upcoming elections.
“Two hundred people are arrested in a village, even though only 10 are wanted, so 190 people think that they only reason they were arrested was because they were Sunni. That practice is sectarian.”