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Understanding Iraq's New Civil War: A Women's Rights Perspective

Iraq has been pitched into a new civil war. After a lightning-quick advance, an extremist Sunni group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now controls much of northern and western Iraq.

ISIS immediately moved to impose its fundamentalist agenda directly on the bodies of women. Even as its jeeps were still rolling into Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, ISIS fighters were ordering women to cover themselves fully and stay at home where they belong. Within days, credible reports began emerging of ISIS fighters abducting and raping women in the territories they control.

The Iraqi government's response to the incursion has been to ratchet up sectarian tensions throughout the country, resurrecting Shiite militias that have their own record of atrocities.

As over one million men have been called up to fight, women have become the heads of hundreds of thousands of households. Women and the children in their care are also the majority of the 500, 000 people who have fled their homes in fear of ISIS and the threat of airstrikes.

ISIS has set Baghdad in its sights, and the city of seven million is on high alert. Neighborhoods are overrun with militias, and people are afraid to leave their homes, even to buy food. And those who have stood up against sectarianism before -- women's rights and peace activists like our partners -- are in grave danger.

What is ISIS?

ISIS is a violent jihadist group working towards the creation of an Islamist state that transcends national borders as we know them.

The group has gone through several incarnations since its formation in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion created a breeding ground for anti-occupation insurgency militias. An offshoot of al-Qaeda, ISIS shares a similarly reactionary and arbitrary interpretation of Islam. But al-Qaeda has distanced itself from ISIS because of ISIS's brutality against civilians (which al-Qaeda views as counter-productive to building a base of support) and their merciless executions of rivals, including some from al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups.

What does this crisis mean for women? What does it mean for human rights and peace activists?

ISIS uses violence against women to terrorize communities and impose their agenda for an Islamist state, one in which women would be stripped of basic rights. Already, ISIS controlled-areas in both Iraq and Syria have implemented strict Sharia law, enforcing dress codes and other restrictions on women's freedoms. There have been reports of mass rape, kidnappings and forced marriages of women by ISIS militants.

Days after taking control of Mosul in Iraq, ISIS distributed pamphlets declaring "sexual jihad, " forcing families to give over their daughters for sex in the name of God's will. Those who refuse will be beaten or killed. Four women in Mosul have already committed suicide after being raped by ISIS militants.

Also at risk are the human rights and peace activists who speak out against this religious violence and advocate for a secular society. ISIS has already shown no hesitation in eliminating anyone they view as a threat to their social vision.

Is this a religious war?

Many media portrayals have defaulted to a facile description of the relationship between Sunni and Shiite people, claiming that these religious groups are locked in an "age-old" conflict. This false claim conveniently conceals the ways in which the US manipulated Iraqis' religious affiliation to consolidate control during its 2003-2011 occupation of Iraq.

Iraq's established history of secular nationalism was upended by the US occupation. Through the policy of "de-Baathification, " intended to erase the influence of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, the US gutted Iraq's army and civil service. To fill that vacuum, the US empowered Shiite political parties. It also trained, armed and funded Shiite militias to enforce occupation policies and combat the Sunni-led insurgency. US policies further exacerbated this sectarian divide by creating a governmental system that gave jobs, seats in parliament, and other resources according to ethnic and religious divisions.

These practices turned a doctrinal difference between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam into a deadly division. By pitting communities against each other for control of the state and its resources, the US triggered a sectarian civil war (2005-2008) whose resurgence we are now witnessing.

Do Iraqis support ISIS?

Many Iraqis reject ISIS and its brutality. But some, especially Sunnis, are wagering that a temporary alliance with ISIS will help them regain some of the political power they have been denied by the Iraqi government. Sunnis have met severe discrimination and violence at the hands of Iraq's current government and its army. It is an indictment of Prime Minister Maliki that people are more willing to tolerate ISIS' presence than that of their own government. As Stephen Zunes points out, in 2007, the Maliki government reneged on an agreement to share more power with Sunni groups. Instead, it turned to torture and violence to solidify its authority.

Despite the government repression, grassroots activists in Iraq have been resolute in their peaceful call for true democracy and an end to sectarianism. These activist mobilizations gained momentum throughout the Arab Spring, and the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), a MADRE sister organization, led many demonstrations in Baghdad.

But today, Maliki is repeating his past history of failed and harsh tactics, rejecting calls for conciliation with Sunni and Kurd communities. Instead, he has opted to once again rely on resurrecting the Shiite militias to target Sunnis. Sunni people who might otherwise recoil from ISIS find themselves with few other places to turn.

What should be the role of the US?

The current situation in Iraq is a direct result of US policy. Further US military intervention is not the solution. And President Obama has stated as much. But this has not stopped him from deploying soldiers and special forces to protect the US embassy and to serve as military advisors (and undoubtedly to preserve US oil interests, over which Obama has, as Falah Alwan points out, twice expressed concern before showing any for the fate of the Iraqi people). This deployment can easily lead to a fuller-scale military intervention with US troops on the ground.

The US has also threatened airstrikes, an action guaranteed to spread devastation and suffering. Many rightly argue that this will only make matters worse.

Instead, the US should support a peaceful and diplomatic resolution by:

  • Ceasing threats for airstrikes. Already a primary reason that people are fleeing into displacement, airstrikes would only put Iraqi civilians at risk and further escalate violence.

  • Supporting a unified Iraq, not calls for partition along sectarian lines, which will only serve to strengthen ISIS' hold on the territory they've already claimed and further destabilize the region.

  • Sending humanitarian aid and support to women, families and displaced Iraqis including food, medical care and shelter.

  • Supporting the calls of progressive, non-sectarian Iraqis demanding a peaceful, political and diplomatic response that prioritizes human rights and the needs of the Iraqi people.

What does all this have to do with the conflict in Syria?

In 2011, peaceful calls for freedom in Syria were met with brutal violence by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, triggering a mass uprising and civil war. Islamist militant groups, including the then-named Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) took advantage of this turmoil to hijack the protests and assert their own political agenda. Amid the growing violence, ISI sent representatives into Syria to capitalize on al-Assad's diminishing control over land along the border with Iraq. ISI took control of the Syrian city of Raqqa, morphing the group into its current incarnation of ISIS.

ISIS grew by attracting foreign jihadist fighters and military support from US allies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Even the so-called "non-lethal" military aid that the US has sent to support "moderate" rebels in Syria has, we can presume, ended up in the hands of ISIS, who have repeatedly vanquished other rebel groups and seized their military supplies.

The relationship between ISIS and the Assad regime is complex. While ISIS is fighting the regime, their brutal tactics have also served to divide and weaken other opposition forces in Syria. And in some communities, the spectre of living under ISIS rule has led people who were opposed to Assad's regime to conclude that he may be the lesser evil. Also boding well for Assad is the fact that ISIS' advance echoes his claim that the uprising is the work of foreign terrorists, a narrative that eclipses the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people. On the other hand, now that ISIS is gaining control in Iraq, Iraqi Shiite militias that were providing support to Assad are returning home to fight, which is a loss for pro-regime forces in Syria.

What are MADRE and our sisters in Iraq doing?

As over one million Iraqi men are being called to fight, women are becoming heads of households and the front-line defenders of their vulnerable communities. As in most conflict zones, women are the ones surveying the needs of their families and communities and taking care of the sick, wounded and traumatized. But this same chaos also makes them targets for increased violence.

MADRE and our sister organization, OWFI, are mobilizing an emergency response to protect women from violence and to demand a human rights-based response to this crisis. Together, we are:

  • Opening a women's shelter in the heart of ISIS-controlled territory, providing refuge, emergency care and counseling to women who have survived rape and are fleeing rape and sex trafficking.

  • Distributing humanitarian aid, including clothes and food packages of rice, lentils, sugar and milk to displaced women and families in Karbala, Samara and the ISIS-controlled town of Hawijah.

  • Offering support and protection to progressive human rights activists through OWFI's network of allies.

Please join us in supporting our brave sisters in Iraq.