BAGHDAD — In December, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared “complete” victory over Islamic State militants after Iraqi forces backed by U.S. advisers and air power clawed back major cities occupied by the extremists for years.
Abadi’s proclamation ushered in a period of euphoria over the end of major combat, with many Iraqis embracing a message of hope, reconciliation and recovery. But five months later, the Islamic State’s corrosive effect on Iraq's social fabric is beginning to show.
An untold number of women and children are being held against their will in camps, accused of ties to the militant group, without any semblance of due process. The women are subjected to sexual assault by camp guards and staff and are being denied many of their basic necessities, according to a report by Amnesty International released Tuesday.
The report adds to the drumbeat of warnings that the government is effectively creating a pariah class out of some of Iraq's most vulnerable people and shattering any hope of a national healing that would help eliminate the conditions that allow insurgencies to thrive.
“Cast out of their communities, these families have nowhere and no one to turn to,” said Lynn Maalouf, Middle East research director at Amnesty International. “They are trapped in camps, ostracized and denied food, water and other essentials. This humiliating collective punishment risks laying the foundation for future violence. It is no way to build the just and sustainable peace that Iraqis so desperately desire and need.”
The report cites interviews with 92 women in eight camps for the internally displaced in Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces — many of whom escaped the intense fighting that raged for nine months during the battle to evict the Islamic State from Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq.
The women, who are designated as Islamic State sympathizers or whose family members joined the group, have languished with their children in the camps and face sexual abuse and humiliation, according to the report.
Amnesty researchers said the women are routinely denied food, health care and identity cards that would allow them to work or move freely. Many have nowhere to turn for help, having been shunned by neighbors in their home towns for their alleged Islamic State ties.
Some have been forced to trade sex for basic goods inside the camps, while others are at an extreme risk of rape, the report said.
A woman identified only as “Dana,” 20 years old, told Amnesty that she had survived several rape attempts and was being pressured into a sexual relationship with a member of the security services assigned to the camp where she lives.
“Because they consider me the same as an IS fighter, they will rape me and return me back. They want to show everyone what they can do to me — to take away my honor,” she said. “I can’t feel comfortable in my tent. I just want a door to lock and walls around me. … Each night, I say to myself, ‘Tonight is the night I’m going to die.’ ”
Amnesty does not offer a number for how many women face such conditions, but the sheer volume of displaced people in the country suggests the problem may be widespread.
According to a January report by the International Organization for Migration, more than 2.9 million Iraqis remain displaced. Iraq’s Ministry of Migration has put that figure closer to 2.5 million.
The government has struggled to address accusations of widespread abuses by security forces during the fight against the Islamic State. The charges include forced disappearances of fighting-age Sunni men in areas once occupied by extremists and summary executions of people with tenuous ties to the militant group in the battlefield.
Thousands of people arrested and charged with joining the Islamic State, including foreigners, are being subjected to flawed trials that bring executions and life sentences after hearings that last less than 20 minutes.
Abadi, who is running for a second term, has won some praise for his consistent message of inclusiveness and reconciliation, but his government has shown few signals of mitigating the continued isolation of families tarred with the Islamic State label.
Amnesty said Iraq’s government has not responded to its latest report.
“To put an end to the poisonous cycle of marginalization and communal violence that has plagued Iraq for decades, the Iraqi government and international community must commit to upholding the rights of all Iraqis without discrimination,” Maalouf said. “Without this, there can be no national reconciliation or lasting peace.”