Iraq Breaks Humanitarian Ground in Mosul

Iraq hardly comes to mind as a pioneer in humanitarianism, especially as far as warfare is concerned. Yet in the midst of its now six-month campaign to take back the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, the Christian Science Monitor reports that Iraqi armed forces are collaborating with the U.N. and other partners to deliver an unprecedented amount of care and protection to the tens of thousands of civilians caught in the middle (bolding mine):

[U]nlike any previous urban combat in the history of war, the battle for Mosul includes an unusual protection for civilians. Humanitarian workers have set up a chain of lifesaving care facilities for the wounded, from the front lines to field clinics only 10 minutes away. As tens of thousands have fled the fighting, they are quickly being given necessary physical care, and later any rehabilitative or mental treatment.

This chain of care around Mosul represents a renewed interest by the United Nations and other international bodies to implement two core ideas of humanitarian law – that the violence of war must have its limits and innocent life must be protected. ISIS may not abide by the Geneva Conventions but Iraq and its foreign partners are determined to embrace the global norm that calls for the prevention of unnecessary suffering in war.

Much of the attention in the battle for Mosul has focused on civilian casualties, most of which are intentional acts of barbarity by ISIS. The group “ruthlessly exploits civilians to serve its own ends, and clearly has not even the faintest qualm about deliberately placing them in danger,” says UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. Yet ISIS’s disregard for civilians is up against the rest of the world’s loving concern for Mosul’s besieged residents. This is reflected in the pre-battle spending to position care facilities near the city. Many of the facilities are run by the World Health Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders. The Iraqi government has also contributed.

According to The Monitor, no other country or armed forces have ever implemented such a robust humanitarian regime in urban warfare (which for obvious reasons tends to be more calamitous towards noncombatants).  The Iraqi Army’s highest ranking officers have been trained in humanitarian law, while civilian and religious leaders have made it a point to ensure that the country’s different (and often warring) sectarian groups are represented throughout the ranks. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority for Iraqi’s majority Shiite populous, issued proclaimed that the military must avoid to harm civilians or seek vengeance.

Such efforts stand in sharp contrast to the well documented brutality of ISIS, which eschews the rules of international law and the norms of modern warfare. Indeed, it is rare for even many developed-world armies to go to such lengths, let alone in a region like the Middle East (and to be sure, Iraq’s track record in this regard has generally been abysmal). It would bring a well needed boost to public morale — as well as stability — if the fractured country’s military could score an exceptional moral victory alongside its strategic one. Here is hoping that the Iraqis do not waver in this regard, especially as the battle continues to drag on and tempt expediency in favor of moral principle.

Even more importantly, let us hope this sets a standard for other armed forces across the world, as distant a prospect as that may be (though until recently, so was Iraq’s commitment to humanitarian law in warfare).

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