As the world absorbed the impact of images bearing witness to torture in the fight against Daesh, the leader of an Iraqi special forces unit with blood on its hands gleefully admitted to the worst, boasting that the disclosure of his “mistakes” will make him only more famous.
The staggering sense of impunity among at least some fighters that Canada and its coalition-partners have singled out for praise in the battle against Daesh (also known as ISIS) emerged early Friday, as Capt. Omar Nazar of the Iraqi Emergency Response Division took proud ownership of the damning evidence exposed in separate investigations by the Toronto Star and ABC News.
“We have made mistakes, but they are all directed toward the enemy, ISIS, and I’m proud of those mistakes,” Nazar told ABC’s Nightline in Arabic.
Claiming an ability to tell in 10 minutes or less who is loyal to Daesh and who is not, Nazar said he operated under orders to take no prisoners. When confronted with brutal images gathered over a span of months by Iraqi photographer Ali Arkady — including a video clip of Nazar and a second ERD soldier, Cpl. Haidar Ali, gunning down an unidentified suspect — Nazar explained human rights do not apply to ISIS.
“He is not human,” Nazar said of the slain suspect. “He is a monster.” The execution, he said, “is not considered murder.” Nazar sidestepped a question on whether Iraqi authorities would now follow through on promises to investigate his unit, saying the outcome would only enhance Nazar’s already substantial cult-hero status in Iraq.
“I’m already a star in Iraq and Ali (photographer Arkady) would only make me a bigger star by doing this. Why? Because my country is longing for someone who would help it get rid of terrorism.”
Nazar’s comments came amid a chorus of worries that, as dawn rises over the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, impunity may prevail, with Iraqi officials ultimately paying only lip service to coalition demands for investigation and then quietly letting the issue fade away, even in the face of unprecedented images.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Friday that Canadian diplomats in Baghdad and Ottawa took their concerns to senior Iraqi officials seeking assurances that the actions of the ERD unit will be investigated.
“We are gravely concerned by the allegations and horrific imagery published in the press. We strongly condemn any and all actions that violate international human rights and humanitarian law,” Freeland said in a statement to the Star.
“Canada has raised its concerns directly with the government of Iraq, condemning any and all actions that violate international human rights or humanitarian law.”
In a separate statement, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the federal government and the Canadian Armed Forces “strongly condemn any actions that violate the Law of Armed Conflict.
“While Canadian soldiers in Iraq have not had any direct interaction with the ERD, our government has raised this issue with the government of Iraq so that those who commit these types of atrocities are held to account,” Sajjan said.
The defence minister said that in all missions conducted by Canadian troops, including the ongoing mission in Iraq, the Law of Armed Conflict is at the “centre of the training our soldiers receive and the way they conduct operations.”
The images of violence perpetrated not by a rogue militia group but an elite Iraq unit reverberated among allies including Canada. Col. Jay Janzen, a senior spokesperson for the Canadian Armed Forces, said those in the ranks of Canada’s military were “shocked and sickened” by the pictures and video.
“As a professional soldier, when I see those images, it’s a total breakdown in unit discipline, in leadership and in their responsibilities as professional soldiers. Quite frankly, that should never happen. It’s completely unacceptable,” he said Friday in an interview.
“It needs to be dealt with. We strongly hope that Iraqi officials deal with these incidents appropriately.”
He said the Canadian military was under no illusion when it deployed to Iraq in 2014 to train Kurdish peshmerga fighters in their fight against Daesh.
“We went into this conflict eyes wide open. A lot of study has been done in terms of the history of this conflict, the potential for sectarian violence, the potential for retribution,” he said.
New Democrat MP and national defence critic Randall Garrison noted that in recent months, the Canadian military mission in Iraq has shifted from training peshmerga troops to working alongside Iraqi security forces around Mosul.
“We’ve had a shift here that has never been fully explained,” Garrison said, noting that the evolving mission has put Canadian forces in closer contact with Iraqi units.
“I’d like to know, now that this is public, what is the government’s reaction, what are they doing to make sure that we are in no way complicit with these activities,” Garrison (Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke) said in an interview.
“Who we’re training becomes an important question when units like this are clearly involved in activities that would qualify as war crimes.”
In Washington, Sen. Patrick Leahy, author of the 1997 “Leahy Law” that bars the U.S. from providing material support to allies who engage in war crimes, was shocked not merely by Arkady’s images but also the mindset of the alleged perpetrators.
“The photos are sickening. They clearly depict war crimes. That they were brazenly lauded by the unit’s leader suggests that they were far from aberrations,” Leahy said in a written statement to the Star’s Washington bureau chief, Daniel Dale.
“It is my understanding that the United States no longer supports the Iraqi unit involved, but we should insist that the individuals responsible, and particularly the leaders, be prosecuted and appropriately punished. The fact that U.S. military personnel praised the Iraqi unit’s co-operation is deeply disturbing and requires further investigation by the Pentagon.”
Longtime watchers of the Iraq conflict welcomed the publication of images that, however difficult and graphic, packed the power to cut through facile narratives and show a dimension of the battle that threatens to plant the seeds of the next ISIS, even after Daesh is unseated as a geographic entity.
“It’s becoming more common, here, especially in Washington and other Western capitals to say that somehow Iraq has moved on from the abuses that led to the rise of ISIS in 2014,” said Hassan Hassan, co-author along with Michael Weiss of the bestselling book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.
“What have we learned from the past two and a half years in fighting ISIS? Is it just because we dropped more bombs and expelled these militants? That’s not enough. As long the abuse continues, as long as the behaviour of the Iraqi pro-government forces persist, the problem will persist as well,” he said.
The wide sharing of Arkady’s images sparked polarizing responses in Iraq, where some politicians proclaimed them to be false or manipulated in an apparent attempt at damage control.
But the boastful remarks by unit commander Nazar, in claiming ownership of what the images show, blunted the belated attempts to discredit the messenger. And also served to highlight how deeply Nazar’s attitude matches with the broader mindset of Iraqi military, according to a Human Rights Watch researcher who closely tracks the conflict.
“Since this ‘war against terror’ has been launched in the country, there has been this level of impunity for armed forces that are fighting the quasi-good fight, the fight against ISIS,” said Belkis Wille, Human Rights Watch’s senior Iraq researcher.
“In any government meeting you go to, authorities, as much as they say, ‘Yes we abide by the laws of war. We don’t condone abuse,’ they always follow that up with, ‘But you have to understand we’re fighting ISIS and ISIS has no respect for the rules.’
“What they’re implicitly saying is, because ISIS is so evil, it’s kind of OK for us to break some of the rules sometimes. And unfortunately that is the pervasive attitude, and it’s not only the attitude of armed forces but of civilians as well who have been the victim of ISIS abuse.
“The big problem with that is this fundamental lack of understanding of what ISIS is, where it came from, and how it has garnered so many recruits, because if we engage in that line of thinking, then we’re never going to win. We’ll never get rid of these extremist groups with a considerable following that will always be targeting these communities that are victim of abuse.”
Author: Mitch Potter, Bruce Campion-Smith, Michelle Shephard