The majority of people interviewed traced the rapid deterioration of the security situation throughout the country to the 2003 US-led coalition’s overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baathist party government. The disbanding of Iraqi security forces created a security vacuum, and infighting between the post-Hussein Shia-aligned government and Sunni political actors exacerbated existing tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities. Persecution, impunity, and distrust between communities created a breeding ground where extremists could thrive. That unrest created a deadly dynamic that fed the commission of sectarian atrocities across Iraq during the period.
Tens of thousands—possibly more than 100,000—Sunni and Shia were killed by bombings, improvised explosive devices, and extra-judicial slayings in the months and years following the Hussein regime’s fall. Minorities often were caught in the middle of the largely sectarian conflict, victims of the same violence that threatened all Iraqis but also targeted by religious extremists because of their distinct identities.
Those attacks by extremists continued for over a decade and varied in intensity, especially under the so-called Sunni Awakening in 2007, which ultimately brought relative calm to parts of the country. The attacks revealed the inability and unwillingness of the Iraqi government to respond to the multitude of security threats facing Iraqi civilians and to provide adequate physical protection to civilians irrespective of their ethnic or religious identity.
In response to rising discrimination and arrests, predominantly peaceful protests by Sunni Arabs began throughout the country in 2012. The Sunnis were protesting against what they saw as state-led discrimination by a pro-Shia central government in Baghdad. As one person told us, “All Sunni were seen as terrorists” by the Iraqi government. By 2013, protesters were met with increasingly violent repression by the Iraqi government and affiliated Shia militias. This violence further exacerbated tensions between the country’s two largest groups.
During that entire period, the Iraqi government and international community focused on counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and stabilization in response to the violence. The sectarian crisis in Iraq seemed to overshadow the unique threats facing minority populations. The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) used that period to intensify and expand its presence and activities in Iraq and emerged as a leading threat to civilians in 2013. IS took advantage of the country’s instability, appealing to disgruntled Sunnis while also recruiting foreign fighters. As a result of attacks by IS and other Sunni extremist groups, 2013 was the deadliest year in Iraq since 2008.
IS’s core texts embrace genocide and ethnic cleansing as tools for establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. In IS-occupied areas, the group fosters an environment in which the commission of mass atrocities, including murder, kidnapping, and enslavement of women, is permissible.
As the group’s violence in Anbar and Ninewa provinces has demonstrated, the act of perpetrating atrocities serves a strategic purpose, helping IS to administer some communities while also expelling or eliminating people from the areas that it controls. The commission of atrocities also enabled IS to capture and control territory, recruit local and foreign fighters, and secure revenue through extortion. In part through its atrocities, IS grew to either contest or control more than one-third of Iraq.