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The Guardian view on Mosul: the price of revenge

In the days since Baghdad announced the liberation of Mosul, Islamic State’s last urban stronghold in Iraq, evidence has mounted of grotesque human rights abuses and revenge attacks against suspected members of the group. It includes a video apparently showing Iraqi troops killing an unarmed fighter by throwing him from a high ledge and accounts of brutal violence against not only alleged combatants but also their families. Earlier footage appeared to show members of a special forces unit torturing and executing civilians. A spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said last week that the government would announce action against those soldiers – but not yet, because it would “interfere with the current congratulatory victory messages”.

Even seen on a page or screen thousands of miles away, these tales and images horrify. They will be remembered long after the pictures of Iraqi soldiers dancing in celebration. Welcome as it is, the military victory is a very partial kind of success. The caliphate that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed from Mosul three years ago has crumbled; the battle for its de facto capital of Raqqa, in Syria, is well advanced. But the conflict is far from over. The group still controls considerable territory and – more importantly – the assumption that it would return to its insurgent roots as it loses ground is proving correct. It mounts attacks in the cities it has lost. Foreign combatants are likely to pose a danger further afield, increasing the terrorist threat as they return home.

Iraq’s future will be determined by the outcome of a daunting array of challenges. They range from the geopolitical (how to secure a country when the region is in such turmoil, and when so many other states have a hand in it?), to the psychological (experts say that Mosul’s children are suffering “toxic stress”, haunted by waking nightmares and unable to play or express emotion). Almost a million civilians have been displaced from Mosul alone. They have endured both the bloody rule of Isis and the battle to end it, which has cost so many lives. Their hometown is devastated; the cost of mending just its basic infrastructure is estimated at over a billion dollars. Yet the UN’s humanitarian response plan for Iraq is less than half funded. A government that cannot meet the most fundamental needs of its citizens has little hope of commanding their loyalty.

Nor can it hope for their allegiance while the cycle of vengeance continues. The desire for retribution by those who have lost loved ones to Isis is, in human terms, entirely understandable. It is similarly unsurprising that those who experienced its brutality see no reason to accord its fighters due process. But due process is necessary. The abuses are wrong, and also counter-productive. They will create the next generation of extremist fighters, as they spawned this one. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the abuse of civilians – mostly Sunnis – by government forces and militias has gone unchecked. That laid the groundwork for the rise of Isis.

As the senior US commander in Iraq has warned, Baghdad “is going to have to do something pretty significantly different” to prevent Isis 2.0 from emerging. The country needs a political solution that can offer Sunnis security and convince them they are part of Iraq’s future. While Mr Abadi has proved inclusive – certainly compared with predecessor Nouri al-Maliki – he is also weak. And the groups that united to see off Isis (including Kurds, Turkish-backed Sunni fighters and Iran-backed Shia militias) otherwise have little common ground.

An immediate need is to halt the surge in abuses. Those on the ground say it is in part driven by distrust in corrupt courts to handle even Isis members. Prosecuting and punishing them would help to rebuild confidence. Such trials should consider whether their involvement was coerced, though few have much optimism on that score.

Alongside these cases must run prosecutions of those who target suspected Isis members and their families. At present, soldiers and militia members believe they can act with impunity. The spate of evidence now emerging reflects their willingness to be filmed torturing detainees, with a smile on their faces. Even a handful of trials might help to curb the murderous excesses. Coalition partners should urge Baghdad to take action, as it has promised. This is not just in the best interests of Iraq. It is in the self-interest of all those countries that may otherwise find themselves tackling Isis 2.0 in Iraq – or at home.

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