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IBC’s 2022 report assesses prospects for peace in light of continuing deadly violence against both civilians and combatants, unaffected by a sharp rise in arrests and killings of those officially dubbed as terrorists.

Iraq's Residual War

Peace requires reconciliation.

by Hamit Dardagan, Lily Hamourtziadou, John Sloboda
January 01, 2023

Iraq continues to suffer from the country’s post-invasion collapse in civil security and, nearly two decades later, remains in a state of low-level armed conflict that has become the country’s everyday norm. Although much reduced in scale when compared to the worst periods of war from 2003–2008 and 2014–2017, Iraq’s daily, frequently deadly, violence shows little sign of subsiding altogether. This persistent conflict and insecurity is the residual effect of political, economic and military decisions taken long ago, and is proving immune to resolution by the same old and tired methods.

The illegal US-UK led invasion and subsequent brutal military occupation of Iraq provoked intense anti-occupation and anti-government armed struggles, the latter unsurprising given that those governments were sponsored by the occupying powers and seen by many Iraqis as illegitimate. Equally unsurprising is the routine way in which Western powers and Iraqi client governments describe the armed struggle against them as “terrorism,” whether or not its violence impacts civilians. In doing so, they deflect attention from their role in creating the conditions for the ongoing conflict, and disregard how their own violence and counter-violence could also be experienced as “terrorism”.

However described, this internecine “civil” war has been devastating and deadly to Iraqis, perpetuating cycles of violence and becoming a barrier to the country’s transition to a secure environment, as might have been expected after major reductions in occupying military forces. Iraq’s successive governments, unstable and struggling to achieve full public legitimacy, and unable to provide normal security for citizens, remain locked in a retributive mode which shows no signs of resolving the country’s persisting problem with armed violence.

During 2022 Iraq Body Count provisionally recorded 740 violent deaths of civilians, 74 of them children. This is a rise on last year but of about the same—still deeply troubling—scale (908 deaths in 2020, 669 in 2021). 338 of these civilian deaths were in attacks attributed to “terrorist elements,” including ISIS. Another 159 involved bodies being found, some tortured and shot, some recovered from rubble or mass graves in areas once controlled by ISIS. A further 125 civilians were killed in clashes between clans seeking to “settle disputes,” an alarmingly growing phenomenon in the absence of a state trusted and able to maintain the rule of law and provide legal remedy. The remaining 118 reported civilian deaths were caused by the Iraqi military and its various state-affiliated armed actors. In Iraqi Kurdistan this included Turkish armed forces.

Underlining that Iraq is still effectively at war, a further 1,273 Iraqis killed in 2022 were reported as combatants. These included 521 ISIS fighters killed by the Iraqi military and state-affiliated actors—over 200 of them killed in joint operations with the US military. Killed combatants also included 506 members of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) killed by the Turkish military; 97 Turkish and 80 Iraqi soldiers; 30 PMF (Popular Mobilisation Forces) members; and 23 Federal Police.

Cause of death/actors involved Civilians killed
“Terrorist elements” including ISIS 338
Bodies found 159
Clan disputes 125
Iraqi and associated militaries 118
Total civilians (includes 74 children) 740
Combatants killed
ISIS fighters 521
PKK fighters 506
Turkish soldiers 97
Iraqi soldiers 80
Popular Mobilisation Forces 30
Federal Police 23
Other 16
Total combatants 1,273
Civilians + Combatants killed 2,013

ISIS as a significant territory-holding force was defeated by early 2018 at a huge cost in lives. Surprisingly, Iraq has dramatically accelerated arrests on terrorism charges in 2022—without such arrests reducing the reported number of terrorist attacks that kill civilians: IBC records show that in 2021 there were 247 reported terrorist attacks killing 414 civilians, compared with 261 terrorist attacks responsible for 2022’s 338 civilian deaths. The number of attacks per year has stayed constant despite the large increase in terrorist arrests detailed below.

Iraq’s counter-terrorism service stated in January 2022 that over the previous two years they had arrested 622 members of ISIS on terrorism charges and killed 343. Their spokesperson stated a few days earlier than in 2021 alone they had arrested some 250 and killed 100. IBC’s daily monitoring reveals that the number of “ISIS” killed in 2022 alone exceeded 500, but also that arrests have similarly increased, reaching 1,332 by the end December, a more than four-fold increase on the average of the previous two years.

"Terrorists" arrested, killed, attacks on civilians, civilians killed.
Year Arrests Killed Attacks on civilians Civilians killed
2021 ~250 ~100 247 414
2022 1332 500+ 261 338

Moreover, in February 2022, a spokesperson for Iraq’s counter-terrorism service stated that while there is no official number for ISIS terrorists in Iraq, “they are very few …it is possible they are less than 500”. So have these 500 all been eliminated, given the reported killing of 500+ “ISIS members” in 2022? And who are the additional 1,353 arrested? Something is not adding up here. Either ISIS numbers are burgeoning again—indicating that counter-terrorism methods are signally failing—, or the February estimate of their number was wildly wrong, or Iraqis are being arrested who have no function in ISIS or as terrorists.

This expansion of arrests under the 2005 Anti-Terrorism Law (passed when Iraq was under occupation) is seriously concerning, not least because the concept of terrorism can be a slippery one, and its application as a label is prone to political and vindictive misuse. Various forms of violence—except, of course, the state’s—may be all too readily described by state actors as terrorism. For instance, in October 2022 a provincial governor described mass-arrested rioting protesters as “terrorists” despite also understanding them to be “vandals”. Many people killed by governments are also conveniently labelled as terrorists, and much the same can hold for arrests and incarcerations, in Iraq as elsewhere.

Are arbitrary and unjust arrests and incarcerations on terrorism charges prevalent in Iraq? In 2020, the UN reported1 that in Iraq,

Prosecutions under the anti-terrorism legal framework—with its overly broad and vague definition of terrorism and related offences—focused on ‘association’ with or ‘membership’ of a terrorist organization without sufficiently distinguishing between those who participated in the violence and those who joined ISIL for survival and/or through coercion, and with harsh penalties that failed to distinguish degrees of underlying culpability.

A later study from the UN highlighted the severe injustices of the justice system itself. As reported2 by Louisa Loveluck in the Washington Post, the study

“details a labyrinth of unfairness, with detainees often denied due process at every turn… “Confessions frequently come through torture… [such that] detainees frequently end up signing documents admitting crimes they did not commit… Few detainees see a lawyer until they appear in court…

“Methods of abuse include severe beatings, some on the soles of the feet, as well as electric shocks, stress positions and suffocation… Sexual violence was also reported, with some detainees also making reference to treatment they ‘cannot speak about.’”

A growing example of slippery-slope terrorism charges in Iraq is in relation to arrests over clan violence—by law they should not, but in some instances are, brought under provisions of the anti-terrorism law’s Article 4. Despite such arrests, deadly clan or “tribal” conflicts have more than doubled in frequency over the last six months of the year, with 14 in October, 25 in November and 23 in December, all but two of the latter in Baghdad. Similarly, attacks by terrorist and ISIS actions have also remained undiminished in number and lethality through both halves of 2022: 171 attacks in Jan–Jun, killing 168 civilians and 70 combatants; 182 attacks in Jul–Dec, killing 170 civilians and 64 combatants.

There will be legitimate cases among these many arrests, but applying only retributive tactics, while ignoring paths to reconciliation, is unlikely to lead to anything other than more conflict and counter-violence—particularly when allegations of confessions via torture are themselves unaddressed. Groups and individuals resort to deadly terrorist actions for varied and complex reasons, but one of these is vengeance (or retribution, as they see it): a settling of scores over harm done to them and their loved ones. That cycle cannot be broken by more killing and repressive violence.

In any case, the fact that on average one terrorism-attributable incident occurred each day in 2022 (353) in total—concurrent with all these arrests—suggests that whatever else these killings and arrests of “terrorists” are achieving, it is not peace. The methods of peace-making involve very different, difficult but essential processes, such as those initiated elsewhere. South Africa’s is perhaps the best-known and most hopeful example of a national project of restorative justice, one incorporating compassion and forgiveness. In South Africa, as anywhere, justice could not be pursued without truth. In Iraq, too, reconciliation processes will require accountability from all actors, not just a few, and reaching back to the original crime of the 2003 invasion itself.

Just, compassionate and truthful reconciliation will require recognition that all social groups in Iraq have suffered human losses, with specific details such as recorded by IBC being only a starting point. The motivation and desire to pursue national reconciliation needs of course to originate with and be realised by the people of Iraq. But the space for such problem-solving must also exist, and this space is hard to create while war remains the official and preferred solution. .