How Mass Atrocities End: Iraq

Below is an overview of our latest seminar, How Mass Atrocities End: Iraq. It is excerpted from the seminar briefing note, which is available in full here [pdf].

This seminar on mass atrocities in Iraq was a significant departure from the recent series of programs and reports marking ten years of direct U.S. military engagement in Iraq.  Placing violence within the country’s longer modern history, it explored the level, patterns, origins and endings of episodes of mass violence, especially mass atrocity against civilians.

Rather than debate the U.S. record, seminar discussions were focused on Iraqis’ experiences of mass violence, from diverse perspectives—historical, sociological, political, demographic and statistical, environmental. Iraqi scholars and specialists framed an agenda for studying patterns of violence around Iraq’s history and politics, including domestic governance and societal relations, and relations with neighboring states and international powers.

Another marked difference between this seminar and other treatments of Iraqi violence was the break from treating Iraq as a sui generis case and instead placing it within a comparative framework drawn from the study of other cases of repression, inter-state war, civil war and intervention.

Among the episodes discussed were:

  • Post-1968 violence as Saddam Hussein consolidated power;
  • The context of the Iran-Iraq war;
  • The military campaigns against the Kurds including the Anfal;
  • Repression of post-1991 Gulf War uprising;
  • Destruction of livelihoods of the Marsh Arabs;
  • Violence in the context of the post-2003 U.S. occupation.

Recurrent themes included:

  • The installation of fear as a tool for political control, associated with both real threats to the government and Saddam’s paranoia;
  • The politicization of sectarian identities and divisions, both by Iraqi political leaders and by U.S. policies;
  • Territorial control: efforts at state control of territories, populations and livelihoods under the Baathist regime (most strikingly manifest in the destruction of the Marsh Arabs’ way of life and the Arabization of Kirkuk), and more recently in sectarian and ethnic divisions and disputes;
  • The implications of state strength and weakness: the implementation of repression either being precisely targeted against individuals (as with the Anfal) or generally targeted at communities (as with the 2005-7 civil war), and past endings of campaigns of mass violence being associated with the government either establishing control (as with the completion of the Anfal in 1988) or losing control (as with the state’s de facto abandonment of Kurdistan in 1991);
  • The significance of memory and representation of past violence and victimhood, with victimhood being instrumentalized as a means of making claims on political power;
  • An as-yet unmet need for a national reckoning with the diversity of forms, roles and histories of violence as a political tool in Iraq.

The full briefing note is available here.

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