Iraq’s missing million: Up to 1 million people have “disappeared” in last 50 years

World Today

As many as one million people have “disappeared” in Iraq over the past 50 years, spanning multiple conflicts, the rule of Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-led military occupation and the rise of Islamic State militants, according to a United Nations study.

The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances has urged Iraq to immediately seek victims and punish perpetrators.

The report was published after the Committee visited Iraq in November 2022.

The report breaks down three specific waves and patterns of disappearances in the country: The Ba’ath era in the Federal Iraq and Kurdistan region from 1968 to 2003, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation and the Islamic State’s proclamation of an Islamic caliphate from 2014 to 2017.

The report noted ongoing patterns in these disappearances, many happening after an illegal arrest or detention or direct involvement of Iraqi authorities.

Other allegations include abductions while people were going about their daily business, while others say they were detained by men displaying uniforms related to local police.

Disappearances under the Ba’ath era

According to the Committee report, the “Ba’ath era” was “characterized by violence, internal repression and widespread human rights abuses.”

The time span also marked the rise of former leader Saddam Hussein and the establishment of the one-party state led by the Ba’ath party, including how it suppressed competing parties. The Committee writes that it’s estimated that 290,000 persons were forcibly disappeared during these years. An estimated 100,000 Kurds were affected by Hussein’s campaigns against Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Iran-Iraq war also led to the disappearance of as many as 70,000 men and boys who were imprisoned. This happened as the country expelled over half a million Shi’a because the government believed they were loyal to Iran.

During Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, more than 600 Kuwaitis were arrested and later disappeared. After the Gulf War ended, the government suppressed an uprising by the Shi’a population. Thousands were detained and disappeared.

2003 U.S. invasion period and the missing

Between the U.S. military intervention in 2003 and the rise of the Islamic State, several waves led to hundreds of thousands of disappearances. The Committee notes the U.S. military and its allies captured at least 200,000 Iraqis, with many put in prisons administered by the U.S. and UK. Reports say some were held without warrant for their alleged involvement in insurgency operations.

The de-Baathification policies, which dismissed large numbers of Sunnis from the public sector and dissolved the Iraqi army, led to an increase in violence and the rise of militias. From 2006 to 2007, tens of thousands of people disappeared.

The Islamic State

Following the rise of the Islamic State in June 2014, Iraq contended with a violent internal armed conflict that lasted until 2017. The Committee reports that during those three years, ISIL carried out abductions and mass killings of the Iraqi army.

Religious and ethnic minorities were targeted by the terrorist organization. In one specific incident involving ISIL, thousands of girls and women in the Yezidi district in the Iraqi city of Sinjar were abducted and forced into sexual slavery and exploitation.

Solving the crisis

The Committee has called on the Iraqi government to make substantial changes to its legal system and institutions to address the crimes.

The Committee is urging Iraq to make enforced disappearance a separate offense in their legal system. They called on the government to establish an independent task force to investigate.

They demand that Iraq make sure detainees are registered and that their families are informed of their whereabouts.