The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) blitzkrieg across western Iraq last month has resulted in the gravest humanitarian crisis to hit the country since 2007. According to figures released by the United Nations last week, violence in June resulted in at least 2,400 deaths, 1,500 of them civilians, since ISIS’s takeover of Mosul began on June 5.
The resurgence of widespread violence in Iraq began last year, months before radicals gained control of strategic cities like Fallujah and Ramadi in early 2014. But ISIS’s substantial territorial gains in the past month, thanks to Ba’athist networks, extortion, and looting, have garnered international attention. In the last two weeks, ISIS, which now refers to itself as the Islamic State, has established a medieval-era caliphate in the border region between Iraq and Syria, appointed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has led the group since 2010, as emir, and begun issuing passports to its estimated 11,000 citizens.
With the help of satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed that ISIS “conducted mass executions” of nearly 200 Iraqi security forces in Tikrit. Images of the executions first appeared online on June 14, when ISIS claimed to have executed 1,700 government forces. When pressed on its findings, HRW special adviser Fred Abrahams said, “We cannot say we do not have proof of the full 1,700. We did not disprove 1,700. Until now we don’t have evidence for it.”
Nearly 1.5 million Iraqi civilians have been displaced since January, fueling a regional humanitarian crisis initiated by the Syrian conflict next door. The crisis has only been exacerbated by the urban-based nature of the insurgency, the summer heat, and high food costs associated with Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting that is currently underway. In response to several confirmed cases of polio that emerged among displaced Syrians in Syria and Iraq in the last year, United Nations relief agencies are “scaling up healthcare responses, with a major polio vaccination campaign in Baghdad.”
Those displaced by the current fighting are mostly residents from four western governates under the Islamic State’s operational control. From Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, half a million people have fled; 300,000 of these internally displaced people went to the Kurdish region. The population of Sinjar, a town in the northwestern province of Nineveh, has more than doubled thanks to an influx of 50,000 people who have found refuge in nearby mosques and schools. On July 1, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq said,“As large parts of the country remain under the control of ISIS and armed groups, it is imperative that national leaders work together to foil attempts to destroy the social fabric of Iraqi society.”