Exploiting Iraq's disappeared on the election campaign trail

Exploiting Iraq's disappeared on the election campaign trail
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In-depth: Candidates standing in the upcoming elections are pledging to help families of forcibly disappeared Iraqis, leaving relatives desperately hoping for answers yet fearing they are being exploited for votes.

Campaign promises by candidates from political parties taking part in the Iraqi elections next month have stirred up fears among the families of thousands of disappeared civilians in Iraq that they will be 'bartering' on the issue of their relatives, as demands mount for the government to take responsibility.

Thousands of Iraqi civilians have been forcibly disappeared - arrested, detained or abducted without their family being informed of their whereabouts or fate - predominantly in the north and west regions of the country during the last decade.

An issue of humanity

With the pre-election period in Iraq underway, various promises have been made by numerous candidates and those political forces backing them. However, in the provinces of Anbar, Saladin, Diyala, Nineveh, Kirkuk, Babel and the Baghdad belt, candidates have focussed on the issue of the disappeared and promised to attempt to find out what happened to them.

 "In the provinces of Anbar, Saladin, Diyala, Nineveh, Kirkuk, Babel and the Baghdad belt, candidates have focussed on the issue of the disappeared and promised to attempt to find out what happened to them"

Demands have been mounting that the Electoral Commission intervene to monitor the electoral campaigns, especially those exploiting humanitarian issues like that of forcible disappearances, after the surge of pledges from politicians.

"The question of the disappeared is a key focal point during this campaign – the candidate has met with many families affected by this matter and has spoken at conferences on it," an election campaign official for a parliamentary candidate in Baghdad said.

"It is a major issue which thousands of families are deeply concerned with, and these families make up a huge proportion of the population in these governorates. Besides which, this is an issue of humanity and needs to be resolved".

Exploiting Iraq's disappeared on the election campaign trail
Candidate posters are hung on the walls of destroyed buildings in Mosul, Iraq ahead of the general election, scheduled for October [Ismael Adnan Yaqoob/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In a conversation with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, he indicated that candidates have given their word to families that they will follow up on the files of their missing relatives with the relevant bodies and will make every effort to find out the fates of their children.

"Hundreds of families are meeting candidates, giving them the names of their missing relatives, and hoping for answers".

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'A tiny glimmer of hope'

Relatives of the missing have condemned candidates who are already MPs for making promises to open their relatives' files as elections approach since they had failed to do so previously.

"The problem is that families like us are so desperate they will clutch at straws when it comes to any possibility of gaining information on the fate of their children," Haj Fadel al-Rawi, whose two sons were abducted in Anbar province and who has heard nothing of their fate for several years, said.

"We know that most of the promises are lies, and that the candidates are just looking for votes, but we have no choice: they are a tiny glimmer of hope that our children will be returned to us, or at the least we will find out what happened to them," he added.

"The problem is that families like us are so desperate they will clutch at straws when it comes to any possibility of gaining information on the fate of their children"

"Candidates are promising to open up the files on our children, follow them up with the relevant bodies, and get things moving around the legal claims which we raised several years ago. At the time, these cases were left alone due to political pressure on the judiciary".

Al-Rawi expressed his hope that this time there would be a conclusion to these promises, while acknowledging that the Iraqi government had politicised the issue of the forcibly disappeared. "Their negligence has pushed us into this situation – where candidates are essentially bargaining with families," he said. 

He called on international organisations to intervene to discover the fate of the missing and force the reopening of their cases.

Government reluctance to investigate

"The government's negligence is clear when it comes to the issue of the missing, and of the concealment of their numbers and their fates," former MP Adnan al-Danbous said, emphasising that "many of these people disappeared without a trace, and no trace will be discovered in the future because there are actors in positions of influence who will not expose those responsible for the abductions".

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"Additionally, there are other barriers preventing information as to their fates - there have been investigations, and information is held by official bodies on many of the missing, but government bodies are scared to expose the groups who have been involved in this," he added, criticising attempts to politicise this humanitarian issue.

Thousands affected

There is no official total when it comes to the numbers, however politicians and human rights organisations say around 22,000 people are thought to be missing. Among them are 1,800 people who disappeared from the al-Razzaza region between Anbar and Karbala, and 763 from Saqlawia in Anbar as the region was being wrested from the Islamic State's (IS) control.

Around 900 others were kidnapped from Jurf Al Sakhar city in Babel province, and 400 from the Baghdad belt region. More than 500 were abducted from Samarra in the Saladin province and the list goes on, with abductions having occurred in many different areas of the country.

"Politicians and human rights organisations say around 22,000 people are thought to be missing"

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has made promises to follow up on the issue of the disappeared "with the seriousness it deserves", however his government has not yet taken any steps to do this.

During the years in which Iraq was the major battleground in the fight against IS, thousands of civilians were kidnapped, predominantly from the governorates of Anbar, Saladin, Mosul, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk and Babel, for political and sectarian motives. Politicians have spoken about the involvement of armed factions in kidnap and disappearance operations.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko