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Iraq: Political Infighting Blocking Reconstruction of Sinjar

Funds for Essential Services Held Up, Returns Hindered

A general view of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq August 13, 2014.  © 2014 Reuters

(Beirut) – The reconstruction of the Sinjar district in northern Iraq, which was heavily damaged in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), is being held up by a political dispute over its administration, Human Rights Watch said today.

In April 2023, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani ordered the government to open a reconstruction campaign for Sinjar and announced the allocation of 50 billion Iraqi Dinars (IQD) (US$34.2 million) to do so. But a political dispute between the federal government Baghdad and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has prevented other previously allocated funds from being used, while damaged infrastructure and poor essential services have hindered the return of over 200,000 people who have been displaced from the district since 2014, including 85 percent of Iraq’s minority Yazidi population.

“The allocation of funds is a positive development, but only if those funds are actually invested in services and infrastructure to improve access to health care, electricity, water, and housing for Sinjar’s residents,” said Sarah Sanbar, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Political infighting is preventing the use of available funds while Sinjaris remain in limbo.”

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations migration agency, 80 percent of public infrastructure and 70 percent of homes in Sinjar Town, the largest city in the district, were destroyed during the conflict against ISIS between 2014 and 2017. Residents said that electricity and water are not consistently available, and many education and health facilities remain damaged or destroyed, with gaps in staffing where they do exist.

Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of Sinjaris living in displacement camps in Duhok governorate; three Sinjaris who had returned to Sinjar; officials of the Kurdistan and Baghdad governments; the former mayor of the Sinjar’s “self-administration”; the head of the Sinjar general hospital; representatives of six civil society organizations; and two Western diplomats.

Sinjar is a disputed territory between the KRG and federal Iraq. The mayor of Sinuni, in northern Sinjar, is temporarily serving as acting mayor of Sinjar, based out of Dohuk, where Sinjaris currently must travel for administrative and civil documentation services. The Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a Yazidi-led militia with perceived links to the Kurdistan Workers Party, established a self-governing local administration in Sinjar in 2017 and elected a mayor, who is not officially recognized by the KRG or federal Iraq.

Under the 2020 Sinjar Agreement, Iraq committed 28 billion IQD ($18 million) to the Sinjar Reconstruction Fund. The governor of Ninewa, Najim al-Juboury, said that Erbil and Baghdad are unwilling to spend the funds without first agreeing on who will be responsible for the local administration of Sinjar, but discussions have stalled. They have been unable to agree upon a suitable candidate for mayor, and proposed candidates are frequently rejected by local Sinjaris who feel marginalized and excluded from the process.

The Sinjar Agreement also calls for the creation of a joint committee with representatives from the KRG and federal Iraqi government to distribute these funds, but the committee has not yet been formed, al-Juboury said. There are no provisions to ensure local participation in decision-making processes, which Sinjaris said exacerbated their feelings of exclusion.

Everyone interviewed cited the lack of adequate public services as a barrier to return in addition to the unstable security situation and the government’s failure to provide compensation for destroyed homes and businesses.

They said that public education is not readily available, in part due to damage or destruction of schools. Even where it is accessible, the quality of education is undermined by overcrowding, with some schools accommodating students from multiple villages, and staffing shortages as thousands of teachers remain displaced. An IOM survey found that 58 percent of residents lack access to a functional secondary school within five kilometers of their residence.

“In Sinjar, there are 206 schools, but only 96 of them are currently operational due to a variety of factors, such as a lack of academic staff, the continued displacement of families, and destroyed school buildings,” said Hassan Salih Murad, head of the Sinjar Education Department. “Due to a shortage of teachers and school facilities, one school has between 600 and 1,000 pupils enrolled in it, although it can only accommodate a maximum of 400 students.”

Three schools are being used by armed groups as military bases, Murad said, undermining access to education and putting school infrastructure at risk of attack. Twelve armed groups are competing for control of Sinjar, and government attempts to regain administrative control of the area have resulted in violent clashes and further displacement, most recently in May 2022. The presence of the YBS has exposed the area to Turkish airstrikes, including one that struck a hospital in August 2021. Human Rights Watch documented military use of schools in Sinjar and recruitment of children by armed groups, including at schools, in 2016.

Waad Abdo, who was displaced from Gormuz village in 2014, said that the school in his village was destroyed by fighting, “and anyway there are no teachers. Kids from my village and three villages around it all must travel to the same school, and it is very crowded.”

The Sinjar Health Department also faces overcrowding, a lack of qualified professionals, and damage to physical infrastructure. Two general hospitals serve the district, one in Sinjar town and one in Sinuni, a town north of Mount Sinjar.

“The general hospital in Sinjar was damaged during military operations,” said Dr. Dilshad Ali, head of the Sinjar general hospital “We are operating in a tiny alternative location now, and we only have 53 hospital beds instead of the 130 we once had. The original location of Sinuni Hospital is still operational. Out of 26 primary health centers, all are operating except for two in Sinuni sub-district, which need to be rebuilt.”

Both hospitals have limited capacity to treat complex cases, given shortages in specialists, so people with medical emergencies or complex diseases must travel two to three hours to Dohuk or Mosul for care. People interviewed said that a lack of access to health care is a major barrier to return, particularly with pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses.

“I have many chronic illnesses and there is no hospital there to help me,” said Eidi Chichi, a displaced person in Khanke informal settlement. “Why would I return to Sinjar if I needed to come back to Dohuk every week for health care? There are no men in my household. It is difficult for me to make that journey alone.”

People also said that neither electricity nor water are consistently available, with returnees reporting that electricity is available from between 2 and 10 hours per day. According to IOM, 90 percent of Sinjar residents report relying on water trucking sometimes or always, and 76 percent reported issues related to the taste, appearance, or smell of drinking water.

Mohammed Majeed, director of the Sinjar Electricity Department, said that Station 132, Sinjar’s primary power plant, and Station 133, a backup station, were damaged during military operations and have not yet been rebuilt. “We are currently able to serve 18 hours of electricity per day because it is spring and the weather is not too hot, but once summer arrives, we will only be able to do so for 12 hours each day,” he said.

Majeed said that some repairs to the electricity network have begun, using the Emergency Food Security Fund. The Emergency Food Security Fund was passed in June 2022 to allow the government to meet urgent needs like food, energy, and paying salaries of public sector employees as months of political deadlock left the country without a budget.

Souad, a returnee from Khanasour village said, “only those who can afford it have generators, and they have to pay 20,000 IQD ($15) per ampere of electricity. We pay 15,000 IQD ($11) per day for drinking water, and we had to dig a borehole to have enough water for washing.”

International human rights law and the Iraqi Constitution guarantee citizens’ rights to health, education, housing, and an adequate standard of living. The right to an adequate standard of living includes everyone’s right to water and electricity, among others as Human Rights Watch has concluded. Iraq has ratified numerous human rights treaties that contain obligations related to these rights.

“To enable displaced people to return home and respect all Sinjaris’ economic rights, the government needs to take an integrated approach to Sinjar, which includes reconstruction, rehabilitation, reparations, administration, and security,” Sanbar said. “Returnees will continue to struggle in the absence of government services as displaced people remain stuck in limbo.”

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