Human Rights Watch | (New York) –
Militias, volunteer fighters, and Iraqi security forces engaged in deliberate destruction of civilian property after these forces, following US and Iraqi air strikes, forced the retreat of Islamic State fighters (also known as ISIS) from the town of Amerli and surrounding areas in early September 2014, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Iraqi government should rein in the militias and countries participating in the fight against ISIS, including the United States and Iran, should ensure military operations and other related support in the fight against ISIS are not paving the way for such abuses.
The 31-page report, “After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli,” documents, through field visits, analysis of satellite imagery, interviews with victims and witnesses, and review of photo and video evidence, that militias looted property of Sunni civilians who had fled fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two entire villages. The actions violated the laws of war. Human Rights Watch also documented the abduction of 11 men during the operation, in September and October.
“Iraq can’t win the fight against ISIS’s atrocities with attacks on civilians that violate the laws of war and fly in the face of human decency,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Militia abuses are wreaking havoc among some of Iraq’s most vulnerable people and exacerbating sectarian hostilities.”
On March 2, 2015, Iraqi security forces and Shia militias launched an assault on Tikrit, the capital of Salah al-Din province, to rout ISIS from the area. Tikrit was the scene of a massacre of at least 1,000 Iraqi soldiers by ISIS last June.
At the end of August, following a three-month siege by ISIS, ground operations by pro-government Shia militias and Iraqi and Kurdish government ground forces, supported by Iraqi and United States air strikes, pushed ISIS away from Amerli, in Salah al-Din province. Except for some sporadic clashes, the area has since remained largely free of ISIS fighters, residents say.
Following the operations to end the siege, militias, volunteer fighters, and Iraqi security forces raided Sunni villages and neighborhoods around Amerli in Salah al-Din and Kirkuk provinces. Many were villages that ISIS had passed through and in some cases used as bases. Militias appear to have planned at least some of the attacks in advance, raising questions as to whether government political and military bodies that oversee the militias are responsible for planning the attacks.
Elsewhere in Iraq and in Syria, Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses and war crimes by al-Qaeda and later ISIS, that most likely amount to crimes against humanity.
Many Sunni residents fled the area during the ISIS siege of Amerli. Individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that ISIS had targeted the homes and property of those believed to be linked to the Iraqi government but otherwise had not attacked residents.
Twenty-four witnesses, including Peshmerga officers and local sheikhs, told Human Rights Watch they saw militias looting villages around Amerli after the offensive against ISIS ended and just before militias destroyed homes in the town. They said they saw militiamen taking items of value – such as refrigerators, televisions, clothing, and even electrical wiring – out of homes, then setting the houses on fire.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that the militias, whose vehicles and insignias identified them as including the Badr Brigades, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, Kita’ib Hezbollah, and Saraya Tala’a al-Khorasani, destroyed, in part or entirely, numerous villages between the towns of al-Khales, in southern Diyala province, and Amerli, about 50 kilometers north.
Officers of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that joined the government in the Amerli operation told Human Rights Watch they saw 47 villages in which militias had destroyed and ransacked homes, businesses, mosques, and public buildings.
Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch corroborated witness accounts. The imagery showed that most of the damage resulted from arson and intentional building demolition inflicted after militias and security forces had lifted the Amerli siege and ISIS had fled the area, between early September and mid-November.
Human Rights Watch did not document reports of killings of civilians in this operation but has documented allegations of militia killings and other abuses in numerous other areas of Iraq in several reports in 2013 and 2014. Media reports of militia abuses during the course of fighting increased dramatically in late 2014 and 2015. On February 17, the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr condemned militia abuses and announced a freeze of the activities of the two militias he oversees, Youm al-Mawoud and Saraya al-Salam, that had also been fighting against ISIS.
In a March 12 letter, Prime Minister Abadi’s office responded to Human Rights Watch’s February 25 letter conveying the main findings of the report. The prime minister’s office acknowledged that there were “individual lapses unconnected to government conduct.” The response noted that there were arrests in some of these individual cases, but that alleged victims did not appear before the court to testify regarding their allegations. It stated that abuses attributed to Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) forces were in fact committed by ISIS, and that “most of the material from Internet websites” was “false footage.” The response did not comment on satellite imagery evidence showing that most arson damage took place after the areas in question came under militia and Hashd al-Shaabi control.
The Iraqi government should rein in the militias with the aim of disbanding them, Human Rights Watch said. Prime Minister Hayder al-Abadi should take immediate steps to protect civilians in areas where militias are fighting, assess and provide for the humanitarian needs of people displaced by militias, and hold accountable militia leaders and fighters responsible for serious crimes, such as those documented in this report.
In a December 18, 2014 opinion article in the Wall Street Journal, al-Abadi pledged to “bring … all armed groups under state control. No armed groups or militias will work outside or parallel to the Iraqi Security Forces.” The abuses that Human Rights Watch documented show that it is imperative for al-Abadi to make good on this pledge.
The United Nations Human Rights Council should publicly document crimes by militias and security forces against civilians as well as the crimes of ISIS, Human Rights Watch said. Countries providing military assistance to Iraq, including the United States and Iran, should require the government to show that it is taking effective steps to end the very serious crimes by militias.
“Iraq clearly faces serious threats in its conflict with ISIS, but the abuses committed by forces fighting ISIS are so rampant and egregious that they are threatening Iraq long term.” Stork said. “Iraqis are caught between the horrors ISIS commits and abusive behavior by militias, and ordinary Iraqis are paying the price.”
Republic of Iraq’s Response to Human Rights Watch
March 18, 2015
Republic of Iraq
Prime Minister’s Office
March 12, 2015
Mr. Joe Stork
Deputy executive director of the Middle East section
Human Rights Watch
Having read your letter dated February 26, 2015, we deeply appreciate your care in investigating the information that reaches you regarding oversight of the conduct of all parties to the fighting in Iraq, and we instructed the relevant bodies to read it and respond to the questions directed to the Iraqi government in this regard.
These clarifications follow here.
I. Leadership of military operations (Tigris operations)
1. The Sulayman Bek region and surrounding areas (eastern Salah al-Din province) has witnessed the control previously of al-Qaeda and currently ISIS, and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, since April 2013. Terrorists took control of the region of Sulayman Bek and most of the surrounding villages, with the exception of some villages that were cooperating with the security apparatus such as Maftul al-Kabira, Maftul al-Saghira, and Sarha, and areas of Sulayman Bek, as these organizations forcibly displaced most of the residents of these areas.
2. After the events in Nineveh and the security collapse of some provinces, among them eastern Salah al-Din, there were violent battles, a severe conflict with them, and skirmishes. Terrorist elements booby-trapped streets, homes, and government institutions as a means of inflicting the largest number of casualties among the security apparatus. Some citizens of the Shia Turkmen villages were also killed after their homes were destroyed, and this for a period of three months.
3. Most of the residents of Sunni and Shia villages were displaced by terrorist organizations, as the villages were emptied of their occupants. Some of these families left in fear of the might of terrorists there or to distance themselves from the battlefield.
4. During the operation to break the siege on Amerli, the battle was extremely violent and protracted, during which all manner of heavy weaponry and air raids were used, which led to the destruction and burning of more citizens’ homes.
5. During the battles to purge Sulayman Bek, Amerli, and surrounding villages, no civilians or families were seen in these villages.
6. There are individual cases involving some Kurdish civilians, for example, against the homes of terrorists. They were indeed torched or demolished as a result of what they experienced and their own homes being demolished by these terrorists. But some of these elements were detained and turned over to the judiciary.
7. The area of eastern Salah al-Din, since the beginning of the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, was one of the areas (Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, Diyala) that most embraced terrorism, as it is the connecting point between the three provinces.
8. Through the foregoing, the leaders of the operations took measures against all legal infractions by elements infringing human rights, which had destroyed or burned the property of innocent people. The authorities did labor under one constraint: the harmed parties did not appear before the judiciary to give their statements to the investigating judge and so [the charged persons] were released as a rule. This happened more than once.
9. The authorities, in coordination with the local administration, helped to repatriate families to their regions after they were purged of ISIS elements, and helped to restore the infrastructure of their areas in coordination with the service departments in the province.
10. Investigative committees were formed for violations that did occur, and the offenders were brought before the judiciary, as in the Mus`ab Bin `Umayr Mosque. Persons accused in cases of kidnapping were referred to the judiciary, and the pursuit of the rest continues.
11. The leaders of the operations took care to involve members of the tribes of the region taken over by ISIS and to approach [tribal] leaders for the purpose of incorporating them into the ranks of the security apparatus to preserve their areas. 12. There was high-level coordination with the Popular Mobilization forces [al-Hashd al-Sha`bi] and resistance factions, and incidents cited in the report of the Human Rights Watch mission were prevented.
13. The leaders of the operations received no complaint with regard to the issues cited in the mission’s report. Rather citizens offered information on the occurrence of such cases, and we made efforts to issue arrest warrants for offenders. After they were detained, no claimants of personal harm appeared before the judiciary to give their statements, which puts the security apparatus in an embarrassing position before the judiciary.
II. Leadership of the Popular Mobilization
Investigations and inquiries were made to determine the veracity of information circulating about violations in areas liberated by our armed forces. A department was formed within the Popular Mobilization to monitor the conduct and incidents in these areas committed by heroic Iraqi forces. Investigative measures were taken to examine the available information in this regard. The findings of these investigations indicate that the incidents that took place in these areas were committed by criminal ISIS gangs in an attempt to smear the epic heroism of our forces from the army and the Popular Mobilization. Moreover, the fact of individual lapses is hidden from no one. Deterrent measures were taken against those with proven involvement, and those responsible for all explicitly criminal acts were referred to the Iraqi judiciary , insofar as the tolerant teachings of the revealed religions are the course along which our armed forces proceed. The directives from virtuous religious authorities to our armed forces to respect human rights and protect citizens are the best testament to the general outline of sound objectives. We also submit that most of material from internet websites are alleged, false footage, and an examination has not established its veracity.
For our part here, we laud the humane attention of Human Rights Watch and its previous engagement with the Iraqi government in exposing some individual lapses, which are wholly unconnected to any government conduct (Popular Mobilization), as we hope for continued cooperation in the future in the service of all of humanity.
We hope that this report is sufficient, and we reiterate the concern of the government of the Republic of Iraq to follow up on any lapses or practices; all legal measures will be taken against their perpetrators.
Dr. Muhsin al-`Ilaq
Director of the Prime Minister’s Office
Published by Human Rights Watch
Related video added by Juan Cole:
Vice News from a month ago: “The Battle for Iraq: Shia Militias vs. the Islamic State”