Iraq is investigating allegations that Shi’ite militiamen helping the army reconquer Fallujah have executed dozens of Sunni Muslim men from the city held by ISIS after surrendering to a Shi’ite faction.
The authorities “are following up on the violations and a number of arrests have been made,” government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said on Monday.
The investigation started after governor of Anbar province Suhaib al-Rawi a regional governor said on Sunday that 49 Sunni men had been executed and 643 men had gone missing between June 3 and June 5, and “all the surviving detainees were subjected to severe and collective torture by various means.”
The participation of militias in the battle of Fallujah, just west of Baghdad, alongside the Iraqi army had already raised fears of sectarian killings.
Fallujah is a historic bastion of the Sunni rebellion against U.S. forces that toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003, and the Shi’ite-led governments that followed.
“Strict orders were issued to protect the civilians,” government spokesman Hadithi said, adding that these instructions were also given to the Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilizations Forces, the coalition of mostly Shi’ite militias backed by Iran which are involved in the fighting.
The United Nations said last week it knew of “extremely distressing, credible reports” of men and boys being abused by armed groups working with security forces after fleeing Fallujah.
Iraqi authorities routinely separate males aged over 15 from their families when they manage to escape Fallujah, to screen them to ensure they do not pose a security risk and check if they may have been involved in war crimes.
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said that screening was legitimate but should not be done by paramilitary groups.
Civilians from Fallujah had suffered “two and a half years of living hell” under ISIS and faced not just enormous danger in escaping but also “double jeopardy in the form of serious human rights violations,” Zeid said.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS said the Baghdad government was aware of the abuses.
“We know that the prime minister has come out and said that he believes that these abuses have happened and that he … has demanded accountability of any perpetrators,” Colonel Chris Garver said. “We think that is the right course of action.”
The Iraqi army launched the offensive on Fallujah on May 23, with air support from the U.S.-led coalition. The United Nations has said up to 90,000 people are trapped in the city with little food or water.
The battle if Fallujah has urged around 4,000 people to flee the city over the past 24 hours through the al-Salam Junction exit route, said Karl Schembri, a spokesman in Iraq for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which has been assisting people who escape the city.
“We expect thousands more to be able to leave in the coming days,” he said.
The NRC said humanitarian groups needed extra $US10 million to provide water, food and hygiene kits to 75,000 displaced Iraqis over the next six months.
“We are also extremely worried that the current funding is running out; we are overwhelmed by the needs created by this crisis and international donors have to step up their funding,” said NRC country director in Iraq, Nasr Muflahi.
“This is a moment of truth for wealthier nations to stand by Iraqis who have been facing chronic displacement and untold suffering.”