Baghdad, Erbil and New York, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraqi militias, volunteer fighters and members of the Iraqi security forces engaged in the deliberate destruction of civilian property in the town of Amerli after forcing out Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.
In a 31-page report, After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli, the international rights watchdog presented eyewitness testimony as well as satellite imagery and video footage which it said showed militias had deliberately “looted property of Sunni civilians who had fled fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two entire villages.”
The incidents occurred between early September and mid-November as militias, Shi’ite volunteer forces—known as Popular Mobilization forces—and Iraqi security forces rolled into the town and surrounding villages after a ground offensive, bolstered by US and Iraqi airstrikes, against ISIS positions in the area.
ISIS fighters had besieged Amerli for three months prior to being forced out and the area has largely remained free of fighters from the group since last September.
“Twenty-four witnesses, including Peshmerga officers and local tribal sheikhs, told Human Rights Watch they saw militias looting towns and villages around Amerli after the offensive against ISIS ended and immediately preceding militia destruction of 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 before setting the houses on fire,” the report said.
Locals identified the militias via their vehicles and insignia, and said they belonged to the Badr Organization—the armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), an Iran-backed Iraqi political party—and other Shi’ite militias such as Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, the Saraya Tala’a Al-Khorasani, and Kata’ib Hezbollah. The latter group is an offshoot of radical Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr’s armed group, the Mahdi Army, and bears no relation to the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
The eyewitnesses said the militias destroyed a number of villages between Diyala province and Amerli, which lies in the neighboring Salah Al-Din province.
Peshmerga officers involved in the operation to liberate the area from ISIS also corroborated local eyewitness accounts and told Human Rights Watch Shi’ite militias had destroyed and ransacked homes, businesses, mosques, and public buildings in 47 villages.
Commenting on the findings, the organization’s deputy Middle East and North Africa Director Joe Stork said “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 . . . Militia abuses are wreaking havoc among some of Iraq’s most vulnerable people and exacerbating sectarian hostilities.”
The report comes amid a growing chorus of accusations that have been leveled against Shi’ite volunteer forces over alleged sectarian-motivated attacks against unarmed Sunni civilians residing in battle zones.
The report also said attacks in Amerli and elsewhere appear to have been pre-planned, and said this raised questions regarding government involvement in the incidents.
The organization reiterated calls to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to protect civilians located in battle zones, rein in the actions of volunteer militias involved in the fighting, and “hold accountable militia leaders and fighters responsible for serious crimes.”
While Baghdad acknowledges there have been “lapses” by members of the militias and volunteer groups, it denies any involvement, maintaining that the transgressions are the work of individuals “working outside the law” without any official direction.
A letter sent from Abadi’s office to the HRW in February also maintained most of the alleged atrocities were committed by ISIS fighters.
But Raad Al-Dahakli, an MP in the Iraqi parliament who heads its Committee for Displaced People, said he had received information confirming the findings of the report.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat that according to information he had received Shi’ite militias were indeed involved in premeditated and systematic attacks against Sunnis, and called on the government to take swift action to contain such abuses.
“Most of these transgressions are motivated by revenge, and we have evidence of actions targeting innocent and unarmed civilians between Diyala and Salah Al-Din provinces,” he said.
He added that he had also received evidence of “a large number of arson attacks against civilian homes” in the area, including in Tikrit, where Iraqi forces joined by the Peshmerga and Shi’ite volunteers are involved in a fight to liberate the city from ISIS.
Battle for Tikrit
Recent reports suggest a slowdown in initial gains for Iraqi forces and their allies battling ISIS in Tikrit, and some have even suggested the offensive has stopped altogether.
However, this was strongly denied by Prime Minister Abadi. In a press release on Wednesday, Abadi said the operation was going “according to plan” and that Iraqi forces were continuing to besiege ISIS fighters in the city and its environs.
This echoed other official comments from Interior Minister Mohamed Al-Ghabban, who told reporters in Baghdad on Monday that ISIS had now “lost the battle” for the city.
Iraqi officials have said the liberation of the city will pave the way for an operation to retake Iraq’s second city Mosul from ISIS.
A press release from the Interior Ministry on Wednesday said Iraqi aircraft had dropped leaflets over Mosul informing citizens there of the imminent assault on the city.
According to the release the leaflets carried the message: “The time has come to expel the infidel and backward Dawa’esh [an Arabic term used to refer to ISIS fighters] from your pure lands.”
“Your armed forces are now close to you and are ready with God’s help to put the Dawa’esh in their graves forever,” the message continued, before adding, in reference to the ongoing fight in Tikrit, that “your brothers in Salah Al-Din have taught them [ISIS] a lesson they will never forget, and you will soon be able to do the same.”
Hamza Mustafa and Dalshad Abdullah contributed additional reporting from Baghdad and Erbil.