Iraqi military commanders should prevent militias with records of serious abuses from taking part in planned military operations for the city of Mosul. The government’s obligation to take all possible measures to protect civilians and ensure respect for the laws of war makes it essential to prevent these groups from participating in the Mosul campaign.
Militias with abusive records include components of the mostly Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) such as the Badr Brigades, the Hezbollah Brigades (Kata’ib Hezbollah), and other groups. During recent operations to retake territory from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch documented summary killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and the destruction of homes by these and other groups that are part of the government-affiliated PMF. There have been no apparent consequences for these abuses.
“Militias that form part of the PMF have repeatedly carried out horrific, sometimes wide-scale abuses, most recently in Fallujah, with no consequences despite the government’s promises to investigate,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Iraqi commanders shouldn’t risk exposing Mosul civilians to serious harm by militias with a record of recent abuse.”
ISIS took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014. It is thought that hundreds of thousands of civilians still remain in the city. In mid-March 2016, the Iraqi army, in cooperation with Iraqi Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces, opened a ground offensive from the town of Makhmur, in Erbil governorate, that reached Qayyara, 70 kilometers south of Mosul, by mid-July. This raised the prospect of an imminent assault on Mosul.
PMF officials have said their forces would be at the forefront of the campaign against ISIS in Mosul, and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, which have also been responsible for abusing civilians, also insist that they will participate. In a June 25 statement, Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Brigades, said, “The PM[F] will take part in the liberation of Mosul, against the will of the politicians who oppose this.”
In May, prior to the campaign to retake Fallujah from ISIS, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Badr leader Hadi al-Amiri, and the United States-led coalition spokesman, US Army Col. Steve Warren, said that the PMF would not enter Fallujah. But allegations of abuses of civilians by members of the PMF immediately surfaced after the start of operations on May 24. Members of the Badr Brigades and Hezbollah Brigades, among others, and in at least one instance, Federal Police officers, allegedly beat hundreds of Sunni men escaping the fighting after taking them into custody, summarily executed dozens, forcibly disappeared hundreds, and mutilated at least a dozen corpses.
On June 4, al-Abadi said he had opened an investigation into allegations of abuse in the Fallujah operation. Three days later, he announced unspecified arrests and the “transfer of those accused of committing violations to the judiciary to receive their punishment according to the law.” Since then, officials have not responded to Human Rights Watch inquiries about the status of the investigation, who is conducting it, or steps taken. The abuses in Fallujah followed numerous earlier allegations of widespread abuses by militias that were part of the PMF, including in Diyala, around Amerli, and Tikrit.
Two people told Human Rights Watch that, in March, the Hezbollah Brigades, League of the Righteous (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq), and Soldier of the Imam (Jund al-Imam) militias rounded up thousands of Sunni families fleeing the Jazira desert area west of Baiji, Tikrit, and Samarra, and held them in food warehouses south of Tikrit. Another source Human Rights Watch interviewed in March said that a militia fighter told him that he and fellow militiamen had executed dozens of Sunni young men, also from the area west of Tikrit and Samarra.
After ISIS claimed two bombings at a café in the town of Muqdadiya, in Diyala governorate, on January 11, fighters with the Badr Brigades and the League of Righteous responded by attacking Sunnis, killing at least a dozen people and perhaps many more, local residents told Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch also documented widespread destruction and looting after ISIS had withdrawn in March and April 2015, by the Badr Brigades, Ali Akbar Brigades, Hezbollah Brigades, League of the Righteous, Khorasan Companies (Saraya Khorasan), and Soldier of the Imam militias, all part of the PMF, after battles in al-Dur, al-Bu ‘Ajil, and parts of Tikrit. Sunni PMF forces also destroyed property in al-‘Alam.
Shia PMF militias and Federal Police officers also carried out apparent extrajudicial killings in Tikrit in early April. Human Rights Watch interviewed by phone people who had been recently detained by the Shia militias who said that groups including Hezbollah Brigades and League of the Righteous had abducted at least 160 people, all of whom remain unaccounted for, from al-Dur, south of Tikrit.
In September and October 2014, several militias, including the League of the Righteous, Badr Brigades, Khorasan Companies, and Hezbollah Brigades, destroyed buildings in at least 30 villages around Amerli, 80 kilometers east of Tikrit, after lifting the three-month ISIS siege on that Shia Turkmen town. Around Amerli, Human Rights Watch documented abductions of Sunni residents by Shia militias.
Human Rights Watch has also documented abuses by Peshmerga and other forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses by ISIS forces and said that ISIS should not use civilians to shield its military objectives from attack. Human Rights Watch also called on all sides not to use child soldiers and to allow civilians to flee to safety.
The US-led coalition has conducted aerial attacks on ISIS, including in the recent Fallujah offensive, and advises local forces on ground attacks. Germany trains and provides weapons to Peshmerga and other forces and provides them with weapons. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provides military advisers to Iraq.
On July 12, the US announced the deployment of an additional 560 US troops. The US should request that none of the militias with a record of serious abuses with impunity is put in a position where they could commit similar abuses, including in any Mosul operation.
Any military operation to retake Mosul should also include efforts to preserve mass graves for victim identification and justice, both in Iraq and elsewhere. A focus should be the mass grave holding about 600 Shia prisoners whom ISIS captured at Badoush Prison on June 10, 2014, and killed in the nearby desert. The precise killing site remains unknown but, once identified, it requires immediate protection to preserve crucial evidence.
“Given the record of abuses by militias, it is crucial for Iraq’s military and political leaders to hold accountable those who have violated the laws of war in past operations,” Stork said. “It goes without saying those same forces should be kept away from efforts to retake Mosul.”