The Islamic State has killed more than 200 people in Iraq, the great majority of them civilians, in bombings over the two weeks since February 25, 2016. Intentional killing of civilians is a war crime, and the widespread nature of the attacks may amount to crimes against humanity.
The most recent large attack was with an explosives-rigged fuel tanker at a checkpoint north of the city of al-Hilla, capital of Babylon governorate, on March 6, killing at least 60 and wounding more than 70, mostly civilians. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, claimed responsibility. Hospital and security officials told Reuters that the dead included 23 police officers and other security personnel. Under the laws of war, police officers not participating in fighting are normally considered civilians and should not be targeted for attack.
“This latest string of mass killings demonstrates the utter contempt of ISIS for civilian lives,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “The military victories seem to have increased the danger to civilians throughout the country.”
After Iraqi security forces retook the cities of Baiji, in October 2015, and Ramadi, in December, and Kurdish Peshmerga captured the city of Sinjar in November, ISIS stepped up attacks targeting civilians in areas beyond the front line. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq reported 410 civilians killed in Iraq in February 2016.
On February 25, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Great Prophet husseiniyya, a Shia place of worship, in Baghdad’s Shu’la neighborhood, killing at least 31, the website Kitabat.com reported.
One victim was Amir Muhsin Kazhim, who was cleaning the streets nearby. His nephew Sa’d Abu Haider told Human Rights Watch that his uncle had spent four days in the A’dham hospital before succumbing to his wounds. “Amir was 40 years old, married, with two sons and one daughter, all of school age,” his nephew said. “He cleaned the streets as a municipal worker, which cost him his life that Thursday.”
On February 28, two bombs set off at the Muraidi Market in Baghdad’s eastern Sadr city killed 73 people and injured more than 112, the Associated Press reported.
On February 29, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a mourning tent in Muqdadiya, killing 40, of whom six were security officials, and injuring 37 others, Reuters and 3robanews.com reported. Sunni-Shia relations in Muqdadiya have been tense after a twin bombing on January 11 that killed 25 people and set off a string of reprisals against local Sunnis by Shia militias.
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Deliberately targeting civilians is a war crime, and anyone involved in preparing, ordering, or carrying out such a crime could be held accountable, including in countries outside Iraq, Human Rights Watch said. Certain crimes, such as murder, that are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population – meaning the crimes are committed as the policy of the state, or of an organization such as a militia – are considered crimes against humanity.
Certain categories of the most serious crimes that violate international law, such as war crimes, are subject to “universal jurisdiction,” which refers to the legal authority of the domestic judicial system of a state to investigate and prosecute certain crimes, even if they were not committed on its territory, by one of its nationals or against one of its nationals. Whether cases under universal jurisdiction can be pursued in a particular country depends on its domestic laws.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged Iraq to become a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to allow for possible prosecution of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity by all parties to the conflict. The Iraqi authorities could give the court jurisdiction over serious crimes committed in Iraq since the day the ICC treaty entered into force, on July 1, 2002.
Iraqi criminal law contains no provisions for these crimes. Members of ISIS have been prosecuted under article 4 of the 2005 counterterrorism law, which is overly broad. If given a mandate, the ICC can only step in to investigate serious crimes under international law if the national authorities are unwilling or unable to do so.
“The need to hold those responsible for these massive attacks accountable is one more reason Iraq should join the International Criminal Court,” Stork said.
A human rights activist in Muqdadiya told Human Rights Watch that Shia militia forces on February 29 raided the local prison, looking for Sunni co-conspirators in the bombing; another activist in Baghdad said Shia militia forces were carrying out hundreds of arrests there following the Shu’la and Sadr city bombings.
“Security forces should bring those responsible for the deadly bombings to justice,” Stork said. “But arbitrary arrests and abuses during interrogation of suspects only add to the injustice done.”