Iraqi government forces gearing up to drive Islamic State fighters from Mosul should prioritize protection of civilians. Hundreds of thousands of civilians remain in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took control of in June 2014.
ISIS and pro-government forces both have records of harming civilians during and after military operations. The United States, Iran, Germany, and other states providing military support to Iraq should condition their support on scrupulous respect for the laws of war, which prohibit attacks that disproportionately harm civilians or fail to distinguish civilians and civilian objects from military objectives.
“Protecting civilians from needless harm needs to be paramount in any battle for control of Mosul,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “It’s essential for the Iraq government to exercise effective command and control over all its forces, and for allies like the US and Iran to make sure they do so.”
Human Rights Watch has, since 2014, documented laws of war violations by the Iraqi military and the largely Shia militias that make up the Iraqi government’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters fighting ISIS, including summary executions, disappearances, torture, use of child soldiers, widespread building demolition, indiscriminate attacks, and unlawful restrictions on the movement of people fleeing the fighting.
Human Rights Watch also called on ISIS forces to respect the laws of war, and in particular to allow civilians to leave areas under their control, not to use civilians to shield its military objectives from attack, and not to use child soldiers.
In mid-March 2016, the Iraqi army opened a ground offensive from the town of Makhmur, in Erbil governorate, toward Qayyara, 70 kilometers south of Mosul, but one month later, only a few nearby villages had been captured. The US-led coalition has conducted aerial attacks on ISIS and advises local forces on ground attacks. Germany leads a training center for Kurdish forces and provides them with weapons. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provides military advisors to Iraq.
With a political stand-off in Baghdad over the nomination of new government ministers, Human Rights Watch called on Iraq’s international supporters to use their leverage with political and military leaders in Iraq to ensure civilian protection and compliance with the laws of war.
Popular Mobilization Forces officials have said their forces would be at the forefront of the campaign against ISIS in Mosul, and the Peshmerga also vowed to participate. Speaking to Human Rights Watch in Baghdad in late March, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Commission overseeing the PMF, was clear that he expected his forces would participate in the battle for Mosul.
In late February 2016, Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former governor of Nineveh, who has his own militia, warned that local residents would rise up against the PMF if they participated. On April 11, Iraqi pollster Munqith Dagher presented results from one survey in which “of the 120 Sunni respondents in Mosul, 100 percent do not want to be liberated by Shiite militias or the Kurds.”
The Popular Mobilization Commission has increased its capacity to ensure compliance with the laws of war, its spokesperson Yusif al-Kilabi told Human Rights Watch in late March in Baghdad. Al-Kilabi said the commission set up a Directorate for Security and Discipline, with 20 staff lawyers providing training on the laws of war and 100 liaison officers who accompany PMF forces in the field.
Judge Abd al-Sattar Bir Qadar, spokesperson for the High Judicial Council, told Human Rights Watch that he had recently sent judges to process detainees the PMF had taken on the battlefield following the Jazira campaign in March. Bir Qadar added that the judiciary also held PMF members accountable under civilian law, with 300 PMF members charged or convicted of crimes and currently held in a new detention facility in Baghdad’s Kazhimiya neighborhood. Bir Qadar did not provide details of charges or convictions. Al-Kilabi said some PMF fighters had received 10 and 20-year sentences, but did not say what crimes they had been charged with.
Iraqi law contains no specific provisions for war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide, and Human Rights Watch urged Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi to rectify this in a meeting in late March. Holding fighters accountable under the laws of war became even more important after the prime minister, on February 22, 2016, decided to transform the PMF into a permanent military institution with military ranks directly linked to the office of the commander in chief, who is the prime minister.
Kurdish Regional Government officials, in a March 26, 2016 letter to Human Rights Watch, said that Masoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq, had issued Order No. 3 in March to Peshmerga fighters to observe principles of human rights and humanitarian law. The order stated that, “In all possible situations, civilians should be protected from any threat on their lives and properties, as well as the protection of their towns and villages which have been liberated by Peshmerga forces.”
“Training in the laws of war and orders to respect it are positive moves, but need to result in actual respect for the laws during conflict,” Stork said. “Given the record of abuses by armed actors on all sides, it is crucial for Iraq’s international allies to press the government to discipline and hold accountable fighters and commanders who violate the laws of war.”