Militia Abuses Against Sunnis in Tikrit--Human Rights Watch Report
(9/24/15) – Once again the sectarian militias in Iraq are killing, arresting young Sunni men and destroying homes belonging to Sunni residents, this time in city of Tikrit. With brutal savagery, these anti-Sunni militias once again commit crimes in the name of "fighting terrorism" by killing, detaining, or otherwise expelling Sunni residents in the Iraqi city of Tikrit. Here Human Rights Watch documents the abuses in their report.
Iraq: Militia Abuses Mar Fight Against ISIS
Tikrit Homes Destroyed, Residents Abducted
(Washington) – Iraqi government-backed militias carried out widespread destruction of homes and shops around the city of Tikrit in March and April 2015 in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Militiamen deliberately destroyed several hundred civilian buildings with no apparent military reason after the withdrawal of the extremist armed group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, from the area.
The 60-page report, “Ruinous Aftermath: Militia Abuses Following Iraq’s Recapture of Tikrit,” uses satellite imagery to corroborate accounts of witnesses that the damage to homes and shops in Tikrit, and the towns of al-Bu ‘Ajil, al-Alam, and al-Dur covered entire neighborhoods. After ISIS fled, Hizbollah Battalions and League of Righteous forces, two of the largely Shia pro-government militias, abducted more than 200 Sunni residents, including children, near al-Dur, south of Tikrit. At least 160 of those abducted remain unaccounted for.
“Iraqi authorities need to discipline and hold accountable the out-of-control militias laying waste to Sunni homes and shops after driving ISIS out,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Abusive militias and their commanders acting with impunity undermine the campaign against ISIS and put all civilians at greater risk.”
Ahead of the campaign, Shia militia leaders had promised revenge for the June 2014 massacre by ISIS of at least 770 Shia military cadets from the Camp Speicher facility, near Tikrit. In videos of home demolitions, Shia militiamen curse Sunni residents and invoke Shia slogans.
The militias are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, consisting of several dozen Shia militias, which the government created in response to the rapid ISIS advance across Nineveh and Salah al-Din provinces in June 2014.
The militias receive government salaries and weaponry but act in loose coordination with one another and with the Iraqi army and other security forces. On April 7, the Iraqi cabinet recognized the Popular Mobilization Forces as a distinct security force under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s command.
Satellite imagery corroborated witness accounts that destruction of buildings occurred primarily after pro-government forces had routed ISIS and the Iraqi army left the area to militia control. Damage from government and US-led coalition airstrikes and artillery or by ISIS during its nine-month rule prior to March was limited.
In one example, Iraqi troops and Shia militias recaptured al-Dur, a town of about 120,000 people 20 kilometers south of Tikrit, without a major battle on March 6, residents told Human Rights Watch. The army withdrew a day later, leaving the town in the hands of the militias. Almost all residents had fled under ISIS or shortly before government forces retook the town. On March 8, Al-Ittijah Channel broadcast footage of Hizbollah Battalions entering the town and defusing ISIS-planted explosive devices and showing al-Dur’s main street, roundabout, and other locations largely intact.
But when local policemen returned to duty in early April they compiled a list of over 600 torched or exploded homes and shops. Satellite imagery taken in May shows large swathes of al-Dur residential areas destroyed. Sheikh Malik Shahhab, a prominent businessman and brother of al-Dur’s mayor, told Human Rights Watch that a member of the Popular Mobilization Forces boasted, “We burned and destroyed al-Dur, because they [the residents] are ISIS and Baathists.”
On March 8, Shia militias and local volunteer fighters retook the town of al-Alam, about 12 kilometers northeast of Tikrit, with a population of about 60,000. Human Rights Watch collected photographs and witness accounts for 28 buildings torched or blown up after the recapture of al-Alam. Some of this destruction is visible on satellite imagery, which shows 45 buildings that had been destroyed in March and April after militia forces captured al-Alam. Local Sunni volunteer fighters who had opposed ISIS control and who were operating under Shia militia protection were responsible for the destruction in al-Alam.
The battle for the city of Tikrit, 180 kilometers north of Baghdad with a peacetime population of about 150,000, lasted from early March until April 1, when Prime Minister al-Abadi declared victory, although sporadic fighting continued. Residents told Human Rights Watch that heavy fighting was largely restricted to the northern Qadisiyya neighborhood, where several hundred homes had been destroyed after militias had routed ISIS.
In Tikrit, militias also engaged in significant looting. Muhammad Jasim, a businessman who runs a large appliance store, showed Human Rights Watch photographs of militias looting and torching his store. In one video, shot on March 31, a white truck is visible in front of Jasim’s store while men in fatigues load up appliances.
Witnesses said Shia militias also carried out apparent extrajudicial killings in Tikrit. A local policeman said that when he patrolled an area of the Qadisiyya neighborhood in early April, he saw two dozen ISIS fighters surrender to Badr Brigades, another Shiite militia, and the League of the Righteous because they were out of ammunition and food. The policeman said he then saw militia members execute some ISIS prisoners on the street. On April 3, Reuters correspondents reporting from Tikrit said they witnessed Federal Police officers stabbing to death a suspected ISIS fighter.
As the biggest contributors to Iraq’s military and security forces, the US and Iran should speak out against militia abuses and make clear that the government is responsible for stopping these abuses and holding those responsible accountable, regardless of rank, Human Rights Watch said. All countries providing military assistance to Iraq should strengthen end-use monitoring of equipment and human rights vetting of recipients, including by publicly reporting on investigations into misuse of assistance and steps taken to address it. These states should support establishing centralized command and control with civilian oversight over the militias and hold those responsible for laws of war violations accountable. Failure by Iraq to do so within one year should lead to suspensions of assistance commensurate with Iraq’s failure to comply.
“Revenge and collective punishment shouldn’t be seen as any part of the strategy for defeating ISIS,” Stork said. “Iraq needs to ensure individual accountability for crimes, whether by Sunni extremists or Shia militiamen.”
Militias Abuses Following Iraq’s Recapture of Tikrit
In March and April 2015, the Iraqi government achieved a significant military victory against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, when its forces dislodged the extremist armed group from the city of Tikrit and other areas of Salah al-Din governorate, northeast of Baghdad. The forces involved in these operations included the Iraqi army and Federal Police, government-backed militias, and aerial support provided by an international coalition led by the United States.
In the aftermath of the fighting, militia forces looted, torched, and blew up hundreds of civilian houses and buildings in Tikrit and the neighboring towns of al-Dur, al-Bu ‘Ajil and al-Alam along the Tigris River, in violation of the laws of war. They also unlawfully detained some 200 men and boys, at least 160 of whom remain unaccounted for and are feared to have been forcibly disappeared.
The largely Shia militias responsible for the brutal aftermath to the fighting included the Badr Brigades, the Ali Akbar Brigades, the League of the Righteous (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq), the Hizbollah Battalions (Kata’ib Hizbollah), the Khorasan Companies (Saraya Khorasan), and the Soldier of the Imam (Jund al-Imam). In the town of al-Alam, local Sunni volunteer forces carried out the destruction. Together, these militia forces make up the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Sha’bi), created in response to ISIS’s takeover of the northern city of Mosul on June 10, 2014.
The pattern of unlawful destruction is similar to that carried out by some of the same militias around the town of Amerli in Salah al-Din governorate during a three-month period from September to December 2014, after breaking the ISIS siege of Amerli.
Human Rights Watch investigations found no lawful military justification for the mass destruction of houses in Tikrit and surrounding areas. Before the operations, in February 2015, Qais al-Khaz’ali, leader of the Shia League of the Righteous, told a large crowd that he “promises victory in the battles [in Salah al-Din,] to take revenge and establish justice.” Some prominent Shia Iraqis alleged that many Sunni residents had made common cause with ISIS forces that had taken over their region and therefore shared responsibility for the June 2015 massacre by ISIS of up to 1,700 Shia military cadets from Camp Speicher, just north of Tikrit.
In December 2014, following international criticism of militia abuses during the operations to retake the town of Amerli, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised to bring the militias—formally part of the Popular Mobilization Forces but in practice independent actors—under state control. The massive unlawful destruction of houses following the recapture of Tikrit shows that reining in the militias and holding accountable those responsible for crimes remains an urgent priority. The Iraqi cabinet on April 7 formally recognized the Popular Mobilization Forces as state security forces directly responsible to the prime minister, who is commander-in-chief, but Iraqi authorities have not made available any details indicating increased command responsibility and very limited accountability for past crimes.
Reasserting the authority of government institutions over areas now under militia control is crucial to persuading tens of thousands of displaced Sunnis from Salah al-Din to return to their homes. While the first few thousand residents have returned to Tikrit, residents from al-Dur and al-Bu ‘Ajil have not yet done so. Those interviewed told Human Rights Watch that they were fearful of further militia retaliation, and without a governmental rebuilding plan many have no home to return to.
The extensive destruction of property documented in this report was preceded by grave abuses that ISIS perpetrated during its nine-month rule over these areas, beginning in June 2014.
On June 12, 2014, ISIS forces systematically executed several hundred Shia army recruits stationed at Camp Speicher. Human Rights Watch interviewed a survivor and, using ISIS videos and satellite imagery, located three sites where the killings took place and determined that the number killed was at least between 560 and 770; ISIS claimed they had killed 1,700 men. According to residents from Tikrit and the surrounding areas interviewed for this report and ISIS footage, ISIS forces also executed dozens of local residents accused of being spies for the Iraqi government in Tikrit city, al-Dur, and al-Alam.
Even before its takeover of Tikrit and the surrounding area, ISIS engaged in extortion from business people and assassinated state security officers. After ISIS took control, its operatives demanded “repentance” from serving security officers in exchange for promising to remove them from their list of wanted persons. ISIS established its version of Sharia (Islamic law) courts, whose judges imposed death sentences without a semblance of fair trials. Transgressors who smoked or whose female family members did not veil properly received lashings.
ISIS forces had entered Tikrit and surrounding towns without a fight raising suspicions in Baghdad that local residents were complicit with the group. Some residents told Human Rights Watch that many of them did indeed initially welcome ISIS because of years of alienation from the Shia-dominated government of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But they said people quickly fell out with ISIS, and by February 2015 the majority had left their towns.
As a matter of international law, the destruction meted out in the aftermath of the recapture of Tikrit and nearby towns was illegal regardless of the attitude of the population towards ISIS or past activities of individuals.
In Tikrit city and al-Bu ‘Ajil as well as in the nearby towns of al-Dur and al-Alam, satellite imagery analysis corroborated residents’ accounts of large-scale destruction after the defeat of ISIS. ISIS had destroyed some buildings before they were pushed out and some buildings were destroyed or damaged during military clashes. After the recapture of the area Iraqi government forces and militias used technical teams to defuse or blow up what they said were hundreds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that ISIS placed on roads and in buildings to slow their advance. Some damage may therefore be attributed to setting off these IEDs. However the scale and nature of the destruction, with scores of entire houses collapsed, point to the use of more powerful explosives used in a systematic way.
Based on a time-series analysis of eight satellite images recorded from December 28, 2014 to May 26, 2015, Human Rights Watch identified a total of at least 1,425 buildings likely destroyed by forces of pro-government militias in Tikrit and al-Bu ‘Ajil, and in al-Dur and al-Alam in the aftermath of the recapture of the area. Of this total, approximately 950 buildings were likely demolished with high explosives and a further 400 destroyed by fire.
Because fire-related damages often are limited to building interiors that cannot be identified in satellite imagery, it is likely that the total number of buildings damaged or destroyed by fire in the towns Human Rights Watch assessed with satellite imagery have been significantly underestimated. This observation is further supported by the extensive number of photographs obtained by Human Rights Watch that show multiple instances of severe fire damage to the interior of residential and commercial buildings that Human Rights Watch has been able to identify and locate.
The visual signatures of buildings destroyed with high explosives (as identified in satellite imagery) included the complete structural collapse (“pancaking”) of large, multi-story concrete buildings, generally intact rooftops, and large debris fields. These signatures are consistent with the detonation of high explosives in quantities substantially larger than typically deployed in IEDs widely used by ISIS.
Starting on March 6, Iraqi armed forces quickly took over al-Dur, south of Tikrit, with little ISIS armed resistance, according to local residents. The army advanced north toward al-Bu ‘Ajil the next day. A video showing the arrival of the Hizbollah Battalions, one of the Shia militias, in al-Dur on March 8 shows largely intact buildings along the main street. Satellite imagery taken at intervals beginning on March 9 shows large areas of the town destroyed. Satellite imagery recorded on May 26 shows evidence of the widespread destruction of over 400 buildings in residential neighborhoods of al-Dur, including the Salah al-Din Residential Complex in southern al-Dur.
Residents and local policemen who returned to al-Dur three weeks after its capture described to Human Rights Watch scenes of destruction, including arson and the blowing up of shops and homes. A group of four al-Dur residents provided Human Rights Watch with a list of 520 houses demolished, 430 torched houses, and 95 damaged shops. Human Rights Watch separately obtained photographs of 40 destroyed homes.
Al-Dur residents identified the Hizbollah Battalions as mainly responsible for the destruction.
Although ISIS had destroyed some properties and artillery shelling and coalition aerial bombing caused further damage, residents’ comments and satellite and video imagery indicate that the damage from these causes was limited. The destruction visible on satellite images and photos from after the militia takeover is consistent with accounts of homes destroyed by high explosives, rather than air-dropped bombs or artillery.
Given the absence of ISIS forces, and no perceived risk of imminent counter-attack, there was no discernible military necessity for the large-scale destruction of property that took place following the takeover of al-Dur.
In al-Alam, a few kilometers north of Tikrit on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, Sunni local volunteer fighters operating under the protection of Shia militias blew up and torched about three dozen houses, according to tribal leaders and local residents.
The local tribal council in al-Alam (composed of Sunnis), in a public declaration, stated: “The sons of al-Alam themselves carried out the destruction of houses” of people suspected of collaboration with ISIS. A leader of the volunteer fighters told Human Rights Watch that these home demolitions occurred in a different area from those carried out by ISIS months earlier.
The 28 destroyed homes for which Human Rights Watch obtained information lie in a southern rural subdistrict of al-Alam called al-Ali, an area that local residents said played a significant role in the battle for al-Alam in June 2014. Al-Ali lies between a southern point of the town that al-Alam residents tried to defend against ISIS, and a northern point, to which the local fighters receded after accusing local residents of enabling the ISIS advance.
Local fighters destroyed the houses of several al-Ali residents, even though they had left soon after ISIS took control of al-Alam in June 2014 and had not since returned. Branded as ISIS collaborators with their houses destroyed, al-Ali residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch said they remained fearful of returning and facing personal attacks.
Human Rights Watch examined satellite imagery recorded in March, April and May after militia forces captured al-Alam and found evidence that at least 45 buildings were destroyed during this period, including those properties of local residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch that were demolished or exhibited arson damage visible from space in satellite imagery. Of this total, 30 buildings were likely demolished with high explosives and a further 15 destroyed by fire consistent with arson.
The battle to oust ISIS from the city of Tikrit lasted all of March, and sporadic fighting continued even after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory on April 1. The US-led coalition bombed parts of the city during the campaign to drive out ISIS and residents said that ISIS forces also destroyed buildings.
Satellite imagery as well as publicly available US and Iraqi aircraft videos reviewed by Human Rights Watch corroborated residents’ accounts that most building destruction in the weeks before the recapture of the city was limited to specific areas of the city, and was the result of targeting mostly military objectives, specifically buildings in and adjacent to the presidential palaces which ISIS occupied earlier in June 2014. Human Rights Watch identified over 75 distinct impact sites in Tikrit with signatures consistent with the use of large, air-dropped munitions occurring between early February and late March 2015.
Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite imagery recorded on March 21 and on April 5—the period in which Iraqi military and allied forces captured the city—and found evidence of 75 destroyed residential buildings destroyed in this period in the al-Qadisiyya neighborhood in northern Tikrit, home to present and retired Iraqi military officers and an ISIS stronghold in the battle for the city. All of the buildings had damage signatures consistent with the use of large quantities of high explosives, and contextual analysis, including the number of coalition sorties during that period and the proximity of the 75 destroyed buildings to others destroyed later, suggests their demolition by explosives on the ground.
Satellite imagery recorded on May 26, less than two months after the defeat of ISIS in Tikrit, shows an additional 90 residential buildings were likely demolished with high explosives in the same area of al-Qadisiyya, sometime after the morning of April 5.
A local security guard who returned on April 2 said he counted more than 200 houses destroyed, and many more stores burned and looted in the two weeks of his deployment throughout Tikrit. Much of the destruction took place in the northern Qadisiyya neighborhood. Two police officers told Human Rights Watch they personally witnessed militias torching private homes after clashes with ISIS had ended.
Officials and residents in Tikrit also alleged that the militias were involved in widespread looting and extrajudicial killings. A policeman told Human Rights Watch that he witnessed some two dozen ISIS fighters surrender in Qadisiyya. He said forces of the Badr Brigades and the League of the Righteous separated the prisoners into groups, and each militia executed some of them on the spot. His account reflects similar events elsewhere in the city at the same time. On April 3, Reuters correspondents also witnessed an extrajudicial killing by Federal Police officers.
Human Rights Watch identified 75 separate smoke plumes from active building fires in the district of al-Bu ‘Ajil, which lies on the other side of the Tigris from Tikrit, in satellite imagery recorded on the mornings of March 9, 10 and 11, 2015, consistent with allegations of a widespread campaign of arson. In at least seven separate locations in al-Bu ‘Ajil, Human Rights Watch further identified large concentrations of mixed civilian and military vehicles (possibly including main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers) in the immediate vicinity of active building fires and freshly demolished buildings on the mornings of March 9, 10 and 11, evidence of the active presence of militia and government military forces at the time of widespread arson and building demolitions.
Arbitrary Detention and Enforced Disappearance
Human Rights Watch received accounts of militias or government forces arbitrarily detaining persons in Jallam al-Dur, a rural area east of al-Dur, where some remaining residents of al-Dur had fled just before the entry of government and allied forces. Two people described to Human Rights Watch the apprehension and detention of some 200 men and boys around March 8 by the Hizbollah Battalions and the League of the Righteous. At time of writing, more than 160 of the men and boys remained missing and unaccounted for, and appear to have been forcibly disappeared.
The government has not responded to calls by Dhiya al-Duri, a local member of parliament, to investigate the whereabouts of these men and boys.
The large-scale destruction of civilian property by pro-government militias detailed in this report was in apparent violation of international humanitarian law—the laws of war. The laws of war prohibit deliberate attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects not being used at the time for military purposes. The laws of war specifically prohibit the destruction of the property of an adversary, unless required by the imperative of military necessity. Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the destruction met the requirements for military necessity, but instead occurred after fighting had concluded in the area and when ISIS had fled, and renewed fighting was not imminent.
Serious violations of the laws of war committed with criminal intent are war crimes. Possible war crimes include unlawful destruction of property, collective punishment, and forced displacement. Those responsible include not only direct participants in the criminal acts but commanders implicated as a matter of command responsibility.
The Iraqi government’s failure to disband or establish effective command and control over the militias and bring those responsible for unlawful property destruction and other abuses to justice has had grave consequences. It signals to the Sunni residents of these areas that their fear of returning to an area under unchecked rule of militias is justified. It also bodes ill for the communities of Anbar and Nineveh province now under abusive ISIS rule, since Prime Minister Abadi has ordered the Popular Mobilization Forces to take part in the campaign to retake these provinces.
The United Nations as well as the United States, Iran, and other countries involved in the conflict in Iraq should publicly condemn militia abuses in the armed conflict with ISIS and press the Iraqi government to fully and impartially investigate alleged war crimes by militia forces. The UN Human Rights Council should extend the mandate of its fact-finding commission and include militia abuses.
In light of abuses by Iraqi pro-government militias documented in this report and elsewhere, the United States, Iran and other countries providing military assistance to Iraq should urge and support Iraq to undertake concrete and verifiable reforms to hold perpetrators of serious abuses accountable, integrate pro-government militias into a centralized command structure subject to civilian oversight and control, and ensure that those forces fully adhere to international humanitarian law. These countries should require Iraq to report publicly within one year on progress towards implementing these reforms, after which they should suspend military assistance and sales commensurate with Iraqi compliance gaps on those reforms.
To the Iraqi Government
- Take immediate steps to establish effective command and control over pro-government militias; disband militias that resist government control;
- Ensure that members of the Iraqi security forces, including all militias, implicated in violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, are fairly and appropriately disciplined or prosecuted. This includes military commanders and civilian officials responsible for abuses as a matter of command responsibility;
- Immediately take all necessary steps to end unlawful destruction of and damage to houses and other civilian property for whatever reason by militias and state security forces;
- Provide adequate compensation or alternative housing to residents whose homes have been unlawfully destroyed by Iraqi security forces or pro-government militias;
- Ensure humanitarian agencies have prompt and unfettered access to all civilians in need, including those in urgent need of housing;
- Facilitate immediate and unhindered access to all government-controlled areas, including those held by militias, to journalists, independent human rights monitors, and UN agencies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council Investigative Committee on Iraq;
- Accede to the Rome Statute so that grave crimes in violation of international law committed in Iraq fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Iraq should also file an article 12(3) declaration under the Rome Statute to give the ICC retroactive jurisdiction.
To the UN Human Rights Council
- Extend the current mandate of the Investigative Committee on Iraq and ensure it includes violations of the laws of war and human rights abuses committed by all sides, not only by ISIS and associated groups;
- Establish a mandate of Special Rapporteur on the situation in Iraq, in order to monitor the grave situation of human rights in the country and make recommendations on measures to prevent violations and ensure accountability.
To the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
- Support prompt and thorough investigations by the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq into alleged war crimes committed by all parties to the conflict and support the publication of its findings and recommendations in a timely fashion.
To the United States, Iran, and Other Countries Providing Military Assistance or Sales to Iraq
- Urge Iraq to undertake concrete and verifiable reforms to bring an end to serious militia abuses by holding perpetrators of serious human rights violations accountable; progressively integrating the militias into a centralized command structure, subject to civilian oversight and control; and ensuring that those forces fully adhere to international humanitarian law;
- Require Iraq to report publicly in one year on progress towards implementing these reforms, after which suspend military assistance and sales commensurate with Iraqi compliance gaps on those reforms;
- Amend relevant legislation authorizing and appropriating security assistance and military sales or transfers to Iraq to ensure, with no waiver language, that it provides for:
- Reform benchmarks for the Iraqi government, such as integrating under central government command all militias operating outside the effective control of the Iraqi security forces; ending security force abuses, including enforced disappearances and torture; and releasing prisoners held on politically motivated counterterrorism charges;
- Explicit end-user documentation and post-shipment controls to minimize the transfer of weapons and equipment to abusive forces;
- Clear vetting of recipients of security assistance to exclude those with credible indications of involvement in serious abuses;
- Ensure that embassies of arms-providing countries in Iraq have sufficient financial, technical, and personnel resources to undertake robust human rights vetting of all recipients of military aid, foreign military sales, and security assistance and that the ambassador, defense attaches and political counselors undertake regular joint monitoring visits to security force training sites to assess training effectiveness, including on human rights;
- Publicly report on the end-use of military transfers and vetting of forces participating in training, including end-users involvement in violations of human rights or international humanitarian law, and any steps taken to address this;
- Countries and UN agencies providing financial assistance or expertise for security sector reform in Iraq, including accountability for past abuses, should publicly report on their goals related to human rights and international humanitarian law, means of measuring progress, and evaluations of future support should those goals not be met;
- Urge Iraq to join the International Criminal Court or to voluntarily accept temporary jurisdiction of the court over the current situation.
التقرير باللغة العربية