Iraq’s security forces destroyed entire villages and displaced thousands of Sunni residents after pushing back Isis’s advance in the besieged town of Amerli, a human rights group has claimed.
Militias, volunteer fighters, and Iraqi security forces forced Isis militants to retreat from Amerli, in northern Iraq, in September, where at least 12,000 people had been trapped for almost three months.
A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) says it found evidence that militias ransacked properties belonging to civilians living in the predominately Sunni villages around the town who had fled the fighting before burning their homes and businesses to the ground.
Its 31-page report referenced field visits, analysis of satellite imagery, interviews with victims and photos of the “campaign of destruction” allegedly carried out by government forces after the militant group was driven out.
Militias destroyed at least two entire villages, “violating the laws of war”, according to the report.
It said when considered together, all of the evidence appeared to suggest that the alleged attacks were either undertaken as a combination of revenge attacks against civilians believed to have collaborated with Isis or as "collective punishment" against Sunnis and other minorities on the basis of their sect.
HRW is now urging the Iraqi Government to “rein in” militias, while calling on the coalition of countries leading bombing campaigns against Isis to ensure operations are not paving the way for such abuses to be carried out.
Witnesses told HRW that Shia militias returned to the villages around Amerli the day after Isis was defeated and began destroying homes and businesses.
One witnesses said: “From what I saw, they used fire [to burn houses] but we also heard explosions. We thought it was bombs that [Isis] had left behind, but 10 days ago when we [came] back, we saw that houses had been blown up with explosives.”
A Peshmerga officer told HRW that some houses and shops survived US-led coalition air strikes against Isis but were later demolished by Shia militias.
HRW conducted field visits to villages in October, seven weeks after the siege had ended, where it found some homes were still burning and others were showing signs of arson. Some buildings had sectarian slogans sprayed across them.
The group claims its analysis of satellite images produced evidence of a “systematic and sustained campaign of arson and demolition” in villages, which it says continued for over two months after the siege was broken.
“Iraq clearly faces serious threats in its conflict with Isis, but the abuses committed by forces fighting Isis are so rampant and egregious that they are threatening Iraq long term,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa Director. “Iraqis are caught between the horrors Isis commits and abusive behaviour by militias, and ordinary Iraqis are paying the price.”
In a letter responding to HRW’s allegations, the office of the Iraqi premier Haidar al-Abadi acknowledged that there were “individual lapses unconnected to government conduct".
It conceded that there were arrests in some of these individual cases, but claimed the alleged victims did not appear before the court to testify, meaning prosecutions could not go forward.
It said alleged abuses attributed to Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) forces were committed by Isis fighters.
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