Iraq: Fallujah Abuses Test Control of Militias
June 9, Beirut: The announced investigation into allegations of abuse of civilians around Fallujah by Iraqi government forces is a test for the government’s ability to hold abusive forces accountable. Judicial officials should conduct this investigation transparently and impartially, assess command responsibility, and ensure protection for victims and witnesses.
Ahead of the offensive in Fallujah against forces of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that his government had taken measures to protect civilians. Human Rights Watch, however, has received credible allegations of summary executions, beatings of unarmed men, enforced disappearances, and mutilation of corpses by government forces over the two weeks of fighting, mostly on the outskirts of the city, since May 23. On June 4, 2016, in response to allegations of abuse, al-Abadi launched an investigation into abuses in Fallujah and issued orders to arrest those responsible for “transgressions” against civilians. On June 7, al-Abadi announced the “detention and transfer of those accused of committing violations to the judiciary to receive their punishment according to the law.”
Human Rights Watch also expressed grave concern about reports of ISIS preventing civilians from fleeing Fallujah and allegedly executing and shooting at those who attempted to do so. Human Rights Watch is concerned about the presence of ISIS fighters among civilians inside Fallujah, perhaps amounting to human shielding, a war crime. But the presence of fighters among civilians does not absolve forces fighting ISIS from the obligation to target only military objectives and to take all feasible measures to avoid civilian harm. ISIS forces should allow civilians to leave areas under their control and not use civilians to shield its military objectives from attack.
On June 3, Human Rights Watch received information alleging that members of the Federal Police and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an auxiliary fighting force created after ISIS advanced in June 2014, and that includes many pre-existing Shia militias, had executed more than a dozen civilians from the Jumaila tribe fleeing Sajar, a village north of Fallujah. Human Rights Watch spoke to five people, including two officials from Anbar governorate, who said they were protecting three surviving witnesses to the executions.
Three of those interviewed confirmed the account that a survivor gave on Tigris (Dijla) Channel television that a group consisting of Federal Police and PMF had separated men from women, marched the men to where the troops’ officers were, lined them up, and shot at least 17 of them, including one teenage boy. One person said that the incident took place on June 2. The PMF are, at least nominally, under the command of the prime minister.
Another person who said he was in the Sajar area, 7 kilometers northeast of Fallujah, at the time told Human Rights Watch that on May 28, he saw Federal Police and PMF, including dozens of fighters from the Badr Brigades and Hezbollah (two prominent Shia militias in the PMF), fatally shoot civilians with white flags raised fleeing toward the government forces that day. He said that a fighter told him his superior officer had ordered the shootings. He also told Human Rights Watch he was in Saqlawiya around May 30. This person said a villager and several PMF fighters in the area told him that PMF fighters stabbed dozens of villagers to death with knives.
A local sheikh from Karma, a town northeast of Fallujah, told Human Rights Watch that within the first few days of the military operation to retake the city, the Iraq Security Forces, PMF, police, and Sunni forces forced civilians living there to leave. During the exodus, at least 70 young men disappeared, he said, and the families have no information as to their whereabouts. The sheikh said that on June 1, the Iraqi Parliament Speaker, Salim al-Jiburi, had come to the area to speak to local elders and the military. A member of Anbar governorate council, who also provided information about the launch of the prime minister’s investigation, confirmed the number of missing men to Human Rights Watch and said that the government had opened investigations to determine where they are.
All suspected crimes, including torture, murder, and other abuses, committed by members of any side in the conflict, should be investigated by the criminal justice authorities, speedily, transparently, and effectively, up to the highest levels responsible. When evidence of criminal responsibility emerges, prosecutions should follow. Those conducting such criminal investigations and making decisions about prosecutions should be independent of those being investigated, including being outside any military chain of command and being free from political interference in their decisions. The authorities should ensure the safety of all witnesses. At the same time, a commission of inquiry or equivalent should be created to examine the wider concerns about whether such crimes and abuses are being committed in a widespread or systematic way.
The Oslo Times International News Network/HRW