Atrocities by militias allied with Iraqi security forces in Sunni areas have escalated in recent months. Residents have been forced from their homes, kidnapped, and in some cases summarily executed. Thousands of families have fled their homes in the Muqdadiya area of Diyala province since June 2014 and, since October, been prevented from returning. In addition to the events documented here, Human Rights Watch is conducting an investigation into more recent allegations that militia and governmental forces killed at least 72 civilians in the town of Barwana, also in Muqdadiya.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that governmental security forces and allied militias began to harass residents in the vicinity of Muqdadiya, an area 80 kilometres northeast of Baghdad in June, shortly after the opposition armed groups took over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The atrocities have escalated around October, witnesses said, the month after Hayder al-Abadi took over as prime minister, pledging to rein in Iran-backed militias and to end the sectarianism that fed the cycle of violence under his predecessor.
“Iraqi civilians are being hammered by Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and then by pro-government militias in areas they seize from ISIS,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “With the government responding to those they deem terrorists with arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions, residents have nowhere to turn for protection.”
Human Rights Watch spoke to six displaced residents of villages near Muqdadiya – a largely rural region in central Diyala with a diverse population of about 300,000, including Sunni Arabs, some Shia Arabs, Kurds, and Turkoman. Five residents told Human Rights Watch that they initially left their villages in June and July, when Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq militiamen, volunteer fighters, and Iraqi government forces attacked.
In mid-October, hearing that militias had left the area, residents began to return home, only to find that militias had torched many homes. Soon after, militia members who now control the area began kidnapping the returned residents and firing randomly in the street, at homes, and in the air with automatic weapons. The residents interviewed described the kidnappings and killings of three men by militias.
The attacks in northern Muqdadiya appear to be part of a militia campaign to displace residents from Sunni and mixed-sect areas after the militias and security forces routed ISIS in these areas. On December 29, Hadi al-Ameri, the Badr Brigades commander and transport minister under the previous administration of Nuri al-Maliki, threatened Muqdadiya residents, saying, “The day of judgment is coming” and “We will attack the area until nothing is left. Is my message clear?”
In October, Human Rights Watch researchers observed militias occupying and setting fire to homes in the proximity of Amerli in Salah al-Din province, following the retreat of ISIS fighters. On December 17, the Wall Street Journal and other media reported that militias were carrying out evictions, disappearances, and killings in the Baghdad Belt after conducting military operations against ISIS. In January 2015, media reported that militias had arrested thousands of men in Samarra without warrants and were preventing them from returning home. On January 26, militias, the so-called Popular Front (the Hashd al-Sha’abi), and security forces reportedly escorted 72 civilians from their homes in Barwana, Diyala province, and summarily executed them. Human Rights Watch is currently investigating these allegations.
On December 18, 2014, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Prime Minister al-Abadi in which he pledged to “bring … all armed groups under state control. No armed groups or militias will work outside or parallel to the Iraqi Security Forces.” In addition to ordering a public investigation into the killings in Barwana, al-Abadi ordered an investigation into allegations that security forces extrajudicially killed two Sunni civilians in Anbar and has strongly condemned unlawful conduct by militias and security forces, but unfortunatly nothing was done by those investigations.
The evidence that militias are leading security operations in Salah al-Din, Diyala, Baghdad, and Babel provinces belie this pledge, Human Rights Watch said. On January 1, 2015, Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, the long-time leader of the Kita’ib Hezbollah militia who now heads the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Front), a quasi-governmental organization, gave a news conference in which he described himself as a military commander and the president of the “militia Hashd al-Shaabi,” and attacked Saudi Arabia and the US, which he described as sponsors and supporters of ISIS. This suggests that despite the prime minister’s promises, militias continue to act with free rein and ruling with absolute power.
“The Iraqi government and its international allies need to take account of the militia scourge that is devastating places like Muqdadiya,” Stork said. “Any effective response to ISIS should start with protecting civilian lives and holding those who abuse them to account, especially in areas where people have already suffered from ISIS occupation and attacks.”
Human Rights Watch spoke to victims and witnesses from Muqdadiya, most of whom have fled their homes, by telephone between January 8 and January 15, 2015. Human Rights Watch explained to potential interviewees how their stories would be used, and all consented after requesting anonymity for security reasons. All the names used are pseudonyms.
amsi.com and agencies.