Iraq: pro government militias violated 'laws of war'
Government-backed militias in Iraq carried out widespread destruction of homes and shops around the Iraqi city of Tikrit in March and April 2015, said Human Rights Watch in a report released on 20 September.
The predominantly Shia militias were acting in violation of laws of war, said the 60-page report entitled "Ruinous Aftermath: Militia Abuses Following Iraq's Recapture of Tikrit".
Several hundred civilian buildings were reportedly destroyed in the area without military justification after the Islamic State group withdrew from the area.
"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, HRW's deputy Middle East director.
"Abusive militias and their commanders acting with impunity undermine the campaign against ISIS and put all civilians at greater risk,” he added.
The report assessed satellite imagery and witness accounts to reach its conclusions.
Evidence shows that entire neighbourhoods were destroyed in the towns of al-Bu'Ajil, al-Alam, and al-Dur.
The militias Hezbollah Battalions and League of Righteous Forces reportedly abducted more than 200 Sunni residents, including children near to al-Dur, south of Tikrit. A total of 160 remain unaccounted for.
|We burned and destroyed al-Dur, because they [the residents] are IS and Baathists.
- Member of the Popular Mobilisation Forces
Before their campaign Shia militia leaders had reportedly promised revenge for the June 2014 Speicher massacres said HRW.
During the massacre at least 770 Shia military cadets from Camp Speicher near Tikrit were massacred by IS. Videos posted on YouTube show Shia militiamen cursing Sunni residents and using Shia slogans.
The militias are part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, several dozen Shia militias that were created by the government in June 2014 as IS advanced across Nineveh and Salah al-Din provinces.
One example of the destruction was documented in al-Dur, 20 kilometres south of Tikrit.
The town of 120,000 whose residents had largely been evacuated was not badly damaged when it was recaptured by Iraqi troops and Shia militias from IS on 6 March, local residents told HRW. After a few days the army withdrew and the town was left in the control of the Hezbollah Battalions.
On 8 March when Hezbollah Battalions entered the town television footage showed minimal destruction. However, in early April local policemen listed more than 600 homes and shops that had been burnt or destroyed by explosives, said HRW.
Sheikh Malik Shahhab, a prominent businessman and brother of al-Dur's mayor, told HRW a member of the Popular Mobilisation Forces had said: "We burned and destroyed al-Dur, because they [the residents] are IS and Baathists."
Call for international action
HRW has called on international actors contributing to Iraq's military and security forces, especially its largest backers - the US and Iran, to speak out against abuse by militias, and make it clear that the government is responsible for such abuses.
It also called for them to encourage the support of a centralised command system in Iraq, with civilians overseeing militias and holding anyone violating the laws of war accountable for their actions.
"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," he added.