Arbel, Iraq -- Armed forces fighting Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to retake a town and four villages near Mosul looted, damaged, and destroyed homes, Human Rights Watch said today. There was no apparent military necessity for the demolitions, which may amount to war crimes and which took place between November 2016 and February 2017.
The Iraqi authorities should investigate allegations of war crimes and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. The United States and other countries providing military assistance to the Iraqi Security Forces should press the government to carry out these investigations. The United Nations Human Rights Council should expand the investigation it established in 2014 on ISIS abuses to include serious violations by all parties, including the Popular Mobilization Forces (known as the PMF or Hashd al-Sha'abi), units that were formed largely to combat ISIS, and are under the direct command of Prime Minister al-Abadi.
"Absent a legitimate military objective, there is no excuse for destroying civilian homes," said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "All the destruction does is to keep civilians from going home."
Satellite imagery shows building demolition in the village of Mashirafat al-Jisr, southwest of Mosul, Iraq, after it was captured by Popular Mobilization Forces on December 12th, 2016.
To the southwest of Mosul, Human Rights Watch documented looting and extensive demolition of buildings in three villages using explosives, heavy machinery, and fire. Witness statements about the extent and timing of the demolitions, between late December and early February, were corroborated by satellite imagery showing the destruction of at least 345 buildings, including the main mosque, in the village of Ashwa during that time. Satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch showed that the abuses took place after anti-ISIS forces incorporated the villages into a large network of earthen berms and trenches. Locals told Human Rights Watch the only armed forces in the areas taken from ISIS were different groups within the PMF.
Human Rights Watch asked a representative of the PMF about the destruction in all three villages. In a written response received on February 12, the PMF stated that some buildings were used as artillery positions by ISIS while other houses were booby-trapped by ISIS in order to detonate around advancing PMF forces. They also said the PMF slowed their advance for nearly two days to avoid destroying infrastructure and private property and that after being pushed out, ISIS forces continued to aim artillery fire at the villages.
The PMF did not say how long ISIS attacks on the villages continued and did not provide the number of homes destroyed by ISIS or say which groups within the PMF were in the villages. The statement did not acknowledge that the PMF conducted extensive property demolitions after retaking the areas, let alone provide an explanation for the destruction.
Despite the PMF statement about booby-trapped homes, the satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch shows that the houses were destroyed by explosives, heavy machinery, and fire after the PMF had retaken the villages. Burning, demolishing, or bulldozing homes is a wholly inappropriate mechanism for mine clearance, and would likely detonate any improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In addition, almost all of the burnt buildings still have their load-bearing exterior and interior walls intact, with only the roof missing, which is inconsistent with IED blasts.
Given the broader investigation and the continued pattern of destruction for almost two months after the PMF were firmly in control of the area, Human Rights Watch did not find evidence to support claims that the demolitions may have been undertaken for legitimate military reasons.
Satellite imagery shows that the PMF incorporated the retaken villages within a security network of earthen berms and trenches. That network suggests that the whole area inside was well enough protected that there would have been no military need for PMF forces to demolish the homes inside the secured zone. In addition, satellite imagery shows no demolitions in other villages nearby; if there was a military need for the destruction, there should be a more even distribution of demolitions in adjacent villages.
The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilian property except when an enemy is using it for military purposes. They also prohibit indiscriminate attacks, including attacks that treat an entire area, such as a village, as a military objective.
Human Rights Watch also documented looting and burning of homes in two villages southeast of Mosul: in the Christian town of Bakhdida, also known as Hamdaniyah or Qaraqosh, and the mixed Sunni and Christian village of al-Khidir. The looting and destruction took place after they were retaken from ISIS, between November 2016 and January 2017. Multiple forces including the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), the Iraqi military's 9th Division, local police, and Federal Police were present in Bakhdida, according to military personnel in the area and residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch was unable to identify the specific forces responsible for these abuses. In al-Khidir, 30 kilometers southeast of Mosul, Human Rights Watch also saw evidence of looted homes. Residents said that they fled the village one week before the area was retaken, on November 19, and when they returned home 20 days later, their homes had been looted. During that time there were several PMF units present, including the Christian Babylon Brigades, according to military personnel in the area.
Elsewhere in Iraq, Human Rights Watch has documented looting and destruction of civilian property, amounting to war crimes by the PMF and by the Kurdistan Regional Government's Peshmerga forces, in their operations to retake territory from ISIS.
Iraqi authorities should take immediate steps to investigate these alleged war crimes and other allegations of unlawful demolitions, looting, and destruction of civilian property. They should hold armed forces that loot or destroy civilian property to account. The committee established by law to compensate victims of "terrorism and military errors" should process claims of victims of looting and destruction by armed forces.
"The Iraqi government may win its fight against ISIS, but it also needs to win the peace," Fakih said. "That will be difficult if forces under its control violate international laws by looting and destroying the homes of local villagers."
Southwest of Mosul
Human Rights Watch interviewed six residents of the village of Ashwa, who said that on December 12, 2016, ISIS forces who had taken control of the area in June 2014 left the village as fighters belonging to the PMF's League of the Righteous (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq) and the Ali al-Akbar Brigade (Lua Ali al-Akbar) took control of the area. The residents could identify which PMF groups came to the village from their banners, flags, and badges. Once the PMF took over, they told residents to leave the area for a displaced persons camp to the south.
Residents said ISIS prevented locals from fleeing by reinforcing pre-existing security earthen berms surrounding the village. Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite imagery that showed ISIS had substantially reinforced the berms by August 2016. When the PMF arrived, the residents said they opened up a section of the berm so that villagers could leave.
Satellite imagery of the village shows that after the PMF captured it, they incorporated the pre-existing berms into much larger, newly-constructed security earthen berms to the south and west of the village between December 11 and December 22.
Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite images that show 46 buildings were destroyed between December 8 and December 20, and an additional 94 buildings were destroyed between December 20 and February 10. Visible damage signatures were consistent with the use of high explosives, heavy machinery, and fire. One of the buildings destroyed by explosives was the Ashwa Mosque, the primary mosque in the village.
Human Rights Watch interviewed three displaced residents of Mashirafat al-Jisr, the neighboring village to Ashwa. One said that on the morning of December 12, at about 10 a.m., he saw four cars with ISIS fighters pull into the village and immediately come under fire. At that time, the majority of the village residents, roughly 100 people, fled by car to a nearby hill, residents told Human Rights Watch, and watched as ISIS forces left the village and fighters flying PMF banners entered.
One villager remained behind to protect his property. He said he saw 10 cars arrive, and the fighters who descended introduced themselves to him as members of the Martyrs of Sayyid Battalions (Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada). They told him to leave the area, to which he responded that if the villagers returned to find their homes looted he would blame their unit.
He said he left, joined the other villagers, and traveled on to a camp, where they remained. The three residents said that most villagers did not return home but seven days later, one young villager who was recruited by the PMF inside the camp went back to the village with two other new recruits and sent his relatives photos suggesting their homes had been looted or destroyed.
The photos, which Human Rights Watch saw, show at least one house burned from the inside, one house destroyed, and two looted.
One of the new recruits said that when he got to the village on December 19, he saw that many homes had been destroyed, and those still standing had been looted, many had also been burned. At that time, the village was under the control of the PMF unit League of the Righteous. He heard one fighter ask a League of the Righteous officer what had happened in the village, and he replied that the homes had been full of IEDs. He also said that the Martyrs of Sayyid Battalions had been in the area at one point, but did not give a date.
The satellite imagery shows that more than 90 per cent of the affected buildings in the village were destroyed by fire.
Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite images of the village taken on December 6, January 1, January 24, and February 2. The first set showed no signs of significant building damage, the later images showed that 100 buildings had likely been burnt down or demolished with high explosives. In addition, the village appears to have been incorporated into a military post, with security earthen berms running along the western edge.
Anti-ISIS fighters retook the village of Khoytlah from ISIS on December 13, at which point all the residents left and have not yet returned. Federal Police officers at a base in Qayyarah told Human Rights Watch that the PMF retook the village from ISIS and that only PMF fighters remained in the area after the clashes. Human Rights Watch was unable to identify which PMF were present.
A local leader who was present in the village under ISIS and withdrew as the village was being retaken by the PMF said that he did not witness ISIS destroying buildings before he and the rest of the villagers left their homes.
Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite images of the village that showed armed forces likely demolished at least 63 buildings with explosives, heavy machinery, and fire between December 8 and 22, and an additional 47 buildings between December 22 and February 10.
A satellite image taken on January 1 captured a smoke plume from an active building fire, indicating burning continued in the village two weeks after it had been occupied by anti-ISIS forces.
Southeast of Mosul
In early January, Human Rights Watch researchers visited the Christian town of Bakhdida, 20 kilometers southeast of Mosul, and observed evidence of extensive looting and burning of homes. Human Rights Watch spoke with six residents who had been displaced from the town in 2014 when ISIS took it over and were now living in Erbil. Three said their homes in Bakhdida had been looted and three others said their homes were damaged by fire after anti-ISIS forces took control of the town in October.
Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite images of the town from October 18, showing multiple building fires burning across the city before anti-ISIS forces took over, but the displaced residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that they visited their homes after anti-ISIS forces took over the town and saw that they had not been impacted by the fighting or intentional destruction under ISIS.
In the months following the ISIS withdrawal, no residents were living in the town and it was occupied only by anti-ISIS security forces, according to the residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
According to local military personnel, the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian Christian brigade within the PMF, the Iraqi military's 9th Division, and local and federal police took control of the town after ISIS was forced out . Human Rights Watch passed through NPU checkpoints in the town and saw NPU graffiti tags on walls throughout the town.
Three displaced residents told researchers that in the days after the town was retaken by a range of anti-ISIS forces, on October 22, they traveled back to their town from Erbil to check on their homes and saw that their homes were not damaged and that most of their personal items were still there. They said that after surveying their property they locked up and returned to Erbil.
Afterwards they returned regularly to the town and said that during these visits, from mid-November to early January, they saw their homes had been broken into and the contents looted.
Another displaced resident told Human Rights Watch that he visited his home on November 6, and found that the federal police had established a base in the building next door, and the NPU another behind his house. At the time, he said some of his furniture and personal belongings had been moved out onto his lawn but that his belongings were for the most part still there. He said that his home had not been damaged.
He returned to the town again on November 21, but this time said that he found that some of his furniture and one room had been burned. He went to the Federal Police base to ask what had happened, and an officer said that the fire had somehow been the result of a recent ISIS insurgent attack, without providing any details. Human Rights Watch could not verify whether such an attack occurred.
A fifth resident also displaced to Erbil since 2014, told Human Rights Watch that he visited his home in Bakhdida on December 2, and saw no signs of damage to his property. He said at that point the town was occupied by anti-ISIS forces, including from the local police and NPU, and the situation was calm. He said he left at 3 p.m. the same day, and two days later, his cousin called to say he had seen the house had been burned from the inside. The resident returned to the town on December 5, and confirmed that his house had been set on fire. He told Human Rights Watch he heard a rumor in mid-January that the local police, in conjunction with the NPU, had arrested two men from the Shabak community (a minority group in Iraq) accused of having committed another arson attack, and had sent them to Baghdad. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm this or to connect these men to any of documented incidents of home burning
Another resident, also displaced to Erbil, who had visited his home in Bakhdida on December 26 and confirmed his property was not damaged, received a call on January 10 from a friend who said he heard that his house had been burned. The resident traveled back home the next morning and confirmed it had been destroyed. He said that while there, he saw local police and NPU fighters present in the town and that other anti-ISIS fighters may have also been there.
In the village of al-Khidir, 30 kilometers southeast of Mosul, Human Rights Watch also saw evidence of destruction of a few homes in early January. Three residents said that they fled the village one week before the area was retaken by anti-ISIS forces on November 19, and when they returned home 20 days later, their homes had been looted. During that time, according to military personnel in the area, there were several PMF units present, including the Babylon Brigades.
A local commander present in the area throughout the operation, told Human Rights Watch that he had observed the extensive looting, knew which forces were behind it, but would not divulge their identity. His statement, however, reflected that the looting was not done by ISIS fighters before they withdrew from the village, Human Rights Watch said.