Iraq: Looting, Destruction by Forces Fighting ISIS

No Apparent Military Necessity for Home Demolitions

(Erbil) – 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.”

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 350 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.”

Map of recently constructed security network and building demolition in the villages of Khoytlah, Mashirafat al-Jisr, and Ashwa between December 2016 and February 2017. © 2017 Human Rights Watch

Ashwa 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.