Scope of Iraq’s Shia militias’ abuses in Falluja larger than suspected

Sunday 28/08/2016
Iraqi Shia fighters taking position near Kirkuk

WASHINGTON - Shia militias in Iraq de­tained, tortured and abused far more Sunni civilians during the US-backed capture of Falluja in June than US officials publicly acknowledged.

More than 700 Sunni men and boys are missing more than two months after the Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold fell. The abuses occurred despite US efforts to re­strict the militias’ role in the opera­tion, including threatening to with­draw air support, according to US and Iraqi officials.

The US efforts had little effect. Shia militias did not pull back from Falluja, participated in looting and vowed to defy any American effort to limit their role in coming opera­tions against ISIS.

Militia fighters killed at least 66 Sunni males and abused at least 1,500 others fleeing the Falluja area, according to interviews with more than 20 survivors, tribal lead­ers, Iraqi politicians and Western diplomats.

They said men were shot, beat­en with rubber hoses and there were several cases of beheadings. Their accounts were supported by a Reuters review of investiga­tions by local Iraqi authorities and video testimony and photographs of survivors taken immediately af­ter their release. The battle against ISIS is the latest chapter in the conflict between Iraq’s Shia major­ity and Sunni minority. The 2003 US-led invasion ended decades of Sunni rule under Saddam Hussein and brought to power a series of governments dominated by Shia Islamist parties patronised by Iran.

Washington’s inability to restrain the sectarian violence is a central concern for US President Barack Obama’s administration as it at­tempts to help Iraqi forces retake the much larger city of Mosul, ISIS’s self-proclaimed Iraqi capi­tal. Preliminary operations to clear areas outside the city have been under way for months. Sunni lead­ers in Iraq and Western diplomats fear the Shia militias might com­mit worse excesses in Mosul. ISIS seized the majority-Sunni city in June 2014.

US officials said they fear a repeat of the militia abuses in Mosul could erase any chance of reconciling Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities. “Virtually every conversation that we have had internally with respect to planning for Mosul — and virtu­ally every conversation that we’ve had with the Iraqis — has this as a central topic,” said a senior Obama administration official.

In public, as reports of the abuses in Falluja emerged from survivors, Iraqi officials and human rights groups, US officials in Washington initially played down the scope of the problem and did not disclose the failed American effort to rein in the militias.

Brett McGurk, the special US en­voy for the American-led campaign against ISIS, expressed concern at a June 10th White House briefing about what he called “reports of isolated atrocities” against fleeing Sunnis.

Three days before the briefing, Governor Suhaib al-Rawi of Anbar province informed the US ambas­sador that hundreds of people de­tained by Shia militias were missing around Falluja, the governor told Reuters. By the time of the White House briefing, Iraqi officials, hu­man rights investigators and the United Nations had collected evi­dence of scores of executions, the torture of hundreds of men and teenagers and the disappearance of more than 700 others.

Nearly three weeks later, McGurk struck a measured tone during tes­timony to the US Senate Foreign Re­lations Committee. He said reports of abuses had been received in the early days of the operation, “many of which have turned out not to be credible but some of which appear to be credible”. McGurk declined a request for an interview.

Mark Toner, the US State Depart­ment’s deputy spokesman, said American officials had expressed “concern both publicly and private­ly” about reported atrocities. “We find any abuse totally unaccepta­ble,” Toner said, and “any violation of human rights should be investi­gated with those responsible held accountable.”

Militia leaders deny that their groups mistreated civilians. They say the missing men were ISIS mili­tants killed in battle.

Iraqi government officials also challenged reports of widespread violence against civilians. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Deputy National Security Adviser Safa al-Sheikh said there were a few incidents, but added: “There are a lot of exaggerations and some of the reports didn’t have any basis.”

Iraq’s main Shia militias, trained and armed by Iran, emerged dur­ing the 2003-11 US occupation and have grown in power and stature. After helping the government de­fend Baghdad when ISIS seized Mosul in 2014, the militias became arms of the Iraqi government.

There are more than 30 Shia mi­litias whose members receive gov­ernment salaries. The major groups have government posts and parlia­ment seats.

Their might has also been en­hanced by some of the more than $20 billion in military hardware the United States has sold or given to Iraq since 2005.

The militias officially answer to Abadi but, in reality, the main groups answer only to themselves, displaying their own flags and em­blems.

The Falluja offensive began May 22nd. For more than a year, Ameri­can officials repeatedly warned Iraqi officials that the United States would suspend air support in areas where militias operated outside the Iraqi military’s formal chain of command. The policy was de­signed to prevent American planes from inadvertently bombing Iraqi forces and to restrain militias from entering areas considered sensitive to Sunnis, US officials said.

In the first two days of the Falluja offensive, reports emerged of mili­tiamen separating males from flee­ing families.

American, Western and UN dip­lomats pressured Abadi, other top Iraqi officials and militia leaders to stop the abuses. Abadi and other political leaders publicly called for protection of civilians.

The Americans’ influence was hindered by the fact they had no forces in Falluja and could not ob­serve specific abuses, according to the Western diplomat who tracked the campaign.

On May 26th, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, pleaded with combatants to protect civilians. Aid agencies estimated at the time that as many as 100,000 people remained inside Falluja.

The first known instance of sys­tematic abuse by the militias in the Falluja offensive occurred May 27th when militiamen and security forc­es stopped a group of fleeing Sun­nis, pulled aside somewhere be­tween 73 and 95 males aged 15 and older and took them away, accord­ing to Rawi and a Western diplo­mat who monitored the offensive. Women and children were freed.

“We are still in contact with wom­en and children who were handed to government people,” said the Western diplomat. “They still don’t know where the men are.”

On May 29th, militiamen just west of the farming areas of Sejar, separated 20 men from a group of fleeing Sunnis and “started killing them”, said the Western diplomat. “The police arrived when there were three left alive. The police took the three and dumped them” in a camp east of Falluja for people displaced by the civil war, the dip­lomat said.

Terrified that the militias would storm the camp and kill them, the trio arranged protection for them­selves in Baghdad, the diplomat said.

A Sunni academic said he spoke to three survivors — two brothers and their cousin — of the alleged massacre. The men said the killings occurred during fighting between Iraqi federal police forces and ISIS, according to the academic.

The three survivors told the aca­demic that they were among about 50 people who had sought shelter in a house when they saw federal police raise the Iraqi flag at a near­by school. The group waved white cloths and was directed to leave the house by the police.

When the group emerged, the three said, the police separated the men from their families. One officer then opened fire and killed 17 men, the academic quoted the survivors as saying, adding that the three were spared when another of­ficer intervened. The shooter was arrested, according to the Anbar governor.

Worse was to come. Shia mili­tiamen seeking vengeance against ISIS rounded up Sunnis on June 3rd from the town of Saqlawiyah, ac­cording to witnesses, UN workers, Iraqi officials and Human Rights Watch.

According to these accounts, more than 5,000 Sunnis left Saq­lawiyah, a farming community 8km north-west of Falluja. The Sunnis made their way towards what they thought was the safety of govern­ment lines marked by Iraqi flags. A grey-haired man described the scene in a video recorded by local officials after he and 604 other men were freed two days later.

“When we arrived there, we dis­covered they were the Hashd”, the Shia militias, the witness said.

UN High Commissioner for Hu­man Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, two senior Iraqi officials and a 69-year-old survivor interviewed by Reuters identified the militia­men as members of Kataib Hezbol­lah. One of the most powerful Shia paramilitaries, Kataib Hezbollah was organised by and retains close ties to Iran’s al-Quds force. Both are deemed to be terrorist groups by the United States.

Kataib Hezbollah denied being involved in abuses in Falluja.

The militiamen separated out an estimated 1,500 males aged 15 and older and moved them in groups to different locations, including ware­houses and an Iraqi base called Camp Tariq, according to survi­vors, UN investigators and Human Rights Watch.

The survivors described being crammed into small rooms and halls and denied food and water, straining to breathe in the stifling heat. Militiamen using sticks, pipes and hoses to beat the detainees and declared that they were taking re­venge for Camp Speicher — a June 2014 massacre by ISIS of more than 1,560 Shia and other non-Sunni air force cadets.

A 32-year-old man, one of six sur­vivors Reuters interviewed, said he was packed into a room with doz­ens of other captives, his hands tied behind his back.

“They started hitting us with their fists, knives and cables,” he said. “When people fainted, we yelled they were going to die and the guards told us that’s what they wanted.” The guards, the survivor said, told the captives they were avenging the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers killed in fighting around Falluja since 2014.

In all, militiamen killed at least 49 men who were detained in Saq­lawiyah, four of whom were be­headed, according to Zeid.

The brutality ended without ex­planation for about 800 detainees after two days. But 643 Saqlawi­yah detainees remain unaccounted for. Their names are recorded on a list circulated by local officials to the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and government investiga­tors and reviewed by Reuters.

On June 9, the day before McGurk’s White House briefing, Human Rights Watch issued a re­port on the alleged atrocities in Se­jar and Saqlawiyah.

The regular Iraqi security forces, including the US-trained Counter- Terrorism Service, eventually es­tablished safe corridors and guided civilians out. About 100,000 civil­ians escaped as a result.

Today, the Shia militias are clam­ouring to join the Mosul offensive, fired by zeal, a desire for revenge and hopes of burnishing their po­litical standing within their sect.

“They will want a piece of the climactic battle,” said Kenneth Pol­lock, a former CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution, a Wash­ington think-tank.

Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who served as US ambassador to Iraq from 2007-09, said the Obama administration downplayed abuses by both militia and Iraqi forces. “This administration is so deter­mined to be able to declare victory over [ISIS that] they don’t really care about any of the rest of it,” said Crocker.

Over the disapproval of the Mo­sul provincial government, Abadi and militia leaders have said that militias would participate in the campaign to liberate the city.

The chief Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) administrator is Ja­mal Ibrahimi. Known by the nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, he is on the US international terror­ist list.

US officials say Ibrahimi is the leader of Kataib Hezbollah, the militia that Iraqi officials, Western diplomats and others hold primar­ily responsible for the atrocities committed in the Falluja offensive. Ibrahimi and the militia deny that he heads Kataib Hezbollah.

Abadi’s office announced that a committee will investigate allega­tions of rights abuses in Falluja. It is uncertain if the inquiry will find anyone responsible beyond a hand­ful of low-level suspects whose ar­rests Abadi reported on June 13th.