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