iStock/Thinkstock(BAGHDAD) — As the Iraqi military digs in against ISIS in the battle for Fallujah, American human rights and Iraqi activists are voicing alarm about the potential for more sectarian atrocities from some Iraqi forces and their militia allies in the event of victory — a possible continuation of captives being tortured and executed “with impunity” and often on camera.
Over the weekend, Iraqi officials confirmed that Iraq’s controversial Popular Mobilization Forces [PMF], mostly Shi’a-dominated militia groups, are participating in the fight for Fallujah, just west of Baghdad in central Iraq.
Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Departments of State and Defense have reported continued instances of war crimes over the past year in Sunni areas north of Baghdad such as Tikrit, which showed that some groups in the military and militias on Baghdad’s payroll have not stopped committing abuses since an ABC News investigation revealed widespread atrocities posted on social media 14 months ago.
Ali Khedery, a former senior U.S. official who was the longest-serving diplomat in Baghdad, said last week, “It will not surprise me if the city [Fallujah] is leveled and a lot of people are killed at the hands of the Iraqi Security Forces and militias.”
If Shi’a militias sack Fallujah, it will inspire more revenge later by Sunnis against the Shi’a in “a race to the bottom,” he added.
Officially, the Pentagon says U.S. forces in Iraq do not support with airstrikes or otherwise assist sectarian militias as Iraqi troops close in on Sunni-dominated cities, and do not even know what specific role in the Fallujah campaign will be played by these irregular fighters.
But Pentagon spokesman and Navy officer Capt. Jeff Davis said last week, prior to the beginning of the battle for Fallujah, that PMF fighters positioned north of the city “have largely a relationship of coexistence with Iraq forces and are aligned against ISIS.”
When it comes to the Iraqi military itself, another Pentagon spokesman, Marine Maj. Adriane Rankine Galloway, told ABC News last week that some Iraqi units and individual commanders continue to be barred from receiving U.S. military aid under a federal law that prohibits it going to any foreign forces where there is “credible evidence” of human rights violations.
Galloway said, “Some Iraqi units have been restricted from receiving assistance because their commander didn’t pass vetting” — echoing what officials told ABC News more than a year ago for an investigation that started in the dark corners of Iraqi social media.
Horrific Abuse, Executions Posted Online
The ABC News investigation broadcast in 2015, “Dirty Brigades: No Clean Hands in Iraq’s ISIS Fight,” included dozens of shocking photos and videos of torture, beheadings and roadside executions by Iraqi government Special Operations Forces, Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Forces and Special Weapons and Tactics police units trained and armed in many cases by the U.S.
Shi’a militia allies were also often photographed carrying U.S.-made Colt M4 rifles manufactured in Connecticut and driving Humvees made in Indiana, while torturing victims or proudly displaying severed heads. The U.S. equipment ended up in their hands presumably courtesy of the Iraqi military. In some U.S. military and Iraqi circles, the Iraqi units and militias in question are referred to as the “dirty brigades.”
Shi’a-dominated Iran is widely believed to support many of the PMFs. Philip Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher and expert on Shi’a militias and Iran, said he and many U.S. officials suspect that Iran’s notorious elite IRGC-Quds Force was behind some of the accounts in the grotesque social media campaign — a twisted effort to build support for the militias after the Iraqi army suffered humiliation from ISIS in Mosul two years ago.
The barring of military aid to foreign allies on the basis of human rights abuses, unless the foreign government is bringing the responsible individuals to justice, falls under a vetting program operated by the Departments of Defense and State. ABC News last year disclosed that “certain Iraqi units,” which U.S. officials declined to name for classification reasons, had been denied weapons and training under the Leahy Law because of suspected or known “past” human rights violations.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the law’s original author, said Iraq’s government “should insist that members of the Iraqi Security Forces who commit such crimes are appropriately punished.”
“Iraqi Security Forces have a history of violating human rights with impunity, and it is incumbent on the Departments of Defense and State to make every effort to prevent U.S. weapons from ending up in the wrong hands,” Leahy told ABC News last week.
Leahy isn’t the lone voice noting the total lack of accountability in Baghdad for atrocities similar to those committed by ISIS — which the world has condemned.
The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor last month strongly criticized the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose forces and militia allies committed atrocities and continued to get away with it, according to an annual human rights assessment.
“Numerous reports continued during the year (2015) of Shi’a PMF killing, torturing, kidnapping and extorting civilians,” the State Department country report on Iraq said, adding that, “Security forces reportedly committed extrajudicial killings, although identification of specific killers was rare.”
The Iraqi government, for its part, “rarely investigated” allegations of human rights violations in 2015, the State Department report said, even when presented with photographic evidence and eyewitnesses by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and journalists at ABC News.
‘Do You Want a Civil War in the Streets?’
Last year, both the Iraqi military and Prime Minister Abadi promised to investigate and hold accountable anyone committing war crimes, though the vast majority have been perpetrated by ISIS rather than the government. Repeated inquiries over the past 14 months, including last week, by ABC News to Baghdad Operations Center spokesman Gen. Saad Maan about any results have gone unanswered.
“Information about investigations or prosecutions of abuses by government officials and members of the security forces was not publicly available. Impunity effectively existed for government officials and security forces personnel,” the State Department report said.
Joe Stork, a senior investigator at Human Rights Watch, recently visited Baghdad and went straight to the top to address the fact that no one has been held responsible for war crimes.
“I met with the Prime Minister Abadi and raised the impunity and accountability issues,” Stork told ABC News. “He said he shared our concerns. We asked why there has been no accountability and he said, ‘Do you want a civil war in the streets?'”
A social media superstar in the Shi’a militias is the gregarious weight-lifter known as “Abu Azrael” (the “Angel of Death”), a fighter wielding a U.S.-made M4 who has declared he will “grind to dust” ISIS jihadis in Fallujah. He appeared in a new video last week with militia fighters, comparing the coming Fallujah offensive to the successful liberation of Baiji he participated in last year.
But it was in Baiji where Abu Azrael — called the Shi’a Rambo by his fans — made international headlines last August, when he used a sword to slice off pieces of a charred alleged ISIS fighter strung up by his feet by PMF troops.
Asked about the incident, Basam Al Hussaini, the representative in the U.S. of the Popular Mobilization Forces, said Iraq “is not a civilized, perfect country. We can only do so much.”
Weeks after the Abu Azrael incident, the top U.S. envoy in the region, Brett McGurk, praised the militias under the government’s umbrella for the fight to retake Baiji in northern Iraq.
“The U.S. commends progress by Iraqi Security Forces & popular mobilization forces against #ISIL terrorists in #Bayji,” he said on Twitter.
Sunni activists, therefore, are especially alarmed as they look forward in Iraq’s ongoing offensive against ISIS. They fear Shi’a retribution against their people in western Iraq once ISIS fighters are driven out of Sunni cities and towns, where they have received varying degrees of food and succor.
“We firmly oppose any involvement of Shi’a militias to liberate Fallujah, whether through their participation in operations or under the umbrella of the Iraqi Security Forces as was the case in Ramadi last year,” a prominent Sunni activist, Sheikh Khamis al-Khanjar from the Office of the Arab-Sunni Representative for Iraq, said in a statement last week.
Al-Khanjar accused top leaders from two prominent Iran-backed militias, Badr Organization and Kata’ib Hezbollah — known for killing many U.S. troops in the Iraq war of 2003-2011 — of being “involved in crimes against humanity” in past operations.
A Human Rights Watch report published last September said that in the case of Tikrit, after it was retaken by Iraqi forces, “officials and residents in Tikrit also alleged that the militias were involved in widespread looting and extrajudicial killings.”
Al Hussaini, a Shi’a Iraqi-American, told ABC News that militias “are involved in Fallujah” but said only a “tiny” percentage of them have participated in past war crimes.
“There are going to be some bad apples, whether you are an American soldier or PMU. It’s going to happen,” Al Hussaini said in an interview. “There is no control. It’s a battlefield. It is chaos.”
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