Human Rights Watch (HRW) just released a new report on abuses resulting from the on going war against the Islamic State in Iraq. This time the group focused upon the Tikrit area of Salahaddin where they accused elements of the Hashd al-Shaabi and Sunni volunteers for systematically destroying homes, looting, and carrying out arbitrary arrests after the district was freed in March 2015.
The operation to clear Tikrit and the surrounding towns began in March 2015. On March 6, Dour to the south of Tikrit was taken. Albu Ajeel fell the next day, and then Alam on March 8 with Tikrit itself being freed by the end of the month. On April 1, Prime Minister Haider Abadi declared victory. Quickly after the offensive was over Human Rights Watch believed that elements of the Hashd al-Shaabi and Sunni volunteers began burning, blowing up and looting buildings. The reasons were revenge for the Camp Speicher massacre, and the belief that the locals were pro-IS. The Camp Speicher killings occurred shortly after IS took Tikrit in June 2014 when the militants collected together some 1,700 Shiite cadets and executed them. Since the Tikrit district fell largely without a fight many in the Hashd and Sunni auxiliaries believed that the locals supported the insurgents and deserved to be punished for it.
Human Rights Watch based its reports upon analysis of satellite photographs of the Tikrit district and first hand accounts from the area. The group looked at pictures from December 28, 2014 to May 26, 2015 to do a before and after analysis of the buildings in Tikrit, Dour, Alam and Albu Ajeel. It also interviewed a number of people who were in the district after it was liberated. The evidence collected pointed to a systematic campaign to destroy sections of each town and city driven by a desire for revenge and to punish people they believed to be supporters of the Islamic State.
Two days after Dour was freed at the beginning of March the security forces turned over control of the town to the Hashd. A local sheikh told Human Rights Watch that a Sunni Hashd member bragged that his unit had destroyed buildings in the town because the locals were IS and Baathist sympathizers. There was also a video posted by a Shiite Hashd fighter of a house being blown up claiming it belonged to IS. Locals and policemen told of seeing destroyed structures too. By May 26, HRW found evidence of over 400 demolished buildings. Four residents provided a list of 520 blown up homes, 430 burned ones, and 95 damaged stores. Others said that up to 660 houses and 450 shops and government offices were destroyed. HRW also received pictures of 40 blown up and burned homes. In the rural village of Jallam al-Dour outside of the main town two people saw elements of Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq arrest 200 people around March 8. 160 of those have not been seen again and are feared dead. A local parliamentarian called for an investigation into the missing, but nothing came of it. People from Dour blamed Kataib Hezbollah for most of the property destruction, while others mentioned the Badr Organization, Ali Akbar Brigades, and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. Imagery of the town beforehand showed that there was only minor damage caused by IS and the operation to take it meaning that most of the structures were taken down afterward it was freed.
The same scenario played out in Albu Ajeel after it was freed on March 7. Many within the joint forces blamed the Albu Ajeel tribe for participating in the Camp Speicher massacre, and they were further incited by the discovery of mass graves in the town with 300-400 bodies in them. Just two days after the town was freed satellites were already showing large amounts of destruction. On March 9 a video was posted with a man yelling “Burn them!” as he drove through Albu Ajeel with almost every building he passed been set on fire. A local who volunteered with the Hashd said three days after Asaib Ahl Al-Haq took over the town it began burning it down. HRW via its satellite imagery analysis found 75 burned buildings in the town in March.
Alam and the neighboring town of Al-Ali were different because there it was Sunni volunteers who were responsible for the abuses. The town was retaken on March 8. Afterward volunteers destroyed around 40 homes according to sheikhs and residents, and satellites showed 45 damaged buildings. A commander of the forces admitted as much to HRW. Most of the destruction occurred in the smaller village of Al-Ali where 28 homes were destroyed. Again, the volunteers believed that Alam and Al-Ali were pro-insurgent and therefore deserved what they got. Many people from the latter have not returned, afraid that they might face reprisals if they do.
Finally, Tikrit faced the same fate. Much of the burning and bombings occurred around the presidential palaces that were used by IS as a headquarters, and in the Qadisiyah neighborhood, which was viewed as an IS stronghold. From March to April HRW found evidence of 75 houses destroyed in Qadisiyah. From April to May 90 more buildings looked like they were blown up in that neighborhood. One local security guard who returned to the city on April 2 said that he counted more than 200 houses that had been damaged in Qadisiyah. Two police officers interviewed by HRW said they saw Hashd forces burning homes after Tikrit was taken. Locals also said that the Hashd were looting and carrying out extrajudicial killings of captured IS fighters.
Human Rights Watch’s new study exposes more of the dark side of the war against the Islamic State. There are many anecdotal stories about the destruction that both the central and Kurdish regional government’s forces are carrying out in areas that they have cleared. HRW provides more hard evidence to back up those reports. What should be pointed out that this is not a national policy. There are some places where locals have been allowed back in and the post-fighting destruction has been kept to a minimum. That has usually happened in areas where there are locals who assist the government forces. Where there are no residents allied with the Hashd, security forces or peshmerga there is a much higher chance that the area will be emptied and property destroyed because the general opinion seems to be that any area under IS control supported the militants. This has created a series of ghost towns sprinkled across central Iraq that are likely to remain empty for the foreseeable future and represent the collateral damage being caused by the war.
Barnard, Anne, “Iraqi Army Cements Hold on Tikrit, but Islamic State Sends a Message,” New York Times, 3/11/15
Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Militia Abuses Mar Fight Against ISIS,” 9/20/15
Xinhua, “Iraqi security forces pound militants-held town in Iraq’s Salahudin,” 3/1/15