Shia militias backed by the Iraqi government deliberately destroyed hundreds of homes and shops in Tikrit after retaking the city from Islamic State (IS) militants in March and April of 2015, according to a report released Sunday by Human Rights Watch.
The 60-page report uses satellite imagery to document the damage done to Tikrit and several nearby towns. The destruction was carried out with no apparent military reason after IS withdrew from the area, Human Rights Watch said.
IS seized Tikrit, which lies between Baghdad and Mosul and is famous for being Saddam Hussein's hometown, in June 2014. Some residents told Human Rights Watch that they initially welcomed the militants after years of alienation by the government of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But IS committed numerous human rights abuses during its occupation, forcing many people to flee the city and its surrounding areas.
The Iraqi government relied on the Iranian-backed militias to liberate Tikrit, but, according to Human Rights Watch, the forces ultimately laid waste to entire swathes of the city. After IS fled, several pro-government Shia militias allegedly abducted more than 200 Sunni residents south of Tikrit near the city of al-Dur. At least 160 of the abductees remain unaccounted for.
Prior to the campaign, Shia militia leaders had planned revenge for the IS massacre of 770 Shia military cadets near Tikrit in June 2014. IS practices a radical form of Sunni Islam, and its members consider Shias to be apostates. In March, video footage emerged of home demolitions in which Shia militiamen cursed Sunni residents.
For its report, Human Rights Watch analyzed a series of eight satellite images recorded from December 2014 to May 2015. The photos show at least 1,425 buildings that were likely destroyed, though the group says those figures likely underestimate the extent of the destruction. Much of the demolition occurred in al-Dur, a town of about 120,000 people 12 miles south of Tikrit.
"We burned and destroyed al-Dur, because [the residents] are ISIS and Baathists," one militia member reportedly said, using an alternate acronym for IS and the name of the party that ruled Iraq prior the US invasion in 2003.
Al-Dur residents identified the Hizbollah Battalions as the militia that was mainly responsible for the destruction. Although IS destroyed some properties, and artillery shelling and coalition aerial bombing caused further damage, accounts from residents and satellite images reportedly indicate that the destruction was relatively limited prior to the arrival of the militias.
Given the absence of IS forces in al-Dur, Human Rights Watch determined that there was no military justification for the large-scale destruction that took place after the takeover.
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This is not the first time a human rights group has accused Iraq's Shia militias of committing war crimes. In a separate report last year, researchers at Amnesty International said the militias kidnapped and murdered hundreds of people across Iraq, mostly Sunnis.
The militias — also known as Popular Mobilization Forces — are organized in military units with tens of thousands of fighters in their ranks. They operate with the consent of the government in Baghdad, which has enlisted them in the fight against IS. The militias have proved to be one of the few fighting forces capable of pushing back against the militant group, and they have benefited from US air support.
"There is a lot of close collaboration, these Shia militias are [sometimes] operating as formal Iraqi forces, wearing uniforms and driving military vehicles," Sunjeev Bery, Advocacy Director for Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, told VICE News last October. "It's difficult to know how much of the Iraqi central government's limited victories against ISIS are the result of the Shia militias, but they are a core part of the central government's strategy. That's what's most disturbing."
Watch the VICE News documentary The Battle for Iraq: Shia Militias vs. the Islamic State:
In al-Alam, a town northeast of Tikrit, local militiamen reportedly destroyed several houses even though the residents left soon after IS took control in June 2014.
The Human Rights Watch report quoted a local Sunni tribal council as saying that "the sons of al-Alam themselves carried out the destruction of houses" of suspected IS collaborators.
The report also included detailed accounts of the destruction of civilian property, including information on looting and extrajudicial killings in Tikrit. A policeman interviewed by Human Rights Watch recalled an incident in April when militiamen publicly executed two dozen IS fighters who had surrendered because they were out of ammunition and food.
"In light of abuses by Iraqi pro-government militias documented in this report and elsewhere, the United States, Iran and other countries providing military assistance to Iraq should urge and support Iraq to undertake concrete and verifiable reforms to hold perpetrators of serious abuses accountable," the report stated.
Human Rights Watch also called for Iraq to centralize the command structure of the militias in order to rein them in.
"Iraqi authorities need to discipline and hold accountable the out-of-control militias laying waste to Sunni homes and shops after driving ISIS out," Human Rights Watch Deputy Middle East director Joe Stork said. "Abusive militias and their commanders acting with impunity undermine the campaign against ISIS and put all civilians at greater risk."
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