An investigation released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch adds to mounting evidence that U.S.-backed forces in Iraq are fueling sectarianism and committing atrocities against Sunnis in the ongoing war on ISIS.
The 31-page report (pdf) focuses on the aftermath of an early September offensive by Iraqi military forces, Shiite militias, and volunteer fighters, directly supported by U.S. airstrikes, which was aimed at clearing ISIS forces in and around the town of Amerli, in northern Iraq. The administration of President Barack Obama touted the operation as a a success story and even called it an "important humanitarian mission."
However, the HRW investigation tells a different story: of revenge attacks and, according to key witnesses, ethnic cleansing.
For at least two months after ISIS fled the area, Iraqi forces and militias raided Sunni-majority towns near Amerli in Salah al-Din and Kirkuk provinces. This included stealing civilians' possessions and destroying buildings—and entire villages—through arson, explosives, and demolition. Researchers say at least 11 men were abducted. However, they note, "local residents said many other men of fighting age had gone missing."
The report states that motives included "revenge attacks against civilians believed to have collaborated with ISIS, and collective punishment against Sunnis and other minorities on the basis of their sect."
The scale of destruction was staggering, interviews with witnesses and reviews of photo, video, and satellite evidence show.
Satellite imagery reveals arson and demolitions in 30 out of 35 villages within 500 square kilometers of Amerli. However, key witnesses told researchers they believe that at least 47 predominantly Sunni villages fell within this wide path of destruction. Researchers identified more than 3,800 destroyed buildings in 30 towns, including 2,600 ruined by arson and 1,200 destroyed by heavy machinery and explosives. At least two villages were entirely wrecked, and thousands of people were displaced.
A resident of Hufriyya Kabira, identified as J.M., told researchers that, when he returned to his home on September 23, he "saw the village was completely destroyed, from the health center to the newer brick houses, which they destroyed with explosives. They [Iraqi government aligned combatants] also blew up the Asiacell [mobile phone company] tower. The mud houses were burned along with the belongings in the homes and some had been destroyed by bulldozers."
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Perhaps most telling was that witnesses, displaced people, Peshmerga commanders, and combatants who took part in the operation said that the destruction was "methodical and driven by revenge and intended to alter the demographic composition of Iraq’s traditionally diverse provinces of Salah al-Din and Kirkuk," according to researchers.
"This report confirms what many people have suspected in the past: that there is a systemic ethnic cleansing campaign that is being led by the Iraqi government and the ethnic and sectarian militias that are fighting alongside Iraqi government forces," Raed Jarrar, Policy Impact Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, told Common Dreams. "Amerli is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg."
"This unfortunately is happening with U.S. government support," Jarrar added. "I don't think the us should double down and continue supporting an ongoing campaign of war crimes and ethnic cleansing."
This is not the first time such abuses in the war on ISIS have been unearthed.
In November, HRW documented a massacre by pro-government militias and security forces on a mosque in Diyala province that killed 34 people. And in October, Amnesty International found that Shiite militias, backed by the Iraqi government, are "taking advantage" of a climate of violence and impunity to abduct, execute, and disappear scores of Sunni civilian men.
In addition, there have been numerous reports that the 2,881 U.S. and allied air strikes over the past seven months have killed civilians in Iraq, as well as Syria, but the Pentagon has repeatedly refused to publicly disclose basic information about who is dying under its bombs.
The HRW report is released in the midst of an ongoing massive offensive by Iraqi forces and Shiite militias on the city of Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad.