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U.S. and coalition forces must not allow a security vacuum to develop in areas of Iraq under their occupation, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about reports of widespread looting and lawlessness in areas outside of Iraqi government control. Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the potential for violent reprisals by Iraqi civilians against those suspected of supporting the government of Saddam Hussein.

"The responsibility of U.S. and coalition forces doesn't end when they defeat opposing troops," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Occupying forces are responsible for protecting civilians, not just during combat but in the aftermath of fighting."

Press accounts from Basra and other communities in southern Iraq speak of banditry and looting of government buildings and other institutions such as hotels, universities and hospitals. In some cities, civilians have been ransacking government offices and removing important documents related to the government's security apparatus. Such documents are crucial for establishing accountability for human rights violations in Iraq. Documents procured by Human Rights Watch after the 1991 war were instrumental in establishing the details of the Anfal campaign against Iraq's Kurds and the role of Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali," in conducting that campaign on behalf of the Iraqi government.

U.S. and U.K. forces have at times stood by as the looting has occurred. In Basra, for instance, Britain has publicly stated that it allowed looting of Ba'ath party buildings as a means of showing that the party had lost control of the city. Civilians in Qalat Sukkar, 150 miles southeast of Baghdad, asked U.S. forces to provide security from armed groups plaguing them in the absence of regular Iraqi police officers who disappeared when the city fell to American forces, the New York Times reported on April 8.

Under international humanitarian law, military commanders must prevent and where necessary suppress serious violations involving the local population under their control or subject to their authority. Furthermore, occupying forces have an immediate duty to take all feasible steps to prevent acts of violent reprisal.

The responsibility for protecting civilians extends to the conduct of any local Iraqi armed groups acting under authority of or in conjunction with U.S. forces. That duty exists for the benefit of individuals allied with the Iraqi government who have laid down their arms as well as opponents of the government. Human Rights Watch has outlined these duties previously in a policy paper (International Humanitarian Law Issues In A Potential War In Iraq) and a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. allies (Letter to US and Allies Regarding Adherance to Laws of War).

Based on conduct during the 1991 uprising following the conclusion of the war over Kuwait, when brutal reprisals took place against those suspected of supporting the Iraqi government, Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about the possibility of mass retaliatory violence and lawlessness in the Shi'a heartland, including the cities of Basra, Najaf and Karbala. Human Rights Watch has also highlighted the northern city of Kirkuk as a potential flashpoint, in anticipation of the return of more than 100,000 ethnic Kurds who had been forcefully expelled by the Iraqi government (Iraq: Impending Inter-Ethnic Violence in Kirkuk).

"U.S. and coalition forces must immediately prepare to provide basic security and humanitarian protection to civilians in Iraq," Roth said. "International law does not permit armed troops to leave civilians to the mercy of bandits and looters."

A Human Rights Watch document, "The War in Iraq and International Humanitarian Law" can be found here.

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