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(Baghdad) – Iraqi authorities should ensure that a promised investigation into a deadly raid on April 23, 2013, in Haweeja, near Kirkuk, examines allegations that security forces used excessive and lethal force. Government statements said armed men at a protest sit-in fired on security forces, killing three soldiers, but local sources and media reports said security forces attacked demonstrators without provocation, killing dozens of people. The government put the death toll at 27.

On April 23, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced the formation of a special ministerial committee to investigate the deaths. The government had previously announced investigations into killings by security forces of protesters in Fallujah and Mosul in January and March, but has so far not released any results nor has anyone been publicly held to account.

“The Iraqi authorities shouldn’t respond to the killings in Haweeja by once again failing to hold security forces responsible for unlawful killings of demonstrators,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Turning a blind eye to previous abuses has helped create the violent environment that today threatens to escalate across Iraq.”

The sit-in, local sources told Human Rights Watch, comprised around 1,000 people from Haweeja protesting what they characterized as the government’s unfair treatment of Sunnis. The protest, in “Sahat al-Ghira wa al-Sharaf” (“Pride and Honor” Square), began more than three months ago.  There were no reports of earlier violence between protesters and security forces, who had surrounded the square since April 19, following an attack on a government checkpoint.

Sheikh Saadoun Findi al-Obeidi, one of the sit-in’s organizers, was not in the square during the raid but told Human Rights Watch he spoke to numerous protesters who were present. They told him that “SWAT” security forces, which report directly to al-Maliki, surrounded the protesters at dawn on April 23, and said the forces attacked the crowd at 5 a.m. An Iraqi Defense Ministry statement said the army responded to live fire, and an attack ensued in which 27 people were killed: three soldiers and “a combination of protesters and militants.”

“The protesters told me that the SWAT forces first sprayed the crowd with hot water, then started shooting directly at the people who were armed only with sticks,” al-Obeidi told Human Rights Watch. The security forces “knew that demonstrators didn’t have weapons,” he said.

Protesters reported to al-Obeidi that 50 demonstrators were killed and 120 injured in the clashes. As protesters tried to run from the square to escape the shooting, he said, security forces also arrested “large numbers” of people. The Defense Ministry admitted to detaining 75.

Local and international media reported that the security forces used helicopters, tear gas, and live ammunition in the raid, and that later in the day, there were several retaliatory attacks against security forces in Haweeja by unknown groups. According to the reports, some armed groups took control of government security checkpoints.

The raid on the sit-in followed an April 19 attack by gunmen on a joint army/police checkpoint in Haweeja. The attackers killed one soldier and wounded three others, and seized their weapons, the Defense Ministry said in a statement on April 23. The Defense Ministry claimed that the checkpoint attackers then “infiltrated” the sit-in and “disappeared among the protesters,” prompting the raid by security forces.

Iraq’s defense and interior ministries said that security forces gave protesters a “deadline” within which to hand over members of armed groups who had allegedly infiltrated the sit-in, and that security forces faced “heavy gunfire” from people inside the sit-in, resulting in the death of three soldiers.

The Defense Ministry said that 27 people were killed, including an army officer, two soldiers and 20 “militants who were using the demonstration as a safe haven,” and that security forces detained 75 people. It said that militants were al-Qaida and Baath Party members, and that security forces seized multiple weapons.

However, according to al-Obeidi and to local and international media reports, shortly after the April 19 attack on the checkpoint, police and army surrounded the square where the sit-in was taking place, and refused to allow protesters to leave.

In the days that followed, a parliamentary delegation from Baghdad attempted to defuse the situation by conducting negotiations between protesters and the army. Members of the delegation told Iraqi media that security forces barred them from entering the square on the evening of April 21, and, on the afternoon of April 22, announced that negotiations had broken down. Roughly 12 hours later, security forces raided the square. Education Minister Mohammed Ali Tamim announced his resignation after the raid.

“Tonight it will escalate even more,” al-Obeidi said. “People are leaving Mosul to go fight in Haweeja.” According to an Associated Press report, the violence prompted solidarity protests in Fallujah, where 1,000 protesters took to the streets.

Human Rights Watch called on Iraq’s security forces to abide by their obligations under international human rights law to use lethal force only where strictly necessary and proportionate to protect life. Local leaders should not escalate the violence, Human Rights Watch said.

Iraqi authorities should make good on their promise to conduct an immediate, transparent, and independent investigation into lethal police and army shootings of anti-government protesters on April 23, and release the results of any investigations into shootings that occurred on March 8 and January 25, Human Rights Watch said today. Those earlier incidents killed an estimated nine protesters, according to news reports and witnesses. The authorities should also ensure that those responsible for unlawful killings or excessive force are brought to justice.

“This is the moment for Iraqi authorities to show they can credibly investigate security forces accused of serious crimes,” Whitson said. “The Maliki government’s repeated failure to bring anyone to justice has fueled the violence and failed the families of those killed.”

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