Mourners stand near the coffins victims killed in a bomb attack, during their funeral in Najaf, south of Baghdad, on November 14, 2013.

(Baghdad) – Iraqi security forces have been surrounding and closing off majority Sunni neighborhoods, effectively shutting residents inside, raiding homes, and carrying out mass arrests in advance of the Muslim holy month of Muharram, Human Rights Watch said today. The Iraqi government should take measures to prevent the escalation of sectarian attacks on Shia during the holy month without resorting to repressive measures such as indiscriminate arrests.

In recent years, Sunni extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq have claimed responsibility for attacks that killed hundreds of Shias during Muharram, particularly during processions to Karbala and to Baghdad’s Kadhimiyya neighborhood on the holy day of Ashura to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, Shia Islam’s holiest martyr. On Ashura, which this year fell on November 14, a suicide attacker and twin bomb blas ttargeted Shia pilgrims in al-Saadiyah, north of Baghdad, and Hafriyah, south of Baghdad, killing at least 41 people and wounding more than 100.

As in years past, Iraqi authorities have tightened security ahead of Ashura. But residents of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad and across the country said security forces have been particularly harsh this year.

“The government should do its utmost to enable Shias to participate in holy month processions without fearing attack, but it needs to focus on thwarting attackers, and not besiege entire communities,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch spoke to dozens of witnesses who said that throughout the first week of Muharram, which began on November 5, security forces, including agents from Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) and the Counterterrorism Service (CTS), have raided homes and arrested people en masse in Baghdad’s Dora and Adhamiyya neighborhoods, and in the cities of Diwaniya, Falluja, Hitt, and Hilla, among others.

Sunni extremist groups attacked Shia worshippers in the days leading up to Ashura. On October 8, a suicide bomber attacked Shia worshipers in Adhamiyya, killing at least 49 people and wounding 75. On November 13, a suicide bomber targeted a group of Shia worshipers commemorating Ashura in the eastern city of Baquba, killing eight people, including two children, and wounding thirty-five.

In past years, Sunni insurgents have repeatedly targeted Shias on holy days, particularly during Ashura processions. In 2012, insurgents killed 62 people in two attacks on Shias on Ashura and the days immediately following. On June 14, 2012, a Shia holiday commemorating the death of Imam Moussa Kadhem, coordinated bombings and shootings around Iraq killed 72 people and wounded 200, mostly Shia worshippers. On March 2, 2004, insurgents killed 180 Shia pilgrims in Baghdad’s Kadhimiyya neighborhood and in Karbala, in what became known as the “Ashura Massacre,” one of the deadliest days in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003.

Insurgent attacks escalated drastically this year after army and SWAT forces attacked a protest camp in Hawija in April. Iraqi security forces have intensified their use of harsh tactics, such as arbitrary raids on homes and mass arrests in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods, especially in the lead up to Ashura.

Based on accounts by witnesses, since November 7 security forces have carried out operations in which they invaded every home in sections of predominantly Sunni neighborhoods of various cities, detained many of the male residents without showing arrest warrants, and held them for several days – without notifying family members of their whereabouts or taking them before an investigative judge within 48 hours, as required by Iraqi law. Many of those detained have not yet been released, the witnesses told Human Rights Watch.

Baghdad residents told Human Rights Watch that between November 7 and 11, SWAT and counterterrorism forces carried out mass arrests in the Dora and Adhamiyya neighborhoods. A tribal leader said that a security force he could not identify raided homes and conducted random arrest sweeps in Adhamiyya, arresting more than 30 people without warrants, insulting them and calling them “humiliating names,” then turned them over to a battalion from the army’s 44th brigade, 11th division. Interior and Defense Ministry officials told Human Rights Watch in February and May that it is illegal for Defense and Interior Ministry security forces to detain suspects, rather than transfer them to the custody of the Justice Ministry.

The tribal leader told Human Rights Watch that he and other elders from the neighborhood visited the battalion to request the detainees’ release. “They let some of them go, but this has become the norm,” he said. “Every Ashura, security forces come, raid the neighborhood, arrest people, and hold them for a while. Once Ashura is over they release most of them, but they are never charged.”

He said that the army battalion commander told him that, after Ashura, “The people who are wanted will stay and the others will be released.” A lawyer working with him told Human Rights Watch that most of the people “were arrested randomly, without warrants” and that some were laborers from outside Baghdad. The lawyer said he had heard that security forces conducted similar operations on the same days in Baghdad’s Tarmiyya and Dora neighborhoods, also majority Sunni, but that he did not know how many people they arrested.

Another Adhamiyya resident told Human Rights Watch that on November 7, security forces began conducting raids in the neighborhood that continued until November 10, the date of the interview. “We can see them everywhere [right now], but we don’t know how many people they are arresting,” she said.

A resident of Dora told Human Rights Watch that on November 7, “a huge number” of SWAT forces dressed in black surrounded the neighborhood at 10 a.m. and raided “every single house” in an operation that lasted until 5 p.m. “They brought at least five trucks,” she said, “and arrested so many young men – at least 50 of them. They put them in the trucks and took them away. The women were coming out and crying, and none of the men have returned.”

She said the families of the arrested men are “terrified” and do not know where their relatives are being held. “People are afraid to leave and afraid to stay in their homes,” she said. She said many of the people arrested “looked very young” but did not know whether they were under 18.

A teacher from Hitt, a majority Sunni city in in Anbar province, told Human Rights Watch that between 5 and 6 a.m. on November 10, SWAT forces surrounded entire neighborhoods in the city and arrested dozens of young men over the course of several hours. The teacher said she saw security forces “everywhere” in the streets and watched them arrest two people. Several students told her later that day that SWAT forces arrested several of their family members, in at least one instance taking a student’s uncle and all of her cousins from their house, she said.

A local news correspondent living in Ramadi told Human Rights Watch that residents and tribal leaders told him security forces from theJazeera and Badiya Operations Command arrested 90 people from Falluja, 63 from Hitt, and 42 from rural areas in Anbar on November 9 and 10.

On November 9, Anbar police chief Hadi Resij, announced that local police and SWAT forces had arrested 43 people in the Shouhadaa neighborhood that evening during a “security operation” south of Falluja, apparently referring to one of the several arrest sweeps that witnesses described to Human Rights Watch. He said all those arrested were “leaders of al-Qaeda,” but did not offer any evidence given that none of the detainees have faced trial. Human Rights Watch was unable to reach other Interior and Defense Ministry officials for comment.

In numerous interviews with Human Rights Watch in recent days, Iraqis said the indiscriminate arrests would provoke anger among the Sunni population rather than prevent attacks against Shia on Ashura.

“Allowing security forces to operate outside the law without restraint is clearly not solving Iraq’s violent crisis,” Goldstein said. “Harassing entire neighborhoods exacerbates, not mitigates, the horrors Iraqis face on a daily basis.”