(Baghdad) – Iraqi government forces appear to have used indiscriminate mortar fire in civilian neighborhoods in Anbar province, and al-Qaeda fighters and armed men from local groups have deployed in and attacked from populated areas. Apparently unlawful methods of fighting by all sides have caused civilian casualties and severe property damage. A government blockade of Fallujah and Ramadi has resulted in limited access to food, water, and fuel for the population.
Based on numerous reports and accounts by local residents in interviews with Human Rights Watch, government security forces responded to attacks by al-Qaeda armed groups on the night of January 1, 2014, with mortar and gunfire into residential areas, in some cases with apparently no al-Qaeda presence. The security forces then surrounded the cities, witnesses said.
“The government urgently needs to deal with the threat from al-Qaeda, but killing its own citizens unlawfully is not the way,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Civilians have been caught in the middle in Anbar, and the government appears to be doing nothing to protect them.”
In Fallujah, the army closed the main eastern, northern, and southern checkpoints, refusing to allow any people, medicine, or food to enter or leave the city through these checkpoints. Fallujah residents said that security forces allowed families with children to leave the city through the two other checkpoints, but only with “extreme difficulty,” and, as of January 8, have continued to refuse to allow single men to leave. Army forces continue to surround Ramadi, but residents reported that they were able to leave the city. On January 8, the Erbil governorate announced that 13,000 Anbari residents had fled into Erbil province.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that as of January 6, the army blockade and intermittent heavy fighting had prevented residents from getting sufficient food, water, electricity, and fuel. On January 3, the Iraqi Red Crescent reported that it sent convoys with food aid to both cities but could not enter because of heavy fighting. On January 5, Anbar’s provincial council described the humanitarian situation in Fallujah as “catastrophic.”
In a post on his Facebook page on January 8, a Ramadi resident, Omar al-Shaher, reported that al-Qaeda fighters had fought army forces that afternoon in the city’s Sharia 60 neighborhood. He said the army used drones to fire on the al-Hamiria bridge, which connects the neighborhood to desert areas outside the city. Al-Shaher said that Ramadi’s al-Malaab, Ziraha, Sharia 60, and Albu Jaber areas remained unstable and that residents feared that a “huge battle” was soon to come.
An employee in Fallujah’s main hospital reported that mortar fire from army shelling had killed 25 Fallujah residents and injured 190 since the fighting began on December 30, 2013, all resulting from the shrapnel, the employee said. The areas of the city the employee said the casualties came from are all areas where, according to residents, al-Qaeda was not present.
Based on numerous media reports and the statements of at least 10 witnesses in Ramadi and Fallujah to Human Rights Watch, tensions in Anbar rose after security forces arrested Ahmed al-Alwany, a leading Sunni politician, at his home in Ramadi on December 27, killing al-Alwany’s brother and five bodyguards in the process. On December 30, security forces surrounded a central square in Ramadi where Sunni protesters had demonstrated for over a year against what they alleged were ongoing abuses by security forces. Witness accounts differ as to whether security forces attacked the square with force, but fighting began between security forces and local armed men, prompting army forces to leave Anbar.
Fallujah and Ramadi residents told Human Rights Watch that al-Qaeda fighters entered the cities on January 1. In Fallujah, witnesses said, they went to each of the city’s five police stations, where they released prisoners and took weapons from police, who immediately surrendered. The fighters set the police stations and city government building on fire. The fighters then headed to Fallujah’s main checkpoint in the eastern part of the city, manned by the army and local police, and based themselves in an industrial area close to the checkpoint. When SWAT and army forces returned to Anbar, they surrounded Ramadi and Fallujah. They controlled entry and exit points, and prevented fuel and food from being taken into the cities, but allowed several hundred people to flee areas of heavy fighting.
Iraqi authorities are obliged to abide by international human rights law, including with respect to the treatment of people in custody. Should the intensity of the fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah rise to the level of an armed conflict, international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, would be applicable.
International humanitarian law binds all parties to an armed conflict, whether state armed forces or non-state armed groups. Under the laws of war, all sides are prohibited from deliberately attacking civilians, or conducting attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, or could be expected to cause disproportionate civilian harm. Government armed forces and non-state armed groups must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including by avoiding deploying in densely populated areas. Civilians must be allowed to safely leave areas where there is fighting.
Parties to an armed conflict must treat everyone in their custody humanely. The government must ensure that anyone apprehended by their forces is brought promptly before a court, and either charged or released.
In August, Human Rights Watch documented numerous attacks by al-Qaeda in Iraq that, taken together, constitute an ongoing and systematic policy of killing civilians that could amount to crimes against humanity. However, al-Qaeda’s long history of committing acts that show wanton disregard for human life cannot justify breaches of international humanitarian law or international human rights law by the other armed groups and government security forces fighting them.
Armed groups, including al-Qaeda and armed fighters from local “tribes,” and government security forces, should take all feasible precautions to prevent harm to civilians, Human Rights Watch said.
Three Fallujah residents who said they witnessed al-Qaeda’s entry into the city and the army’s response told Human Rights Watch that since fighting began on December 30, heavy mortar fire from the al-Mazraa army base, east of Fallujah, has caused hundreds of families to flee the city, and trapped others because army forces surrounding the city “only let families with children leave.”
Two employees in Fallujah’s main hospital said that on January 2, 2014, army forces shot at a family trying to flee to the Zobaa area on the city’s outskirts, killing a 4-year-old child. Human Rights Watch reviewed a picture posted online that one resident said was the body of the dead child, but could not confirm the child’s identity or cause of death.
According to the same three residents and to numerous media reports, from December 30, 2013, to about midnight on January 6, 2014, the army fired heavy mortar fire on neighborhoods throughout the city, damaging a number of homes and killing at least 25 civilians, some in the city center and some in the Garmah, Saqlawiya, and Albu Eafan villages on the city’s outskirts. The residents said there were no al-Qaeda targets at the time in the areas that were attacked.
Two Fallujah residents told Human Rights Watch that they had been moving freely throughout the city and had only seen al-Qaeda fighters in an industrial area in eastern Fallujah. Despite the absence of al-Qaeda in the rest of the city, they said, army mortar fire had struck at least 30 homes throughout the city by January 2. This suggests that the mortar attacks were indiscriminate in not being aimed at military targets.
“Fallujah is a ghost town,” one resident in the eastern al-Shorta neighborhood told Human Rights Watch on January 4. “Those who haven’t left hide in their homes because we are constantly hearing mortar fire from the army, and most of the time they shoot houses. I have friends all over Fallujah, and at least 30 people told me that their houses were hit.”
He said he saw army helicopters flying over residential neighborhoods in Fallujah on the evening of January 5. “I saw them flying overhead,” he said, “and then my uncle, who lives in al-Askari with his family, told me two helicopters were firing on houses there and that they had hit five or six houses, but al-Qaeda was not in the area; they are based almost a kilometer away.”
The resident told Human Rights Watch that the mortar fire continued until about midnight on January 5. Another resident who also lives in the al-Askari neighborhood told Human Rights Watch that shrapnel from “random bombing” by the army fell on his house, injuring his wife and children.
“The army doesn’t seem to be making any attempt to protect us,” said the man who lives in al-Shorta. “My brother, who works in the main hospital’s emergency room, said that most of the dead and injured are civilians killed by mortar fire on their houses.”
A January 4 Reuters report stated that Fallujah residents were fleeing army shelling in the city, and the National Iraqi News Agency, a state news agency, reported that “hundreds” of families had fled “indiscriminate mortar shelling” on Fallujah.
On January 6, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak issued a statement warning against further army operations in residential neighborhoods in Fallujah populated by civilians, saying that al-Qaeda is primarily outside the urban areas there.
On the same day, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered security forces surrounding the city not to fire on residential neighborhoods. A Fallujah resident told Human Rights Watch that mortar fire ceased at approximately 12 a.m. on January 6, the evening before Maliki’s statement. On January 8, Maliki issued a statement that “there will be no military operation in Fallujah” so long as armed tribal groups continue to fight “terrorists.”
The precise number of al-Qaeda fighters in urban Fallujah and the casualties they have inflicted on government security forces is unknown.
According to a Ramadi-based journalist’s post on his Facebook page on January 5, Ramadi residents reported that al-Qaeda fighters were present in five of the city’s neighborhoods, in contrast to Fallujah, and that armed men from local groups were fighting both al-Qaeda and SWAT forces in the city, while the army remained positioned outside the city. Two Ramadi residents told Human Rights Watch that “random” fire from SWAT and army forces had caused a large number of casualties and property damage, but that al-Qaeda was not in the area.
Human Rights Watch reviewed a video that aired on the antigovernment Tagheer television station on January 4 that shows three Ramadi residents pointing to damage to their houses, cars, and other buildings throughout Ramadi, which they say resulted from SWAT fire. In the video, the men say that SWAT forces drove through their neighborhood on January 4 and fired at residential buildings, but that there were no armed men in the buildings. “Are you coming to wipe out terrorism, or to wipe us out?” says one man, addressing SWAT. Another man says, “Nobody knows what happened. Everyone was sitting in their homes minding their own business when the firing started… Only SWAT was shooting, there was no one else here.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed two other videos that show damage to a residential building, police station, and hospital. Armed men in the video who appear to be from local “tribes” say mortar fire from the army caused the damage.
A resident of Ramadi’s Albu Farraj neighborhood told Human Rights Watch that many families had left the area as of January 4 due to heavy fighting between SWAT forces, al-Qaeda fighters, and local armed groups. The man said that a family of four was killed in crossfire as they tried to flee the area, which has about 5,000 to 6,000 residents.
On January 8, the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported that the army had fired from “tanks and helicopters” in the town of Jazeera, close to Ramadi, and that “around 40 families were caught in the crossfire between the army and gunmen,” according to a police official, who did not know whether the attack had resulted in civilian casualties.
Also on January 8, NINA, a state news agency, reported that a “security source” had reported “154 dead and wounded in 10 days in Ramadi,” but did not say who they were or how they were killed.
Another Ramadi resident told Human Rights Watch that about 500 - 600 al-Qaeda fighters were spread throughout five areas of Ramadi, and that SWAT forces and men from local armed groups were fighting them, but that infighting between tribal armed groups over whether to cooperate with government security forces had “hindered the fight” against al-Qaeda. “The ‘tribes’ view SWAT the same way they view al-Qaeda,” he said. “They consider the security forces no less their enemy.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed three videos broadcast on the Iraqiyya news channel that show heavy firing from SWAT forces in armored vehicles, but the targets do not appear in the videos. In one video, a general appears at the end of a long scene of SWAT firing on the street in Ramadi and states, “Our Humvees fighters were able to kill snipers and destroy two [al-Qaeda] vehicles.”
In an earlier post on his Facebook page on January 5, a Ramadi resident, al-Shaher, said that “nobody knows” how many casualties had resulted from fighting between al-Qaeda, SWAT forces, and local armed groups in Ramadi. He wrote that the city’s general hospital had so far received 30 bodies, which hospital employees said were all “of tribal armed people,” suggesting that in contrast to Fallujah, fire from security forces was not indiscriminate. The hospital workers said that they did not know whether al-Qaeda or security forces had killed the men.
An Anbar police source said that on January 6, a number of media workers were injured when al-Qaeda fired a Katusha rocket on the security forces with whom they were embedded, in the middle of Ramadi.
Witnesses’ accounts to Human Rights Watch and media reports differ as to the number of al-Qaeda fighters and army forces in Ramadi and Fallujah. While witnesses could not estimate how many al-Qaeda fighters are on the outskirts of Fallujah, Ramadi residents reported that at least 500 - 600 fighters are inside the urban areas of Ramadi.