(Baghdad) – The execution-style killing of four members of Iraq’s SWAT forces, apparently by the ISIS armed group, is the latest atrocity in a campaign of widespread and systematic murder that amounts to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said today.
Men presenting themselves as members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the killings, which took place near Ramadi on January 20, 2014. A video posted online showed ISIS members firing on and disabling the last truck of a SWAT convoy.The ISIS members then take four SWAT members into custody, interviewing them in front of an ISIS flag, and shooting them in the back of their heads.
“These abhorrent killings are the latest in a long list of ISIS atrocities, at a time when civilians in Anbar province are stuck in the fighting and getting abused by all sides,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Together with the ISIS car bombs and suicide attacks targeting civilians, they are further evidence of crimes against humanity.”
The video that ISIS claimed to have filmed shows five men who appear to be ISIS members capturing the four members of SWAT – “Special Weapons and Tactics,” a group of special forces headed by the Counter-Terrorism Service. Two apparently dead bodies, also in SWAT uniforms, lie on the ground nearby, while another ISIS fighter stands atop a SWAT vehicle waving an ISIS flag.
As ISIS forces apprehend the four men, one of the SWAT members, later identified by his family as Nour al-Din Ismail, 22, repeats the name “Omar Ibn al-Khattab,” an important figure in Sunni Islam, in an apparent attempt to show his captors that he is Sunni. ISIS is comprised of Sunnis who claim to defend Sunnis from attacks and discrimination by the Shia-led government. The three other captured men identify themselves later in the video as Hamza Muhammad Ali, 23; Ali Rahim Muzihal, 24; and Haydar Zidan Abid, age unknown.
According to the newspaper al-Alam, Ismail’s brother, Mouayad al-Jawari, said Ismail called him daily to reassure him of his safety while he was stationed in Anbar. He said his brother had told him on the day of his capture that he was going “on a mission to an area where there was heavy fighting.” Just hours later, al-Alam reported, Ismail called his brother to tell him he had been taken prisoner by “DAASH,” the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Human Rights Watch spoke with al-Jawari in Zaafraniya, an eastern neighborhood in Baghdad, the day authorities delivered Ismail’s body to the family. Ismail had graduated from military college on January 6, 2013, al-Jawari said. He was to be married when he returned from his deployment in Anbar. The brothers’ father had disappeared in 2007 – the family believes he was killed in sectarian violence because he was a Sunni married to a Shia woman.
The video juxtaposes the scene of ISIS members executing the SWAT members with footage from the April 23, 2013 attack by Iraqi army and SWAT forces on a protest camp in Haweeja near Kirkuk. The footage shows SWAT members kicking an elderly man who had been shot and fell out of his wheelchair.
Human Rights Watch had previously called on the government to investigate credible allegations of its forces having used excessive and lethal force in Haweeja, killing more than 50 people.
In another video posted online that Human Rights Watch reviewed, the father of another of the executed SWAT members said that men from ISIS had called him when his son and the others were captured, demanding that he “call [Prime Minister Nuri al-]Maliki and tell him to withdraw Iraqi forces from Anbar.”
Five witnesses to the recent fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi told Human Rights Watch that ISIS members entered the cities on January 1, 2014. Government security forces had withdrawn from Anbar province after provoking a tribal uprising when they raided a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi on December 30, killing 17 people.
Fighting has continued since then between insurgents affiliated with ISIS, groups of armed men from the two cities – some allied with the government and some opposed – and government security forces.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm the number of civilian casualties from the Anbar fighting, nor to determine the number of ISIS members and government forces in the province.
On February 1, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) released its monthly casualty figures, placing the number of Iraqis killed in January in “acts of terrorism and violence” at 733, 618 of whom were civilians. UNAMI stressed that the casualty figures “do NOT include casualties resulting from the ongoing fighting in Anbar, owing to problems in verification and in ascertaining the status of those killed and injured.”
The UN mission’s statement did cite numbers from the Health Directorate in Anbar. According to the directorate, as of January 27, 138 civilians had been killed and 598 wounded in the province. Of these, 79 had been killed and 287 wounded in Ramadi and 59 killed and 311 wounded in Fallujah.
The UN also cited media sources that quoted officials from the Anbar Health Department saying 140 civilians had been killed and 660 wounded as of January 31.
The fighting in Anbar has caused a humanitarian crisis, the UN reported. On January 25, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that at least 140,000 Anbar residents had fled their homes. On February 1, the UN special representative for Iraq Nikolai Mladenov said Falluja residents were suffering from a “lack [of] water, fuel, food, medicine and other basic commodities.”
On January 30, the commander of the Counter-Terrorism Service that runs SWAT, Fadel al-Barwari, announced that SWAT had “cleared” ISIS from Ramadi’s Albu Farraj neighborhood. A Ramadi resident confirmed this to Human Rights Watch, and said many homes had been destroyed in the fighting. Battles were ongoing between armed men from the community, ISIS members, SWAT members, and soldiers in the Hay al-Baker, Stadium, and Sharia 60 areas, forcing most residents to flee, he said.
Accounts of fighting in and around Fallujah have been inconsistent. As of February 1, four Fallujah residents told Human Rights Watch that the army was firing mortars into residential areas of the city where ISIS members were not present. If true, these reports would indicate the government’s disregard for its responsibility to protect the right to life of residents of the city, Human Rights Watch said. Prime Minister Maliki promised on January 8 to cease mortar fire on the city.
Human Rights Watch reviewed a YouTube video posted on January 28 that shows several armed men driving through what appears to be a central area of Fallujah waving an ISIS flag. The video shows ISIS members apprehending three men dressed in military uniforms who appear to be Iraqi soldiers. A photograph that Human Rights Watch reviewed shows what appear to be the same soldiers’ dead bodies with gunshot wounds in their heads.
In August 2013, Human Rights Watch reported on a series of suicide and car bomb attacks for which ISIS claimed responsibility. These attacks amount to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has also documented how, in responding to these attacks, Iraqi security forces have regularly used excessive force, carried out seemingly arbitrary mass arrests, and consistently used torture and other illegal methods of coercing confessions from detainees, whom courts later convicted on the basis of these confessions.
On January 25, the police chief of Diyala, a mixed Sunni-Shia city in Baaquba province, to the northeast of Baghdad, announced that seven members of Al-Qaeda had been killed when an improvised explosive device they were making exploded. SWAT forces in the area then hung the bodies of three dead men they claimed to be among the killed Al-Qaeda members from electrical lines in the city.
“Iraqi security forces will feel immense pressure to respond to killings of their fellow soldiers,” Stork said. “But the government’s flawed logic of committing abuses in the name of security only continues the cycle of violence, whose chief victims are civilians.”