Forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) kidnapped at least 40 Shia Turkmen, dynamited four Shia places of worship, and ransacked homes and farms in two Shia villages bordering the Iraqi city of Mosul, Human Rights Watch said today. The assaults took place during a violent three-day spree that began on June 23, 2014.
ISIS ordered all 950 Shia Turkmen families to leave the two adjacent farming villages of Guba and Shireekhan, according to nine displaced residents, two local activists, and local journalists. The displaced residents told Human Rights Watch they heard from the few remaining villagers, all Sunni, that ISIS had killed at least some of the kidnapped men, but none had seen bodies or could provide other confirmation. ISIS, an armed extremist Sunni group, remains in control of the two villages.
“This ISIS rampage is part of a long pattern of attacks by armed Sunni extremists on Turkmen and other minorities,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The killing, bombing, and pillaging threatens to displace entire communities, possibly forever.”
Guba and Shireekhan are 5 kilometers north of Mosul, which ISIS captured on June 10. ISIS controls large areas of north-central Iraq and neighboring Syria. In recent days, the group has sought to expand its control beyond Mosul, targeting nearby Shia communities of Turkmen and Shabaks, another religious minority. ISIS has stated that it considers Shia to be heretics and has frequently executed Iraqi and Syrian Shia on that basis, including en masse in Tikrit, a city it captured June 11.
On June 25 and 26, ISIS destroyed seven Shia places of worship in the predominantly Shia Turkmen city of Tal Afar, 50 kilometers west of Mosul, which it captured June 16, four sources from the area told Human Rights Watch. Since then, 90 percent of Tal Afar’s Turkmen have fled, residents and local activists said.
Human Rights Watch spoke to the nine residents who had fled Guba and Shireekhan on June 24 in villages north of Mosul controlled by peshmerga, the armed forces of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region. Many of those interviewed, still fearful of ISIS, asked Human Rights Watch not to divulge their names or new locations.
Four men who fled the night of June 24, two from each village, said they saw about 70 military vehicles filled with armed ISIS members roll into Guba and Shireekhan on the afternoon of June 23. They said the vehicles included Humvees that they thought must have been among the ones ISIS is widely reported to have confiscated from the Iraqi army earlier in June in Tal Afar and Mosul. Most of the fighters were unmasked. Two residents said that they later heard some of the fighters speaking Arabic with accents that were not Iraqi. They said at least seven of the fighters were local and wore black facemasks to disguise their identities.
Haider, a 40-year-old Guba farmer, was watching the fighters from a bluff overlooking his village:
They used loudspeakers to say bad things about Shia and told us, “All of you have to leave.” Then they rounded up the men and boys and checked their identity cards. The young local men who wore masks were helping them. They separated all those who they thought were Sunni and also the younger boys, and told them they could leave. Then they took away all the Shia in their vehicles. Until now we have no idea where they took them. But when ISIS takes people away like that they usually kill them.
The nine villagers told Human Rights Watch that ISIS had taken about 60 Shia men, all Turkmen. A worker with an international organization that operates in the area around Mosul told Human Rights Watch he had received reports that ISIS later released 20 of the captives, after determining that they were Sunni.
ISIS members removed all Iraqi state flags in the two villages and replaced them with black banners that bear the Islamic creed, “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God,” the nine villagers said. ISIS also hoisted the banners over the Shia shrine in Guba, al-Imam al-Abbas, and three Shia mosques – al-Ridha in Guba, and al-Zahraa and al-Imam Hussein in Shireekhan, they said. “Every time they hoisted the banner they would shout, ‘Allahu Akbar [God is Great],’ and fire shots in the air,” said Mohsen, 49.
ISIS placed explosives in Imam Abbas’ shrine and the three Shia mosques, and on June 24 blew them up, said one witness from Guba and one from Shireekhan as well as the local activists. All others interviewed said they had heard from Sunni inhabitants of the villages, or relatives who had not yet fled, that ISIS had destroyed the places of worship. At that point any remaining Shia in the villages fled, they said.
On June 25, the armed militants went door-to-door through the Shia Turkmen homes, searching for remaining men and looting, residents told Human Rights Watch, citing Sunni inhabitants of the two villages. A woman who fled said that remaining villagers told her the gunmen took “everything they could find,” including from her home:
If the doors were locked, they broke them open. They took gold and money if there was any, and televisions and any other appliances. They also took cars and cattle and sheep. We are worried sick. We left our homes with nothing but the clothes we were wearing, and now we have nothing to go back to.
ISIS also took over the homes of prominent residents of the two villages, the residents said. They said they were certain that the fighters were ISIS because of their black banners and their destruction of Shia places of worship. Some of the residents said they or their neighbors had initially fled after ISIS took Mosul but subsequently trickled back into Guba and Shireekhan, lured by reports that the villages were calm and fears that if they did not return, ISIS would encourage Sunnis to occupy their homes.
In Tal Afar, ISIS on June 25 destroyed the Shia shrines of Imam Sa’ad and Khider al-Elias, a historic shrine on a site where Christians and Yezidis, a Kurdish minority sect, also worshipped, as well as the mosque of Hashim Antr, two journalists and an activist from the city told Human Rights Watch. The following day, ISIS destroyed four more mosques in Tal Afar – Imam Sadiq, , al-Abbas, Ar Mahmoud, and Ahl al-Beit, they said.
“ISIS should immediately free all captured civilians and stop its marauding,” Tayler said. “Killing civilians or captured combatants amounts to a war crime, and the ISIS fighters and commanders should be aware they will face justice for their crimes.”