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Displaced people from the minority Yezidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border on August 11, 2014. © 2014 Reuters

(Baghdad) – Unlawful deaths in Iraq skyrocketed in 2014 as emboldened militias and security forces carried out unfettered abuses against civilians and the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) brutally took thousands of civilian lives, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2015.

Government-backed Shia militias headed security forces in leading the fight against ISIS. In their enhanced role, they carried out kidnappings, summary executions, torture, and mass displacements of thousands of families with impunity. In turn, ISIS grew in strength and carried out atrocities from beheadings to mass executions to sexual slavery of women. The government has not held anyone accountable for the abuses by these groups or its own forces.

“Between state-sponsored militant groups and ISIS, the risk of falling victim to serious abuses has become all too common for many Iraqis,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “The Iraqi government urgently needs to move beyond window-dressing reforms so that it can win back public trust, confront the growing disaster that ISIS is unfolding in Iraq, and save Iraqis from an endless cycle of horrors.”

In the 656-page world report, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth urges governments to recognize that human rights offer an effective moral guide in turbulent times, and that violating rights can spark or aggravate serious security challenges. The short-term gains of undermining core values of freedom and non-discrimination are rarely worth the long-term price.

Government forces attacked largely peaceful demonstrations on December 20, 2013, sparking an armed conflict in Anbar province between local residents, Iraqi security forces, and multiple armed groups, including ISIS. The fighting, which included indiscriminate government firing and the use of barrel bombs on civilian areas, displaced close to 500,000 people and killed an unknown number of civilians. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as of December 2014, more than 1.9 million Iraqis were internally displaced due to conflict.

On June 10, ISIS took over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The group committed numerous atrocities in Iraq, including car and suicide bomb attacks in civilian areas, mass executions, torture, discrimination against women, destruction of religious property, and killing and kidnapping religious and ethnic minorities, including Shia, Yezidis, and Sunnis.

Iraq’s new prime minister, Hayder al-Abadi, took office in September and made several attempts to reform the security forces. However, Iraq’s newly formed government includes a Badr militia member as interior minister, which appears to signify the militias will remain officially tolerated but not accountable. The government failed to take adequate steps to protect civilians in the aftermath of air strikes from the US-led coalition that began in September.

Iraqi authorities need to take all possible measures to protect the right to life, rein in militias, and reform the justice system, including investigating allegations of torture and targeted killing and prosecuting militia members and security forces responsible for abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

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