Fighters from the Shi'ite Badr Brigade militia stand near their flag as they guard at a checkpoint along a highway taken from militants of the Islamic State, outside the town of Sulaiman Pek on September 5, 2014.

(New York) – Abuses by militias allied with Iraqi security forces in Sunni areas have escalated in recent months. Residents have been forced from their homes, kidnapped, and in some cases summarily executed. At least 3,000 people have fled their homes in the Muqdadiyya area of Diyala province since June 2014 and, since October, been prevented from returning. In addition to the events documented here, Human Rights Watch is conducting an investigation into more recent allegations that militia and SWAT forces killed 72 civilians in the town of Barwana, also in Muqdadiyya.

Residents told Human Rights Watch that security forces and allied militias began to harass residents in the vicinity of Muqdadiyya, an area 80 kilometres northeast of Baghdad in June, shortly after the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) took over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The abuses escalated around October, witnesses said, the month after Hayder al-Abadi took over as prime minister, pledging to rein in abusive militias and to end the sectarianism that fed the cycle of violence under his predecessor.

“Iraqi civilians are being hammered by ISIS and then by pro-government militias in areas they seize from ISIS,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “With the government responding to those they deem terrorists with arbitrary arrests and executions, residents have nowhere to turn for protection.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to six displaced residents of villages near Muqdadiyya – a largely rural region in central Diyala with a diverse population of about 300,000, including Sunni and Shia Arabs, Kurds, and Turkoman. Five residents told Human Rights Watch that they initially left their villages in June and July, when Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq militiamen, volunteer fighters, and Iraqi SWAT forces attacked.

In mid-October, hearing that militias had left the area, residents began to return home, only to find that militias had torched many homes. Soon after, militia members who now control the area began kidnapping the returned residents and firing randomly in the street, at homes, and in the air with automatic weapons. The residents interviewed described the kidnappings and killings of three men by militias.

The attacks in northern Muqdadiyya appear to be part of a militia campaign to displace residents from Sunni and mixed-sect areas after the militias and security forces routed ISIS in these areas. On December 29, Hadi al-Ameri, the Badr Brigades commander and transport minister under the previous administration of Nuri al-Maliki, threatened Muqdadiyya residents, saying, “The day of judgment is coming” and “We will attack the area until nothing is left. Is my message clear?”

In October, Human Rights Watch researchers observed militias occupying and setting fire to homes in the proximity of Amerli in Salah al-Din province, following the retreat of ISIS fighters. On December 17, the Wall Street Journal and other media reported that militias were carrying out evictions, disappearances, and killings in the Baghdad Belt after conducting military operations against ISIS. In January 2015, media reported that militias had arrested thousands of men in Samarra without warrants and were preventing them from returning home. On January 26, militias, volunteer fighters, and security forces reportedly escorted 72 civilians from their homes in Barwana, Diyala province, and summarily executed them. Human Rights Watch is currently investigating these allegations.

On December 18, 2014, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Prime Minister al-Abadi in which he pledged to “bring … all armed groups under state control. No armed groups or militias will work outside or parallel to the Iraqi Security Forces.” In addition to ordering a public investigation into the killings in Barwana, al-Abadi ordered an investigation into allegations that security forces extrajudicially killed two Sunni civilians in Anbar and has strongly condemned unlawful conduct by militias and security forces.

The evidence that militias are leading security operations in Salah al-Din, Diyala, Baghdad, and Babel provinces belie this pledge, Human Rights Watch said. On January 1, 2015, Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, the long-time leader of the Kita’ib Hezbollah militia who now heads the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Front), a quasi-governmental organization, gave a news conference in which he described himself as a military commander and the president of the “militia Hashd al-Shaabi,” and attacked Saudi Arabia and the US, which he described as sponsors and supporters of ISIS. This suggests that despite the prime minister’s promises, militias continue to act with free rein.

“The Iraqi government and its international allies need to take account of the militia scourge that is devastating places like Muqdadiyya,” Stork said. “Any effective response to ISIS should start with protecting civilian lives and holding those who abuse them to account, especially in areas where people have already suffered from ISIS occupation and attacks.”

Accounts by Victims, Witnesses
A 70-year-old resident of al-Bulour village in Muqdadiyya, who identified herself as Um Mariam, told Human Rights Watch that on December 8, 2014, Muqdadiyya police took her sons, Karim, 33, and Seif, 38, from their home without an arrest warrant. “They burst into the house and grabbed them,” she said. They released the men, who Um Mariam said were civilians, two days later.

But at about 3:30 p.m. on December 12, as their mother watched them approach the al-Bulour checkpoint on their return home, six armed men wearing black or camouflage with their faces covered grabbed the two men. The armed men pushed Um Mariam and threatened to shoot her if she screamed: “I was kissing their hands to make them stop, and they just kicked me off of them,” she said. Immediately afterward, Um Mariam went to file a complaint with the police station commander, who told her the police “couldn’t do anything” about the abduction, she said.

Another brother, Abu Yousif, told Human Rights Watch that unknown men called him shortly afterward and told him his brothers were dead: “Come take your dogs,” they said. “We shot each of them ten times in the chest and threw their bodies.”

Um Mariam and Abu Yousif then fled to Khanaqin, an area in northern Diyala under both Kurdish peshmerga and militia control.

A farmer in his 50s from al-Bulour who identified himself as Abu Seif told Human Rights Watch that beginning on June 20, militiamen and volunteers fighting with the quasi-governmental Popular Front began attacking the villages of al-Bulour, Matar, Aruba, Hurriyya, and al-Sudur al-Harouniyya, together home to approximately 1,000 Sunni families. Abu Seif said he identified the militiamen by the writing on the sides of their vehicles as members of “the Islamic Resistance Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq.” He said he saw militiamen and volunteers burn at least 50 houses in the villages and fire mortars and rockets on homes in June. It is not known whether any ISIS fighters were present in the villages at the time. He said that widespread kidnapping of fighting-age males over the course of the months that followed prompted most residents to flee.

Like many residents of the rural areas in northern Muqdadiyya, Abu Seif returned after three months when he heard that militias had left the area. “But when Muharram came,” he said, referring to the first month of the Muslim calendar, around October, “the militias came back in full strength.” In al-Bulour, a village of approximately 200 families, militiamen called residents sectarian names and forced the residents to fly Shia flags from their homes and businesses, he said. “They made us feel like prisoners in our own town,” he said.

He said conditions worsened in December. In mid-December, he said, he saw militias kidnap a local fruit and vegetable dealer. They later demanded US$70,000 for his release, which Abu Seif said the man’s family paid. A day later, the family found the man’s body on the side of the road.

Abu Ahmed, a 32-year-old farmer from the village of Dur al-Dhubat, also left with his wife and 3-year-old child in June. He returned in October after hearing that the area was safe again. “When I returned, I found exactly the opposite,” he told Human Rights Watch:

Militias were firing randomly in the air and launching rockets inside Dur al-Dhubat, terrorizing people. Families began to leave the area again [in mid-December] and 90 percent of the families have left. Militias distributed flyers warning residents that they would kill them if they did not leave. The flyers said, “You people must leave, you have been warned. If you don’t, you will dig your graves in your backyards with your own hands.”

Abu Ahmed said that residents of Hay al-Matar and al-Dur told him militias were carrying out kidnappings in those areas. Militiamen, whom he said he identified by their black or camouflage clothes and insignias, drove daily through his neighborhood on motorcycles and in cars “just to terrorize us,” he said. “I’m not afraid of ISIS shooting us,” he said. “I’m afraid of the militias kidnapping and killing us.”

A man from the village of al-Azy who identified himself as Abu Yehia told Human Rights Watch in an interview that he left the area in late 2013 due to increasing militia and security forces attacks and mass arrests. He said that residents told him they saw militiamen, SWAT and federal police from the 5th division burned down his house on July 20, along with 30 other civilians’ homes in his village. He said the civilian homes were not being used by ISIS when they were attacked.

He returned to Muqdadiyya during Muharram, in October, and was living in al-Bulour. But at 9:30 p.m. on December 18, he said militia members kidnapped a 70-year-old relative, Ali Mohsen, as Abu Yehia, his mother, and his sister watched. The militia members warned the women not to scream or they would kill them, he said. The next day, Abu Yehia said, the family found Ali Mohsen’s body along the side of the highway leading from Baghdad to Khanaqin.

Abu Qandil, a 58-year-old resident of the village of Shok al-Rim, where 300 families live, said that militias began attacking Sunni areas in Muqdadiyya district in June, beating civilian villagers and burning or blowing up their homes, particularly in the villages of Imam Taleb and al-Farouq. When residents returned in November, they found that militias still occupied the village, Abu Harith said. Militias accused the residents of supporting ISIS and “said that they would kill us because we are Sunni,” he said, “People in the area are terrified of being shot by militias.” He said that militia members were still setting fire to homes in another village, al-Wizan.

Human Rights Watch spoke to victims and witnesses from Muqdadiyya, most of whom have fled their homes, by telephone between January 8 and January 15, 2015. Human Rights Watch explained to potential interviewees how their stories would be used, and all consented after requesting anonymity for security reasons. All the names used are pseudonyms.