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Iraqi forces are currently fighting to recapture Tikrit, an encouraging sign after months of uncertainty about whether the government could retake command of the city from the extremist Islamic State, also known as ISIS. 

But the military battle has also shone a spotlight on the appalling abuses against Sunni civilians in the region by government troops and especially by the Shia militias that are a central part of the Iraqi fighting force. As reports of abuses by pro-government militias multiply, both Iraq’s methods and U.S. policy toward Iraq are coming under increased scrutiny.

Yet the reality is that both the Baghdad government and successive U.S. administrations have been aware of the Iraqi security forces’ appalling record of abuses for years, not just during this campaign. Human Rights Watch, along with many other rights organizations and media outlets, have published copious documentation of these abuses. Sadly, neither the Iraqi nor the U.S. authorities have indicated that they are prepared to address the problem, including holding those responsible to account.

An ABC News report on March 11 was only the most recent to document the atrocities by Iraqi security forces and militias in their fight against ISIS. Human Rights Watch reviewed the horrific compilation in its entirety before the report was aired. It showed graphic evidence of Iraqi government forces committing torture, summarily executing civilians – including children – and even beheading captives.

While we were unable to verify the authenticity of every photograph and video, we have repeatedly documented the pattern of abusive conduct by Iraqi forces during the fight against ISIS and its predecessor group long before the current campaign began. Late last year, in and around the town of Amerli, we found a pattern of abuses by Iraqi security forces and Shia militias and other fighters assisting them after they forced ISIS to retreat. The destruction of villages, forced displacement of thousands of residents, and kidnappings of civilians by government forces appeared intended to permanently remove Sunni civilians from that area.

As the fighting engulfed Tikrit, people in the region have been similarly devastated by conflict, their populations displaced and divided, while many homes, businesses and even entire villages have been destroyed.

The attention to these abuses now couldn’t come at a more critical time. The advance on Tikrit is a major step toward regaining Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which ISIS has controlled since last June. But regaining territory is only part of the battle. If the people who have long lived there are afraid to come home or have nothing to come home to, the prognosis for Iraq as a functioning state only grows dimmer.

So it will be crucial for the Baghdad authorities, the U.S., and other governments participating in the fight against ISIS in Iraq to keep Iraqi forces under tight control. The forces need to focus their efforts on defeating ISIS, and to end their atrocities against civilians and those they take prisoner.

And the authorities in Baghdad and Iraq’s international allies need to put in place a post-conflict policy to begin the arduous process of reconstruction that these areas, and the remaining inhabitants, so desperately need.

There are no apparent plans to bring people home. There are no apparent plans to confront sectarian violence and bring about reconciliation between Sunni and Shia communities. These are key gaps that need urgently to be filled. If the government leaves it up to security and militia forces and their commanders who have been implicated in atrocities to decide who can, and who cannot, live in these areas, it will only increase the human misery and division in Iraq. 

Iraq’s government, not the unaccountable militias and abusive security forces, should step up and set out clear policies to protect all civilians without discrimination, promote reconciliation and establish the rule of law in the areas that its forces recapture from ISIS. And the U.S. and other governments contributing to the fight against ISIS should make it clear to Baghdad that this is absolutely essential. Putting an end to ISIS will not be achieved by committing new atrocities and perpetuating more abuses.

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