(Beirut) – Members of Shia militias, who the Iraqi government has included among its state forces, abducted and killed scores of Sunni residents in a central Iraq town and demolished Sunni homes, stores, and mosques following January 11, 2016 bombings claimed by the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS. None of those responsible have been brought to justice.
Two consecutive bombings at a café in the town of Muqdadiya, in Diyala province, some 130 kilometers north of Baghdad, on January 11, killed at least 26 people, many of them Sunnis, according to a teacher who lives near the café. ISIS claimed the attacks, saying it had targeted local Shia militias, collectively known as Popular Mobilization Forces, which are formally under the command of the prime minister. Members of two of the dominant militias in Muqdadiya, the Badr Brigades and the League of Righteous forces, responded by attacking Sunnis as well as their homes and mosques, killing at least a dozen people and perhaps many more, according to local residents.
“Again civilians are paying the price for Iraq’s failure to rein in the out-of-control militias,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Countries that support Iraqi security forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces should insist that Baghdad bring an end to this deadly abuse.”
Deliberate killing of civilians and looting and unjustified destruction of civilian property when committed in the context of an armed conflict are serious violations of international humanitarian law, which is applicable to all parties fighting in Iraq, and may amount to war crimes. By formally including, on April 7, 2015, the Popular Mobilization Forces among the state forces, the Iraqi government has assumed ultimate responsibility for their actions.
Abbas, a Sunni resident of Muqdadiya, who like others Human Rights Watch interviewed is not identified by his real name for his protection, said, “I know the militiaman [name withheld] and others who roam our streets. They are from the area. ISIS may have been behind the café bombing, but the attacks on Sunni houses, mosques, and people in our area was the League of the Righteous.”
Abbas said he knew more than 30 people by name, some his neighbors, others from his neighborhood, whom the militias killed, most in the night of January 11.
Wathiq, also a Sunni from Muqdadiya, sent Human Rights Watch a photo of his brother’s mutilated body. League of Righteous forces had come to the family’s house on January 11 and taken his brother away. Wathiq said his mother told him that the militiamen asked for Sunnis and that he knew the names of five of the militiamen who came to his family’s home that night. He said his mother collected the body from the morgue the day after the explosions.
Riyadh said he fled from Muqdadiya to Baghdad after militiamen took his brother Fadhil from their house in Muqdadiya and killed him on January 11 “because he was Sunni.” His parents remain in Muqdadiya and buried Fadhil the next day, Riyadh said.
On January 12, Saif Talal, a reporter, and Hasan al-Anbaki, a cameraman at Iraq’s al-Sharqiya television station, were killed near Ba’quba, the Diyala province capital 45 kilometers southwest of Muqdadiya, by what the channel, in an email to Human Rights Watch, said were “uncontrolled militia.” Talal and al-Anbaki had accompanied Lt.-General Muzhir al-‘Azawi, the newly-appointed Iraqi army head of the Tigris joint command, to see the effects of the Muqdadiya sectarian rampage first-hand. Al-‘Azawi said in a media statement that after he and the journalists split up, armed men blocked the journalists’ onward journey to cover a provincial council meeting in Ba’quba and killed them.
Ra’d, another Sunni resident of Muqdadiya, told Human Rights Watch that a day after the explosions, someone scrawled “Blood Wanted” on his family’s house, and they fled. The next day, neighbors told them their house had been blown up.
In November 2015, Ra’d said unidentified armed men kidnapped his brother. Around New Year’s Day, they demanded tens of thousands of US dollars in ransom, but he could not pay. After the bombings, he heard from a security source that a militia had handed his brother over to the police. Ra’d said that he spoke with a person who had visited his brother and that his brother said he was being charged as a suspect in the café explosions, even though he had been kidnapped over a month earlier. Ra’d said that his brother told the visitor he had been tortured because he had not confessed to the crime in front of an investigative judge.
Jamal, a Sunni activist who no longer lives in Muqdadiya, said that he has gathered information from local witnesses about 15 people, all Sunnis, abducted and killed since January 11 in Muqdadiya, , in addition to Wathiq’s murdered brother and Ra’d’s kidnapped brother. Another six unidentified bodies were found at Imam Abdullah bin Ali checkpoint in Ba’quba on January 12, Jamal said.
A Badr commander working in the outskirts of Muqdadiya told Human Rights Watch that kidnapping was a phenomenon throughout Iraq affecting Sunnis and Shia and Kurds and Turkmen alike, and that his forces were carrying out raids against suspects in the bombings.
Zaid al-‘Azawi, Muqdadiya’s mayor, whose nephew died in the café explosions, told Human Rights Watch that reports of more than a hundred Sunnis killed were “exaggerated” and that he only had names of seven people so far. He said that “gangs” destroyed five Sunni mosques in Muqdadiya after January 11, but that others had been destroyed in the previous months. Jamal gave Human Rights Watch the names of 12 Sunni mosques he said Shia militias destroyed, in addition to 10 Sunni-owned shops.
In a January 14 visit to Ba’quba, Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi tweeted that he had given orders “to pursue those that [sic] target mosques and public properties and to bring them to justice.” On January 19, in Muqdadiya, al-Abadi “praised the security forces in Muqdadiya for arresting the gangs that attacked citizens, markets and mosques.” Mayor al-‘Azawi, who met with the prime minister, told Human Rights Watch, though, that to his knowledge no militia members had been arrested. Abbas, one of the Muqdadiya residents, said he heard from friends and relatives who attended the meeting with the prime minister that militia representatives there told al-Abadi that in addition to the café bombings, the murders and property destruction were the work of ISIS.
Some Shia religious and security leaders have acknowledged the sectarian violence against Sunnis and called for calm. On January 15, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the government “not [to] permit the presence of militants outside the framework of the state,” in reference to the Muqdadiya events. The following day, Badr’s chief, Hadi al-‘Amiri, called targeting Sunnis “a crime no different from terrorism.”
What happened in Muqdadiya after January 11 is strikingly similar to events just a few months earlier in Tuz Khurmatu, a mixed Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab city some 130 kilometers to the north, Human Rights Watch said. After a car bomb killed two people there on October 22, Shia Turkmen members of the Popular Mobilization Forces arrested at least 150 Arabs, torturing some and holding others for ransom. On November 12, a day-long gun battle between Shia Turkmen forces and Kurdish forces erupted around Tuz Khurmatu’s general hospital, followed by the burning of dozens of shops and homes and abductions on both sides. No one has been brought to justice.
“The test for Iraq’s legitimate judicial and security forces will be to bring the people responsible for these heinous attacks to justice in fair and public trials,” Stork said. “Progress on identifying the suspects and handing them over the judiciary should be an important marker for continued military support to Iraqi forces.”