(Erbil) – Militiamen, Iraqi Security Forces, and civilians mutilated and dragged the bodies of at least five dead fighters of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the Iraqi town of Qayyarah on October 3, 2016. Anti-ISIS fighters also executed at least one ISIS fighter after he surrendered.
“The Iraqi government should control its own forces and hold them accountable if it hopes to claim the moral upper hand in its fight against ISIS,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The failure to hold commanders and abusers to account does not bode well for the looming battle inside Mosul. Mutilation of corpses is a war crime, as is killing captured combatants or civilians.”
Iraqi government forces retook Qayyarah, 60 kilometers south of Mosul, from ISIS on August 25. On October 3, three residents told Human Rights Watch, ISIS fighters unsuccessfully tried to retake the city, approaching north through the desert. Some of their fighters were captured and killed. At the time of the attack, the residents said, both Iraqi troops and Hashad al-Asha’ri militia fighters from the Maraeed tribe, local to Qayyarah, and a branch of al-Jabouri tribe, one of the largest Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq, were in the town and repelled the attack.
A local resident gave Human Rights Watch a series of 13 videos he said were filmed by a local 24-year-old Maraeed fighter on that day. The three residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch viewed the footage and confirmed that it was shot in Qayyarrah and depicted events on October 3. Human Rights Watch was also able to verify the location of the videos and photos from specific landmarks in the town as well as the cloud of black smoke from the ongoing oil fires there.
The first video shows at least 10 fighters in a gun battle with ISIS forces in the desert outside the town. Based on their uniforms and information from the fighter who made the videos, Human Rights Watch determined that they included Maraeed fighters and Iraqi soldiers. In the video one fighter grabs the corpse of a killed ISIS fighter, kicks it in the face and spits on it. Another one steps on the body and poses for a photo. The cameraman travels past two more corpses on the ground. As he approaches a fourth, a man in military uniform with a Special Forces badge on the shoulder calls for a razor, saying that he wants the head of the dead fighter. The cameraman urges him to stop.
Fighters encircle an ISIS fighter in the video, and the cameraman calls on him to put his hands up in surrender, then yells at the anti-ISIS forces wearing military attire around him not to kill the man, but they open fire on him from close range. Another fighter in civilian dress rushes over to shoot the fighter who has just been killed. One then steps on the corpse and another pulls up the body, then drops it. Another uniformed fighter with a Special Forces badge joins the group.
The three local people said that a second video was filmed after the battle on the main road in Qayyarah during a procession of military and civilian vehicles. It shows children dragging one of the same dead fighters by a rope tied around his ankle. They kick and beat his body with a branch, and a man in military attire with a special forces badge on one shoulder kicks the head of the corpse several times.
A third video, of what appears to be the same procession, shows men, some in military dress and others in civilian clothing, on the back of a white pickup truck with a green military license plate, dragging a corpse by a rope attached to the ankle, as crowds cheer. The Qayyarah residents who spoke to Human Rights Watch said the man being dragged had also been killed in the battle.
A fourth video shows another white pickup filled with men, most in military dress, dragging two corpses slowly along the main road. A civilian stands on one of the corpses as it is being dragged. A crowd walks behind, including a man in an Iraqi Federal Police uniform filming the scene. Directly behind them is a military vehicle belonging to the 15th infantry division of the Iraqi army, based on the insignia on the door, carrying fighters in military attire as well as one man with a badge from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as the Hashad al-Sha’abi, and underneath it a special forces badge. Another has what appears to be a badge from the Badr Brigades, a prominent PMF unit.
The three local residents said that a resident of the neighboring village of al-Hud came down Qayyarah’s main road during the procession because he had received word that one of the dead ISIS fighters was the one who had killed the man’s father and three of his uncles. They said that he was captured in a fifth video beheading the corpse of an ISIS fighter and cutting out his heart. He presented the heart to his mother, the residents said.
Human Rights Watch examined photos also taken on October 3, in Qayyarah, of what appeared to be four more corpses, one with various organs outside his body and covered in blood, another stripped naked, with children kicking it. Another was strung up by his leg, by the entrance to the Qayyarah football field, which had been reduced to rubble by airstrikes.
Other videos from the same cameraman on the same date show Iraqi army tanks in the town.
The Iraqi authorities should prevent armed groups with records of serious abuses from taking part in planned military operations in the city of Mosul, Human Rights Watch said. This includes Hashad al-Asha`ri militias and members of the PMF responsible for serious rights abuses who have not been held to account.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented abuses by the PMF Badr Brigades and the Hezbollah Brigades during the operation to retake Fallujah. While in the area of Qayyarah on November 12, Human Rights Watch saw flags and fighters belonging to both groups, and to the Imam Ali Brigades.
Iraqi criminal justice authorities should investigate all alleged crimes, including unlawful killings and mutilation of corpses, committed by any party in the conflict in a prompt, transparent, and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility. Those found criminally responsible should be appropriately prosecuted.
Those conducting such criminal investigations and making decisions about prosecutions should be independent of those being investigated. They should be outside the regular military chain of command and free from political interference. The authorities should ensure the safety of all witnesses.
“The government should not stand idly by while fighters commit atrocities in its name,” Fakih said. “Political, security, and judicial officials should work together transparently to establish the truth about any abuses that take place in the course of this battle.”