According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Iraq has one of the highest numbers of missing people in the world. The International Commission on Missing Persons, which has been working in partnership with the Iraqi government to help recover and identify the missing, estimates that the number could range from 250,000 to one million. Since 2016, Human Rights Watch has been documenting continued enforced disappearances by Iraqi security forces. As far as the organization is aware, authorities in Baghdad and in the Kurdistan Region have done little to punish officers implicated in disappearances.

Enforced Disappearances from 2014 to 2017

In 2018, Human Rights Watch issued a report that documented 78 cases of men and boys forcibly disappeared in Iraq between April 2014 and October 2017. The majority of these 78 people were detained in 2014, with the most recent in October 2017. In three more cases, men who were detained and disappeared in 2014 and 2015 later were released. They said they had been detained for periods ranging from 34 to 130 days by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Hashad, formally under the control of the prime minister) or the National Security Service in unofficial detention sites. All said they had been beaten throughout their time in detention.

Military and security forces apprehended 34 of the 78 men and boys at checkpoints as part of anti-Islamic State (also known as ISIS) terrorism screening procedures and another 37 at their homes. All the disappearances at checkpoints but one targeted people who are from or lived in areas that were under ISIS control. In most cases of people arrested at home, security forces gave the families no reason for the arrests, although most of the families suspect the reasons were related to the detainees’ Sunni Arab identity. In at least six of these cases, the circumstances or what arresting officers said indicated that they were at least potentially related to the fight against ISIS.

Of the 78 families interviewed, 38 requested information regarding their missing relatives from Iraqi authorities but received none. Other families had not sought information, fearing inquiries would seriously jeopardize their relatives’ safety. None of the families had a clear idea of which authority they should contact to find out their relatives’ whereabouts.

In three cases, family members alleged that the arresting officers used excessive force, in one case leading to a death of another relative.

In June 2018 Human Rights Watch sent questions and a list of the disappeared and the approximate dates and locations where they were last seen to Mr. Haidar Ukaili, the human rights adviser to the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council in Baghdad and Dr. Dindar Zebari, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s coordinator for international advocacy. On September 18, 2018 the Kurdistan Regional Government responded with information about the number of individuals its forces detained for ISIS affiliation and its arrest procedures. It did not respond to any of Human Rights Watch’s specific queries, including the whereabouts of individuals included in the report. Baghdad authorities provided no response. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, the families whose relatives were featured in the report have yet to receive any information on their whereabouts.

The 2016 Fallujah Offensive

The most infamous mass disappearance since 2003 occurred during the June-July 2016 military operations by Iraqi security forces against the Islamic State in the city of Fallujah in Anbar governorate. At the time, Human Rights Watch reported on credible allegations that during the two weeks of fighting, government forces carried out summary executions, beatings of unarmed men, enforced disappearances and mutilation of corpses.

On June 5, 2016 security forces released over 600 men they had detained in the Hayy al-Shuhada area in Saqlawiya during the operation, most from the Mahamda clan. The men who were released told an Anbar governorate official who later spoke with Human Rights Watch that they saw PMF fighters take away at least another 600 Mahamda men.

A local sheikh from Karma, a town northeast of Fallujah, told Human Rights Watch in late May 2016 that within the first few days of the military operation, Iraqi security forces forced civilians living there to leave. During the exodus, at least 70 young men disappeared, he said, and the families had no information as to their whereabouts. The sheikh said that on June 1, 2016 Iraqi Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jiburi had come to the area to speak to local elders and the military. A member of Anbar governorate council, who also provided information about the launch of the prime minister’s investigation, confirmed the number of missing men to Human Rights Watch and said that the government had opened investigations to determine where they are.

On June 4, 2016, in response to allegations of abuse, then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi launched an investigation into abuses in Fallujah and issued orders to arrest those responsible for “transgressions” against civilians. On June 7, al-Abadi announced the “detention and transfer of those accused of committing violations to the judiciary to receive their punishment according to the law.” Human Rights Watch directed questions about the composition of the investigative committee, its authority, and relation to the judiciary to five Iraqi government institutions in addition to the human rights section of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq. A member of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee told Human Rights Watch that the committee had started its own investigation and was liaising with the investigation by the prime minister’s office, which remained secret. The other officials contacted did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Human Rights Watch spoke to a member of the prime minister’s investigative committee in early 2017, who said that because of the sensitivity of their findings, they would not be issuing any.

In December 2019, Iraqi authorities announced the discovery of over 500 bodies in a mass grave just outside Fallujah. Families speculated these were the remains of the disappeared Mahamda men. As far as Human Rights Watch is aware, authorities have yet to carry out any exhumations of the site, or confirm to families of the disappeared that this is the location of the bodies of their relatives.

The Disappearance of ISIS Suspects

In March 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that Iraq’s Interior Ministry was holding at least 1,269 detainees, including boys as young as 13, without charge in horrendous conditions at three makeshift prisons and with limited access to medical care. Two of the makeshift prisons were in the town of Qayyarah, 60 kilometers south of Mosul, and the third at a local police station in Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers south of Mosul.

Justice Minister Haidar al-Zamili who met with Human Rights Watch on February 2, 2017, said that that the Qayyarah detainees had not been allowed to communicate with their families and that detainees held on terrorism charges had no right under the counterterrorism law (Law no. 13/2005) to communicate with their families during the investigation period. Since 2016, hundreds of families across towns and displacement camps in Iraq have told Human Rights Watch that their relatives were detained on charges of ISIS affiliation, after which they were unable to obtain any information about their whereabouts.

In February 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that groups within the Iraqi military were screening and detaining men fleeing Mosul at an unidentified detention center where they were cut off from contact with the outside world. On January 10, 2017 a soldier working at a screening site about two kilometers south of eastern Mosul that was under the army’s control told Human Rights Watch that he had been stationed there for several weeks and that every night PMF fighters from the area would come to the screening site and take away groups of men, whether they were or were not on authorities’ lists of those “wanted” for ISIS affiliation. A PMF fighter based at the site confirmed to Human Rights Watch in January that his forces were detaining men on a nightly basis, because they were sure these men were ISIS-affiliated. Human Rights Watch has been unable to locate the any men or families of men detained at the site.

Detained Children in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Human Rights Watch in November 2018 interviewed 20 boys, ages 14 to 17, charged or convicted of ISIS affiliation, at the Women and Children’s Reformatory in Erbil, and three boys who had recently been released. The reformatory, a locked detention center encircled by high walls and concertina wire, is one of three facilities holding children in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. At the time of the visit, reformatory staff reported that 63 children were being held there for alleged terrorism-related offenses, including 43 who had been convicted. Human Rights Watch also interviewed staff, relatives of some of the children, and two 18-year-olds who had also been arrested and detained.

All of the boys said they were not allowed to communicate with their families while in custody of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s security forces, Asayish. Once at the reformatory, children were allowed family visits before trial, but most said they were denied phone calls until after sentencing. For some detainees, the inability to make phone calls meant that their families had no idea where they were. One boy said he had been detained for nearly two years without contact with his family. Reformatory staff said that the Asayish determines whether detainees can receive visits or phone calls.

Human Rights Watch wrote to Dr. Dindar Zebari, the regional government’s coordinator for international advocacy, requesting comment on the new findings. Zebari responded on December 18, 2018 that families were notified if a child is detained, and that child detainees could call their families with officers of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s security forces, the Asayish, present.

Disappearances of Detainees in Kirkuk

In 2017, Human Rights Watch reported on more than 350 detainees held by the Kurdistan Regional Government in the city of Kirkuk who were feared to have been forcibly disappeared. Those missing were mainly Sunni Arabs, displaced to Kirkuk or residents of the city, detained by the Asayish on suspicion of ISIS affiliation after the regional forces took control of Kirkuk in June 2014. Local officials told Human Rights Watch that the prisoners were no longer in the official and unofficial detention facilities in and around Kirkuk when Iraqi federal forces regained control of the area on October 16, 2017.

On November 7, 2017 dozens of people demonstrated in Kirkuk, demanding information on their relatives allegedly detained by Asayish forces, which triggered a statement from then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to investigate the disappearances. On November 8, following the demonstration, Azad Jabari, the former head of the security committee of Kirkuk’s provincial council, reportedly denied that Asayish forces had carried out any disappearances. He blamed the disappearances on US forces previously present in Kirkuk, saying most of the files of the missing dated from 2003 to 2011 and were not more recent.

However, Kirkuk’s acting governor, Rakkan Said, and a Kirkuk police chief told Human Rights Watch that several days after the protest, Asayish forces handed over to Iraqi federal forces in Kirkuk 105 detainees first held in Kirkuk and later transferred to facilities in Sulaimaniya. Governor Said said that the Iraqi prime minister’s office also sent a delegation to Kirkuk to further investigate. Human Rights Watch was unable to reach delegation members about their findings.

On December 12, 2017 a member of the Kirkuk branch of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission told Human Rights Watch that families had submitted complaints to the commission against Kurdistan Regional Government authorities about the disappearance of at least 350 other men whom the Asayish had allegedly detained in and around Kirkuk.

On November 12 and December 17, Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 people who said they had witnessed identifiable Asayish forces detain 27 of their relatives, all Sunni Arab men, between August 2015 and October 2017 in Kirkuk or south of the city. The witnesses said that they had not been able to communicate with their detained relatives since their arrest, had received no official information about their status and whereabouts, and were concerned about their whereabouts since the Iraqi officials could not locate them.

In all 27 cases discussed with Human Rights Watch, relatives said they had asked local Asayish or police forces about their relatives but never received an official acknowledgement of their detention or information about where they were being held or why. In some cases, family members said they were able to obtain information from informal channels indicating that their relatives were being held by the Asayish in other parts of the Kurdistan Region. 

The relatives of four of the disappeared told Human Rights Watch in December, 2017 that over the last month, newly released detainees contacted them to say they had been held in the same cells as their relatives in al-Salam military base for Kurdistan Regional Government Peshmerga military forces in Sulaimaniya, where Asayish forces run a number of informal detention facilities.

Disappearances linked to the October 2019-March 2020 Protests

Protests erupted in Baghdad and other cities in central and southern Iraq on October 1, 2019, with security forces detaining protesters off the streets. At least seven people, including a boy of 16, were reported missing as of October 7 from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square or vicinity, where they were participating in ongoing protests. Four were still missing as of December 2. The families said they visited police stations and government offices seeking information without success, and the government took no tangible measures to locate their relatives. It is unclear whether government security or armed groups carried out the arrests.

In nine other cases, families, friends, and lawyers of people kidnapped or detained at or after they participated in protests in Baghdad, Karbala and Nasriya, told Human Rights Watch that their relatives had been detained at the protests and were missing, but that they were too frightened or worried about the consequences for the detained person to provide details.

Human Rights Watch reported on the abduction of Saba Farhan Hameed, 36, on November 2, as she was on her way home from providing food, water, and first aid kits to protesters in Tahrir Square. Hameed’s family said she was blindfolded throughout her abduction and released on November 13, but could not provide other details. Human Rights Watch had also documented the abduction of Maytham al-Helo, a Baghdad resident, on October 7, during the first wave of protests. He was released on October 24 and was also unable to provide any details about his abduction.

The brother of Omar Kadim Kadi’a said on November 26 that Kadi’a had been living in Tahrir Square since a second wave of protests started on October 25. Kadi’a came home on November 20 to take a shower, the brother said, but then left, and his family has not been able to reach him since. His brother said that on November 25 his phone was turned back on, because it suddenly showed that their messages to him had been read, but they called many times and got no answer. He said that Kadi’a’s older brother filed a missing person complaint at a local Baghdad police station but that the police showed little interest and, as far as he knew, did not investigate. After Kadi’a was released on November 28, he told Human Rights Watch that Federal Police had arrested him at a checkpoint en route to the protests on November 20 and brought him before a judge on November 21, who told him he was not being charged with anything.

A man in Baghdad said on October 22 that he had last spoken, by phone on October 3 at 5 p.m., to his brother Abbas Yaseen Kadim, who was at the Tahrir Square protest that day. When the brother tried to call Kadim at 8 p.m., the phone was turned off. The brother went to four police stations seeking information but found out nothing, and police did not offer any assistance in locating him. Kadim was still missing as of December 2019.

Another man said that a relative, Saif Muhsin Abdul Hameed, had come to Baghdad on October 25 for the protests and was sleeping in a tent with friends at Tahrir Square. He said he spoke to Abdul Hameed at around noon on October 28. Abdul Hameed told him he was on Jumhuriya Bridge, the front line of the protests, but after that, Abdul Hameed's phone was turned off. The man said he went to police stations and government offices but was not able to get any information, and police said they did not have enough information to follow up on the case. Abdul Hameed was still missing as of December 2019.

A relative of Mari Mohammed Harj, a woman from Baghdad, said on November 13 that on October 29, Harj posted a video of herself on Facebook criticizing the prime minister and expressing support for the protesters. The video went viral, her relative said, at which point Facebook users the family did not know started posting accusations that Harj had ties to Saudi Arabia and making death threats against her. The relative said she last spoke to Harj, who was at Tahrir Square, at 5 p.m. on November 8, but that when she called at 9 p.m. Harj’s phone was turned off. She said Harj’s father and uncle went to two police stations in Baghdad but got no information. They asked the police to seek cell phone tower data to help figure out where she was and file a missing person report, but did not think the police had investigated. Harj was released on November 12 but would not share details of her abduction with Human Rights Watch.

The sister of Mustafa Munthir Ali, who was in Tahrir Square every day starting on October 1 helping as an ad hoc medic, said he stopped answering her calls at 3 a.m. on November 15. She said she went to Tahrir Square later that morning and could not find Ali at police stations or on any prisoner lists she checked. She said she did not know how to file a missing person claim and the police would not help. Ali managed to call his family on November 17, said his father, who was able to visit him on November 20 in detention in Muthana, an old military base in Baghdad that now houses detention facilities run by various government security apparatuses.

Ali told his father that at midnight on November 14, a man in civilian clothes dragged him from the protest to a group of officers who arrested him, took him to the Baghdad Operations Command office, and beat him. Ali said that on November 16, officers brought him before a judge, who told him that he was not being charged but that the judge could not order his release until “the government resigns or the protests end.” The father said Ali confirmed that other protesters were being held at Muthana. Human Rights Watch was not able to directly verify his account.

A cousin of Sinan Adil Ibrahim said on November 25 that he spoke on November 21 to Ibrahim, who was at the Tahrir Square protest. He called Ibrahim again at 2 a.m. on November 22 to find that his phone was turned off. The family was afraid to describe steps they have taken to secure his release.

Hassan Ahmed Hatim, 16, went to the Tahrir Square protest on November 28, and his family has not been able to reach or find him since, his father said. His father went to three police stations but got no information and none offered to file a missing persons claim or any other help. Hatim was still missing as of December 2019.