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I. Summary

Iraqi families were shopping and preparing for evening prayers at the People of Musayyib Husainiyya Mosque in the town of Musayyib on July 16, 2005, when the bomb blew up. A suicide bomber from an unknown armed group detonated his explosives next to a tanker truck filled with cooking gas, igniting a massive fire-ball that swept through the market and surrounding streets.

“I saw how the flames swallowed the panicked people as they ran away,” a local teacher said. “The fire chased the people down and ate them alive.”1

More than ninety civilians died in the mostly Shi`a Muslim town just south of Baghdad, including women and children. Hundreds more were badly burned or pierced by shrapnel.

The Musayyib bombing is but one example of an insurgent attack in Iraq targeting civilians. Since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in March 2003, armed opposition groups have purposely killed thousands of civilians—men, women and children. Across the country, insurgents have used car bombs and suicide bombers, like the one in Musayyib, to maximize the number of civilian injuries and deaths. They have assassinated government officials, politicians, judges, journalists, humanitarian aid workers and those deemed to be collaborating with the foreign forces in Iraq. They have tortured and summarily executed, sometimes by beheading, persons in their custody. And attacks against legitimate military targets, such as army convoys, have been carried out in such a manner that the foreseeable loss of civilian life was far disproportionate to the military gain. All of these attacks are serious violations of international humanitarian law—war crimes—and in some cases they are crimes against humanity.

This report aims to give the civilian victims of these attacks a face and a name. Through victim and witness testimony, it documents some of the crimes committed against civilians by insurgent groups, and addresses the arguments these groups and their supporters use to justify unlawful attacks.

It also places insurgent abuses in context; namely, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the ensuing military occupation that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths and sparked the emergence of these insurgent groups. Chief among the justifications insurgent groups use is that the United States illegally invaded Iraq and has killed untold thousands of Iraqi civilians over the past two-and-a-half years.

Previous Human Rights Watch reports have documented the use of indiscriminate and excessive force by U.S. forces during raids on residential areas and at checkpoints. Thousands of suspected insurgents in U.S. and Iraqi government custody have been detained without regard to the protections afforded by international law. U.S. forces have committed torture and humiliation of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and other detention centers, and mistreatment of detainees by Iraqi authorities has been systematic. Few persons responsible for abuses—and none at higher levels—have been criminally prosecuted.

These abuses have enraged many Iraqis, as well as people outside Iraq, and are one motivating factor behind the insurgency’s steady growth over the past two years. But they in no way justify attacks on civilians by insurgent groups, who are legally bound to respect international humanitarian law, regardless of their adversary’s behavior, and whether or not they recognize the law. It is to promote the principle that civilians may never be the object of attack that Human Rights Watch has published this report.

The laws of war, binding on government armed forces and non-state armed groups, prohibit direct attacks on civilians, attacks made with no effort to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and attacks that cause civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military gain. Also prohibited are attacks intended primarily to spread terror among the civilian population. Crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population are considered crimes against humanity. Anyone responsible for serious violations is subject to prosecution, including those commanders who ordered or knew or should have known of the unlawful attacks and did nothing.

The report divides the civilian victims into nine categories to explain how they have been attacked, why they were attacked and the justifications the attackers used. The commonality is that the insurgents considered their target in some way associated with the U.S.-led Multi-National Force in Iraq or the country’s current government, which they view as an agent of the United States. For the insurgents, most of whom are Sunni Arabs, the Iraqi government is an illegitimate institution that serves the United States or is unfairly dominated by Shi`a Muslims and Kurds.

The report also documents attacks against Iraqi, U.S. and other coalition military forces that violate the laws of war. Some insurgent groups have committed war crimes by executing, torturing or otherwise mistreating combatants in their custody. They have violated the laws of war by committing perfidious attacks on military targets, that is, attacks in which the attacker feigns being a civilian. And some insurgent attacks on military targets have unlawfully failed to discriminate between combatants and civilians or have caused disproportionate civilian casualties. While international law does not prohibit insurgents from attacking military targets, such attacks are violations of Iraqi criminal law for which the perpetrators may be prosecuted. Likewise, Iraqi government forces are liable under domestic law for torturing detainees and other misuses of force. This report assesses the conduct of the insurgents solely under the applicable provisions of the international laws of war.

A chapter on the insurgent groups describes the various groups active in Iraq, most of them composed of Sunni Arabs, who are fighting the multinational and Iraqi government forces. This is complex because “the insurgency” is a general term used to describe an array of groups with different structures, allegiances and aims, as well as seemingly different views on the acceptable objects and methods of attack. Some groups have at times condemned attacks on civilians, while others like Ansar al-Sunna, al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic Army in Iraq have publicly extolled their responsibility for serious crimes through videos and statements on bomb attacks, abductions and executions of civilians.

The report presents the arguments some insurgent groups and their supporters use to justify attacks on civilians. Most of these stem from the view that all means are legitimate to liberate Iraq from foreign forces; thus, anyone perceived as associated with the occupation is open to attack. But none of the arguments justify the attacks documented in this report, which are in clear violation of international humanitarian law. Not only should all insurgent groups in Iraq cease such attacks, but the political and religious leaders in Iraq and other countries who have expressed support for the insurgency should condemn the targeting of civilians, all acts that put civilians unnecessarily at risk and the mistreatment of those in custody.

By documenting these abuses, Human Rights Watch is challenging the disregard for international law endorsed by some insurgent groups in Iraq. Regardless of the violations committed by U.S. and Iraqi forces, almost daily attacks on civilians have had a devastating impact on the people of Iraq and further undermine respect for the rule of law.

The Victims

The exact number of civilians killed by unlawful insurgent attacks since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 is unknown. The chaos of the conflict, the partial functioning of Iraqi institutions and the unwillingness of the United States to keep statistics on civilian deaths make accurate statistics very difficult to obtain. Still, all evidence suggests that insurgent attacks in Iraq have killed many more civilians than combatants.

The report divides the civilian victims of insurgent attacks into nine categories, although these often overlap. First are attacks on members of Iraq’s various religious and ethnic groups. Some insurgent groups have struck Shi`a Muslim shrines in Karbala and Najaf with massive bombs, killing hundreds, as well as Shi`a mosques and funeral services in cities like Mosul and Baghdad. Insurgents have attacked Kurdish civilians, most severely in February 2004, when twin suicide bombers killed ninety-nine people in Arbil. And some groups have victimized Iraq’s small Christian community through church bombings, abductions and murders, forcing tens of thousands of Christians to flee abroad or to the relative security of the Kurdish-controlled north.

Text Box: A mother hugs her son outside a morgue in al-Najaf. Two car bombs exploded on August 29, 2003, killing up to eighty-seven people, including Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim.
© 2003 Zohra Bensemra/ REUTERS

In the eyes of some insurgent groups, Shi`a Muslims, Kurds and Christians are legitimate targets because they believe them to have sided with the occupying forces in Iraq, or to be supporting the current Iraqi government. To the extreme Islamist groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Shi`a are apostates who have betrayed Islam. Kurdish fighters fought alongside U.S. forces in 2003, and the Kurdish pershmerga remain close to the Multi-National Force. And some attacks may be motivated by long-standing tension between the religious and ethnic groups, and the struggle for power in post-Saddam Iraq. None of these arguments or explanations justifies attacks on civilians within these groups.

A second targeted category is Iraqis who work for foreign governments or their armed forces as reconstruction contractors, translators, cleaners, and drivers or in other non-combatant jobs. Some insurgent groups consider Iraqis in these positions to be collaborators, and attacks against them are apparently meant as punishment and as a warning to others. In one case documented in this report, gunmen killed three women as they left a U.S. military base in Mosul where they worked as cleaners, and attacks like this have been frequent across Iraq.

Third is Iraqis holding government or political posts. The list of assassinations is long, with victims from most of the major parties that have formally entered politics since 2003. Included in this group are members of the Iraqi Interim Government and election workers who were murdered while trying to organize the January 2005 election.

A fourth category is civilians who are waiting to sign up for the Iraqi police or armed forces, which have frequently been the target of car bomb and suicide bomb attacks outside recruitment centers. As they are not yet members of the security forces nor civilians actively participating in hostilities, they are not legitimate military targets under international humanitarian law.

A fifth category is staff of international and nongovernmental organizations, some of which have been active in Iraq since before the war. The most deadly attacks were the truck bombs that exploded at the United Nations (U.N.) headquarters in August 2003 and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Baghdad headquarters in October that same year. Insurgent groups have threatened and sometimes killed humanitarian aid workers, most of them Iraqis. Almost all international humanitarian organizations have left Iraq for security reasons, severely limiting the aid they can provide a population in need.

A sixth category is journalists and media workers. Some insurgent groups have bombed media offices and targeted journalists with abductions and executions. The vast majority of victims are Iraqis who worked as local journalists or as reporters, drivers, cameramen and translators for international media, but foreign journalists have also lost their lives.

The seventh category is Iraq’s intellectuals and professionals, including doctors, lawyers and academics. Armed groups have abducted between 160 and 300 Iraqi doctors since April 2003, and killed more than twenty-five, the Iraqi Ministry of Health concluded in April 2005. They have murdered at least forty-eight professors since mid-2003, a United Nations study said. Some of the abductions and killings may be criminally motivated because the victims were considered to have more money to pay in ransom. But some killings appear politically motivated, either because the victim had expressed sympathy for the U.S.-led intervention or had criticized the insurgency, or because the person was believed to hold such views. According to some Iraqis, the attacks are an attempt to destroy the country’s intellectual elite.

The eighth category is women. Many women have been attacked because of their participation in the categories mentioned above—in their roles as politicians, civil servants, journalists and humanitarian aid workers, as well as for their work as cleaners or translators for foreign governments or militaries. But some insurgent groups have attacked women’s rights activists and Iraqi women for what they consider “immoral” or “un-Islamic” behavior, like promoting women’s rights, socializing with men or not covering their heads in public. The violence and lack of security has had a major impact on Iraqi women, who once enjoyed a public role in the country’s social and political life.

The ninth and final category is non-Iraqi nationals, including drivers, businesspeople, contractors, journalists, diplomats, humanitarian workers and others in civilian jobs. Since April 2003, insurgent groups have abducted more than 200 non-Iraqis from at least twenty-two countries, killing at least fifty-two. An estimated forty-three people are missing. The goal is often to pressure the victim’s government or company into withdrawing from Iraq, or obtaining other concessions, such as the release of prisoners. A common motivation is money; non-Iraqis are targeted because of the ransom that the insurgents, or a criminal group, hope to extract.

Victims of insurgent attacks may be from overlapping categories, and the precise reason for their being targeted is not always clear. Some Christians and Kurds, for example, might have been killed because of their religion or ethnicity, or because they worked for the U.S. military. Insurgent groups might have targeted Shi`a Muslim leaders because of their religious or political importance, or because they were participating in the Iraqi governing structures. Certain women may have been targeted for their occupation as much as for their gender. Lastly, many Iraqis have lost their lives in attacks targeted against others because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Finally, Iraqi insurgents are not just committing war crimes against civilians, but also against the Multi-National and Iraqi forces. One chapter of the report documents mistreatment and executions, sometimes by beheading, of multinational and Iraqi forces taken into custody by insurgent groups. In addition, many insurgent attacks on legitimate military targets have been carried out using perfidy, usually by pretending to be civilians in order to carry out a suicide attack.

Insurgent Groups

The term “insurgency” is used to describe a spectrum of armed opposition groups in Iraq with different structures and strategies, although they are united by common immediate goals: to expel the U.S.-led military coalition from Iraq and to overthrow the current Iraqi government. Determining who is who is difficult, if not impossible, with dozens if not hundreds of groups engaged in military activity, and many unverifiable claims of responsibility. As such, this report presents a general overview of the insurgency without details on the specific groups.

The insurgent groups covered in this report are comprised predominantly of Sunni Arabs, who make up approximately 20 percent of Iraq’s population, and their activities are focused in the country’s center, northwest and west. Individuals apparently join the insurgency for a variety of reasons: a desire to expel foreign forces from Iraq, fear of marginalization by a Shi`a-dominated government after decades of Sunni control and a struggle over strategic areas like Kirkuk. Some view the insurgency as part of a global Islamic fight against the United States. Others may join as a way to survive during a time of high unemployment. At the same time, many Sunni support the insurgents or their aims without joining their ranks. And untold other Sunni oppose the insurgents or their means, even publicly condemning attacks on civilians, and have themselves been attacked.

The insurgency can be divided very broadly into three general categories: extreme Islamist, Ba`thist and Sunni nationalist. As with the victims, the categories of armed groups overlap. The groups in the extreme Islamist category have generated the most attention due to prominent operations that have intentionally killed many civilians. The best known of these groups are Ansar al-Islam (Supporters of Islam), a Kurdish group that existed before the war, Ansar al-Sunna (Supporters of the Sunni) and al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, apparently run by Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian. These groups have claimed responsibility for detonating car bombs and suicide bombs in crowded civilian areas, abducting businessmen, contractors and journalists, and executing captive Iraqi police and soldiers, sometimes by distributing grisly videos of their deaths. In general, these groups say they seek a pure Islamic state, with legal and institutional structures based on strict interpretation of the Qur’an. For them, the armed conflict in Iraq is part of a global war they term jihad against the imperialism and military aggression of the United States and corrupt, un-Islamic dictatorships in the Arab world. Foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Kuwait and Jordan have joined the fight, although their numbers in Iraq are unclear. Less than 5 percent of the killed or captured insurgents have been non-Iraqi, a coalition official said in spring 2005.

The second general category is linked to Saddam Hussein’s ousted Ba`th Party. Apparently led and funded by former members of the Iraqi security structures, groups like Saddam’s Fedayin (Saddam’s Martyrs), al-`Awda (The Return) and Wahaj al-`Iraq (Flame of Iraq) have staged attacks against multinational and Iraqi government forces. They are also responsible for targeted killings and attacks on military targets, such as with roadside bombs, that failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians, or caused disproportionate civilian casualties. Available evidence suggests they have not been responsible for many of the suicide bomb attacks on civilians and the summary executions of captured members of the security forces, although they may cooperate with or fund groups responsible for such crimes. Some of the groups in this category have a desire to see their old leader return, but others apparently have no current connection with Saddam Hussein.

The third general category is what some analysts call nationalist, or Sunni nationalist, comprised mostly of Sunni Arabs who wish to expel foreign forces from Iraq, but are not as driven by religion or ties to the Ba`th Party. Some of these groups say they want an Iraq guided by Islamic principles, but they do not share the vision of the extreme Islamist groups. Compared to groups like Ansar al-Sunna and al-Qaeda in Iraq, these groups apparently limit their attacks more to military targets, and some, like the al-Jabha al-Islamiyya al-`Iraqiyya al-Muqawima (Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance) have at times condemned attacks on civilians. However, some of these groups are also believed to have abducted civilians or targeted them for attack.

These three categories are not strictly defined, as religious and nationalist groups blend, and they are not meant to neatly classify insurgent groups as better or worse with respect to their compliance with the laws of war. The al-Jaysh al-Islami fi al-`Iraq (Islamic Army in Iraq), for instance, is a predominantly Sunni nationalist group with a strong Islamic bent. It has apparently not carried out car bomb or suicide bomb attacks on civilians, but it has repeatedly claimed responsibility for abductions and summary executions of civilians. Some Ba`th-affiliated groups, although stemming from a secular party, are apparently cooperating with and funding some of the Islamist groups.

The vast majority of insurgents are Sunni Arabs, but other armed groups operate in Iraq, including Shi`a Muslim groups. Among these groups is the al-Mahdi Army, led by the Shi`a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Badr Organization of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Credible information received by Human Rights Watch indicates that these groups are responsible for kidnappings, torture and assassinations, including revenge attacks against persons associated with the former government or Ba`th Party. However, their actions are not considered in this report because they are currently not engaged in hostilities against multinational or Iraqi government forces, and as such do not form part of the insurgency.

Lastly, not all abductions and killings of civilians in Iraq that appear linked to insurgent groups are their doing. Common crime is rampant throughout Iraq. Criminals masked as insurgents have abducted people for ransom or for sale to insurgent groups. Likewise, some insurgent groups apparently engage in common crimes, such as kidnapping and robbery, to obtain funds for their military operations. In the lawlessness of today’s Iraq, the line between the political and criminal is often blurred.

Arguments of Insurgent Groups

The insurgent groups in Iraq that target civilians use two broad arguments to justify their acts. First, they contend that persons in any way supporting the Multi-National Force in Iraq—which they believe remains a foreign occupation—are not civilians entitled to protection because of their collaboration with the United States and its coalition. This includes Iraqis employed as translators, drivers and construction contractors for foreign governments and Shi`a Muslims, Kurds and Christians, because these groups have in general supported the military invasion that overthrew the Saddam Hussein government.

Because many insurgent groups believe the current Iraqi government is serving the foreign occupation, politicians, government officials and bureaucrats are also targeted. Westerners by definition are considered part of the foreign presence, thus various insurgent groups target foreign officials, including diplomats, western journalists and aid workers.

Second, insurgent groups contend that the nature of the armed conflict in Iraq, rather than the identity of the victims, permits attacks on civilians. The arguments of insurgent groups include:

  • in a war to drive foreign occupiers out of Iraq, the ends justify the means;
  • in a war against the military superpower of the world, an insurgency with small arms and explosives is obliged to go after non-military, or so-called “soft” targets;
  • insurgent groups are bound only by Islamic law, and not international humanitarian law;
  • Islamic law allows the killing of civilians in a war of self-defense;
  • the illegality of the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, as well as violations of the laws of war by the Multi-National Force, remove any obligation on insurgent groups to abide by the laws of war.

None of these justifications are defensible under international law. The armed conflict in Iraq is regulated by the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law. This law applies to both government armed forces and opposition armed groups, regardless of whether the forces to the conflict recognize the law. The laws of war are applicable whether the war is lawful or not, and regardless of violations by the other side. Reprisals are banned.

As described in the chapter on legal standards, international humanitarian law prohibits direct attacks against civilians at any time and for whatever reason. It also bans attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants and attacks that cause disproportionate harm to civilians in light of the expected military gain. So long as a civilian is not taking a “direct part in hostilities,” a concept discussed in the report, he or she is immune from attack. Although there are gray areas regarding whether certain conduct constitutes direct participation in hostilities, the conduct of the victims whose cases are documented in this report were unambiguously civilian in nature.

Serious violations of international humanitarian law are war crimes. All those taking part in unlawful attacks or are liable as a matter of command responsibility are subject to prosecution. Crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population are considered crimes against humanity under international law, and those responsible are subject to prosecution anywhere in the world.

Violations by U.S. and Iraqi Government Forces

Responsibility for the abuses documented in this report rests with the perpetrators. However, the U.S. and Iraqi governments have committed violations of the laws of war that raise serious doubts about their stated commitment to promoting the rule of law in Iraq. The torture and humiliation of detainees by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, the unjustified killing of civilians at U.S. military checkpoints and during U.S. military operations, and the long-term detention without charge of persons apprehended, contribute to widespread disdain for the foreign military presence among ordinary Iraqis, whatever their views about an invasion that left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead but toppled the abusive government of Saddam Hussein.

The U.S.-backed Iraqi government has committed arbitrary arrests and systematic torture against persons in detention, while militias linked to political parties in the government have been implicated in abductions, torture and assassinations. The fact that the Iraqi police and armed forces are under regular attack from insurgent groups does not absolve the government of its obligation to respect international law in its law enforcement and counter-insurgency operations.

Such abuses contribute to the general lawlessness in Iraq and provide a handy if illegitimate rationale for the insurgents to commit abuses of their own. If the U.S. and Iraqi governments are sincere about establishing the rule of law in Iraq, ensuring respect for that law among their own forces is an important place to start.


This report is based on research in January-February 2005 in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, where Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed twenty-nine victims and witnesses of insurgent attacks. The researchers interviewed three more victims and international humanitarian organizations during a subsequent week in Amman, Jordan. Security conditions prohibited travel to Iraq’s center or south and, as such, the report’s victim testimony is weighted towards people in the north, although some of those interviewed had fled from Baghdad. The full names of some interviewees are not used for their protection. Reports from established Iraqi and international media are frequently used, but only when two or more sources exist.

[1] Borzou Daragahi and Saad Fakhrildeen, “Iraqi Town Left Devastated by Attack,” Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2005.

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