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XV. Violations by the Iraqi Government

As this report documents, members of the Iraqi army and police are under regular attack by insurgent groups using suicide bombers, roadside bombs and car bombs, and subjecting those in custody to torture and summary execution. But this does not absolve the government from its obligations to respect Iraqi and international law in its law enforcement and counter-insurgency operations.

Thus far, these obligations are not being met. One area of concern is the Iraqi government’s treatment of persons in detention. A January 2005 Human Rights Watch report found that Iraqi security forces were committing systematic torture and other abuses against detainees, including children.376 In particular, the report documented the systematic use of arbitrary arrest, prolonged pre-trial detention without judicial review, torture and ill-treatment, denial of access by families and lawyers and abysmal conditions in pre-trial detention facilities. Trials were marred by inadequate legal representation and the acceptance of coerced confessions asevidence. Persons tortured or mistreated had inadequate access to health care and no realistic avenue for legal redress. With rare exception, Iraqi authorities have failed to investigate and punish officials responsible for violations. Human Rights Watch found that international police advisers, primarily U.S. citizens funded through the United States, had turned a blind eye to these rampant abuses.

A human rights report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) documented the use of excessive force and other violations by Iraqi security forces throughout the summer of 2005. According to an UNAMI report released in September, “UNAMI received consistent reports of excessive use of force with regard to persons and property as well as mass arrests carried out by Iraqi police and special forces acting alone or in association with the MNF [Multi-National Force].” In addition, “mass detentions of persons without warrants continue to be used in military operations by Iraqi police, special forces of the Ministry of Interior and by MNF-I.”377

Iraqi authorities have mistreated in detention both alleged common criminals and suspected insurgents. Regardless of the reasons for detention or arrest, the Iraqi government is legally bound to treat all detainees and arrested individuals humanely and to prosecute them in accordance with international fair trial standards.378

A growing area of concern is the Iraqi government’s counter-insurgency campaign, with increasingly frequent reports in 2005 that Iraqi forces were committing torture against detainees and some extra-judicial executions.379

On May 26, 2005, the Iraqi Interior and Defense Ministers announced a major counter-insurgency campaign across Iraq in cooperation with the Multi-National Force called “Operation al-Barq” (Lightning), which involved 40,000 Iraqi security forces.380 Sunni political and religious leaders quickly complained that the operation was indiscriminately targeting Sunni communities and arbitrarily detaining Sunni civilians arbitrarily or without legal basis in dragnets.381 Due to security concerns, Human Rights Watch was not able to investigate the charge.

Of particular concern is the growing number of security units and militias, some of which enjoy nominal autonomy but cooperate to varying degrees with Iraqi security forces. Sunni leaders have accused elements within SCIRI’s Badr Organization,382 and the Special Police Commandos of illegal killings and abuse against detainees. An American journalist who accompanied the Special Police Commandos for one week in Samarra witnessed a commander threatening the son of a suspected insurgent with death and the beating of other detainees. U.S. military advisors, some of them with counter-insurgency experience from El Salvador, were working closely with the commando group.383

In May 2005 the Association of Muslim Scholars accused the Badr Organization of killing fourteen Sunnis, including three imams, but Human Rights Watch could not verify the claim.384

A recent example of Iraqi government abuse occurred on July 10, when ten Sunni Arab men suffocated after Iraqi commandos locked them in a police van in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The details of the case remain in dispute but, by all accounts, the commandos seized the men (who the police claim were insurgents) from Nur Hospital near Abu Ghraib and threw them into the van, where ten of them died and two survived. “We were left from 5:30 that evening inside a kind of container that had no air vents,” one of the survivors later told the press. “After one hour, we lost consciousness and some people began to die, the others were dead by one o’clock in the morning.”385 According to doctors who examined the bodies, the commandos had tortured the men with electric shock. Witnesses told the press the commandos were from the First Brigade, but one of the officers in charge of the commando unit, Brig. Gen. Rashid Flayih, said the unit was a police paramilitary force known as the Special Security Force.386

Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry condemned the deaths as “an inhuman act that violates all international norms and standards,” and said it had established a team of experts to investigate. “If proved guilty, the commandos must be tried to receive just penalty for their deeds,” a ministry statement said.387

In the north, Kurdish security forces have also been responsible for abuses. Most recently, Kurdish security forces have been implicated in a concerted effort to illegally detain Arabs and Turkomans in the city of Kirkuk. In mid-June, the Washington Post reported that Kurdish police and security forces, backed by the U.S. military, had abducted hundreds of minority Arabs and Turkomans in the city, detaining them in prisons in Arbil and Sulaimaniyya, where some were tortured. According to a confidential U.S. State Department cable the paper obtained, the “extra-judicial detentions” were part of a “concerted and widespread initiative” by Kurdish political parties “to exercise authority in Kirkuk in an increasingly provocative manner.”388

In 2005, the Iraqi Interior Ministry began participating in a television show called “Terrorism in the Grip of Justice,” which airs almost nightly on al-`Iraqiya, Iraq’s U.S.-funded national station. Very popular among Iraqis, the program shows alleged insurgents, some of them cut and bruised, purportedly confessing to rapes, kidnappings and executions. Given the Interior Ministry’s record of systematic torture, Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that some of the detainees may have suffered physical abuse or due process violations, as well as public humiliation, which are forbidden by international humanitarian and human rights law. In transcripts of four shows reviewed by Human Rights Watch, the interrogator repeatedly mocks the detainees.389 In one show described in the English-language press, a former policeman with two black eyes confessed to killing two police officers in Samarra; a few days after the broadcast, the former policeman’s family told reporters that someone had delivered to them the man’s corpse.390

[376] Human Rights Watch report, The New Iraq? Torture and Ill-treatment of Detainees in Iraqi Custody, January 2005. Available at

[377] U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, Human Rights Report, July 1-August 31, 2005.

[378] As explained in chapter XVI, “Legal Standards and the Conflict in Iraq,” insurgents operating in Iraq do not enjoy the so-called “combatant’s privilege” under international humanitarian law, which means that they may be arrested and charged with taking up arms under domestic crimes like treason, murder or the illegal possession of arms. They still enjoy the basic rights to be treated humanely and to have fair and independent trial. See generally ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, chapter 32 on fundamental guarantees and chapter 37 on persons deprived of their liberty.

[379]See Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru, “Militias on the Rise Across Iraq,” Washington Post, August 21, 2005, and Peter Beaumont and Martin Bright, “UK Aid Funds Iraqi Torture Units,” The Observer, July 3, 2005.

[380] U.S. Department of State, Iraq Weekly Status Report, June 1, 2005, available at, as of June 14, 2005.

[381] “Iraq’s Sunni Clerics Thunder Against Operation Lightning,” Agence France-Presse, June 7, 2005, and Nancy A. Youssef, “Offensive Unfairly Targets Us, Sunni Say,” Seattle Times, June 4, 2005.

[382] SCIRI’s first militia was the Badr Brigade, founded in the 1980’s in Iran, where SCIRI leaders were living. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it transformed itself into the Badr Organization of Reconstruction and Development and pledged to disarm. Active mostly in Baghdad and Shi`a-controlled southern Iraq, the Badr Organization remained armed and maintains ties to the Ministry of Interior, currently run by a former high-ranking Badr Brigade official. See Edward Wong, “Leaders of Iraq Support Militias and Widen Rift,” New York Times, June 9, 2005, and Council on Foreign Relations, Iraq: Militia Groups, June 9, 2005, available at, as of June 19, 2005.

[383]Peter Maass, “The Salvadorization of Iraq,” New York Times Magazine, May 1, 2005, available at, as of June 15, 2005. According to the article, the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry is investigating the case.

[384] “Sunni Religious Leaders Accuse Shiite Militias of Killing 14,” Agence France-Presse, May 18, 2005.

[385] Richard Galpin, “Iraq Police Accused of Torture,” BBC, July 28, 2005, available at, as of August 19, 2005.

[386]John F. Burns, “10 Sunnis Suffocate in Iraqi Police Custody,” New York Times, July 13, 2005.

[387] Khayoun Saleh, “Rights Ministry Wants Iraqi Soldiers to Face Trial Over Killing of

Inmates,” Azzaman, July 20, 2005.

[388] Steve Fainaru and Anthony Shadid, “Kurdish Officials Sanction Abductions in Kirkuk,” Washington Post, June 15, 2005.

[389] Human Rights Watch reviewed the transcripts of the program from April 11-14, 2005.

[390] Maass, “The Salvadorization of Iraq,” New York Times Magazine, May 1, 2005. According to the article, the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry is investigating the case.

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