Iraqi Shi'ite militias looted and destroyed villages in the wake of a September ground offensive to rout Islamic State (IS) gunmen near Amerli in Salah Ad-Din Province, Human Rights Watch (HRW) claim in a report published on March 18.
The offensive to clear Islamic State militants from Amerli, a Shi'ite Turkoman and Sunni Arab town, followed air strikes by the Iraqi Air Force and the U.S.-led coalition, and culminated in a ground operation by around 6,000 pro-government Shi'a militias, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi troops.
After clearing Islamic State militants from the area, Shi'ite militias raided 47 predominantly Sunni villages, according to Peshmerga officers interviewed by HRW. Residents said that fighters from the Badr Brigades, Asaib Ahl Al-Haqq, Kataib Hezbollah and Saraya Tala'a Al-Khorasani destroyed villages in a 50-kilometer stretch between Al-Khales in southern Diyala Province and Amerli in Salah Ad-Din Province.
The Peshmerga officers said the Shi'ite militias had attacked and destroyed homes, mosques, businesses and public buildings. The officers and local tribal sheikhs said that they saw militia fighters taking valuable items like refrigerators and televisions out of houses before burning down the homes.
HRW said that satellite imagery it has obtained supports testimony from witnesses, who said that the militias and Iraqi government forces had raided the same villages where they had fought Islamic State militants before routing the group from Amerli.
The Peshmerga fighters interviewed by HRW said they believed the raids and destruction of the mostly Sunni villages was "methodical and driven by revenge."
In addition to witness accounts of militiamen raiding and burning villages and homes, HRW also uncovered 11 cases of militiamen abducting male residents who had returned to their homes after fleeing the fighting.
Local residents also said that many other men of fighting age had disappeared, and that those who have been released are reluctant to come forward for fear of fresh attacks.
In response to its findings, HRW called on Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder Al-Abadi to protect civilians in areas where militias are fighting and to take steps to disband the militias.
The rights group also called on the UN, and the United States and its allies in the coalition against the Islamic State group, to condemn abuses by militias in Iraq.
Joe Stork, HRW's deputy Middle East and North Africa director, warned that militia abuses were exacerbating sectarian hostilities in Iraq.
“Iraq can’t win the fight against ISIS’s atrocities with attacks on civilians that violate the laws of war and fly in the face of human decency,” Stork said, using an alternative acronym for the IS group.
The HRW report comes amid growing concerns in the United States about Iran's role in the battle against the Islamic State group, particularly about how heavy weaponry supplied by Iran could be used inside Iraq.
The United States intelligence agencies have detected the recent deployments by Iran of advanced rockets and missiles to help fight the Islamic State group in Tikrit, according to a New York Times report on March 16.
Iran has yet to launch any of the missiles -- which are thought to include Fajr-5 artillery rockets and Fateh-110 missiles -- but U.S. officials fear they could exacerbate existing sectarian tensions and cause civilian casualties.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on March 3 that he is "very concerned" about reports of the extent of the role played by Iran and Shi'ite militias in the fight against the Islamic State group in Tikrit, where about two-thirds of the pro-government forces are Shi'ite militiamen.
Carter warned that this could fuel sectarian tensions.
"Our approach to combating [the IS group] is to work with the Iraqi security forces and a multisectarian government that takes a multisectarian approach to defeating [the IS group]. Sectarianism is what brought us to the point where we are, and so I do look at it with concern," Carter was quoted as saying.
Carter's remarks were echoed by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who said on March 17 in response to the reports that Iran has supplied heavy weaponry to Iraq, that "it's important that actions don't raise... sectarian tensions."
-- Joanna Paraszczuk