Militias fighting for Mosul accused of abuses in battle against Daesh

The US-backed Iraqi army has made major advances against Daesh in recent months. But according to a new report, some of the militias fighting under the army's umbrella are themselves committing serious abuses.

Photo by: Getty Images
Photo by: Getty Images

Popular Mobilisation Units have played an important role in combatting Daesh in Iraq, but are alleged to have committed abuses in some of the mainly Sunni areas that they have captured.

The lengthy effort to eliminate Daesh from northern Iraq has seen abuses committed by all sides. Many young Sunni men in northern Iraq say they are unfairly being subjected to severe human rights abuses — and even being disappeared — by militia groups fighting with the US-backed Iraqi government forces as they try to wrest control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Daesh.

“I spent seven weeks under torture,” said a 20-year-old student, who was among the many young men stopped at checkpoints as they fled fighting in the northern town of Shirqat.

The student was “held with about 30 other people in a school” last July, he told the UK-based human rights group Amnesty International, in a report titled Iraq: Turning a Blind Eye: The Arming of the Popular Mobilization Units released on Thursday.

His torturers “wanted me to confess to being Daesh,” and they included members of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), predominantly Shia militias fighting alongside the Iraqi armed forces against Daesh.

The captives were beaten with metal rods and cables, and given electric shocks. When he was transferred to a prison in Baghdad, he encountered others.

“Some [had been] detained for over six months and their families did not know anything about them,” the student said.

The student was again tortured in Baghdad, and interrogated while blindfolded. He was not charged with anything and was eventually freed. He is a survivor; not everyone picked up by the PMU made it out alive.

“The PMU was created in response to the huge offensive of IS [Daesh] in 2014 and the collapse of the Iraqi army,” Patrick Wilcken, Researcher on Arms Control, Security Trade and Human Rights at Amnesty International told TRT World.  “It brought together existing and mobilised predominantly Shia units together to try and combat the advances of IS.”

The abuses came in the months leading up to the battle for Mosul, as Iraqi government forces made tactical gains against Daesh in the surrounding region in mid-2016. They had begun the operation for the city itself in October 2016. Daesh had captured Mosul in June 2014. The PMU, along with Sunni tribal fighters and peshmerga fighters, is fighting against Daesh alongside the Iraqi army. By January 9, about two-thirds of eastern Mosul was reportedly under government control. The Iraqi army and the militia groups that fight alongside it are supported by US-led coalition warplanes.

Wilcken, the author of Amnesty’s report on the arming of the PMU in Iraq, notes the PMU have been “very effective,” especially during the early stages of the fighting against Daesh. “But when they have gone into Sunni areas, there have been problems.”

The PMU has its roots in Iraq’s predominantly Shia paramilitary militias, many of which fought both Al Qaeda in Iraq — the predecessor of Daesh — and US forces during their Iraqi occupation in the 2000s. The Amnesty report notes that from their inception in 2014, the PMU “enjoyed government financial support, arms supplies and political backing.”

However, deep schisms within Iraq, rooted in a history of sectarian violence, has resulted in many casualties from 2006 to 2007. And the Sunni minority, no longer in power, is wary of the increasingly powerful Shia minority, be it in government or as part of the PMU.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has previously pledged to bring greater national unity and to bring the Shia militias under tighter government control. Indeed, since February 2016, the PMU militias were designated as being officially part of the Iraqi armed forces, under order by Abadi. In November, the Iraqi parliament turned the order into law.

Yet while that means the PMU are subject to military law “in theory”, the Amnesty report states, in reality it continues to act outside the state’s command and control structures.

The PMU, however, rejected Amnesty’s report, categorically denying the allegations of abuse. It issued a statement on Friday, saying the militias under the PMU umbrella are “at the direct control of the Iraqi Prime Minister.” The statement also emphasised unity between the Iraqi army and the PMU, declaring them to be “one and the same.”

Speaking in a news conference aired by Iraqi state television on Thursday, Ahmed al Assadi, spokesperson for the PMU, accused Amnesty of “purposefully slandering” the PMU. The PMU has “spearheaded the fight against terrorism and liberated the cities and neutralised the terrorist groups,” Assadi argued. He called on Iraqi authorities to sue Amnesty, which he said “has a history of distorting facts.”

A PMU fighter loads his rifle outside Fallujah in May 2016. (AP) 

Amnesty’s report highlights “gross and systematic human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law” that the proliferation of arms and ammunition to armed groups and militias across Iraq has caused. It also makes recommendations to the Iraqi authorities and to states that have been supplying arms to Iraq to prevent the “devastating impacts” of proliferation on civilians.

It is not only Shia militia alleged to be committing abuses in the areas surrounding Mosul. Sunni Tribal Mobilisation (TM or Hashd al Asha’iri) militias are also cited for taking “punitive revenge attacks” against villagers suspected of having ties to Daesh. Likewise, these militias receive their salaries and weapons from the Iraqi government.

“We documented cases of torture, the destruction of homes, arbitrary arrests carried out by the Sab’awi militias,” Eltahawy said, referring to abuses committed in villages southeast of Mosul in territories under that group’s control in October 2016.

Some of the violations by local Sunni militias mentioned in the Amnesty report took place in a group of villages on the south-eastern bank of the river Tigris known as Qati’ al-Sab’awiin (Getty)

“In the case of the Sab’awi, the abuses perpetrated were against members of their own tribe, allegedly directed at those who were linked or related to Islamic State fighters,” Eltahawy said.

Some Saba’wi tribal militia members allegedly beat their captives with metal rods, gave them electric shocks or tied them to the bonnets of vehicles. They are also accused of parading those arrested through the streets or locking them in cages.

Those supplying the weapons

In the fight against Daesh, are states supplying weapons to Iraq being irresponsible? The Amnesty report notes that of the more than one million infantry weapons and pistols the US and other coalition members transferred to the Iraqi armed forces, “hundreds of thousands … went missing and are still unaccounted for.”

“Weak oversight and poor to non-existent record keeping” has meant that US-made equipment has found its way into the hands of PMU militias. A 2015 report by the Inspector General of the US Department of Defense says that it has agreed to provide material and equipment to “selected elements” of the PMU, but warns that “we cannot eliminate the possibility that various factions of the Popular Mobilization Forces that the US has not agreed to support are being armed/supplied with material that the IA (Iraqi Army) needs from those warehouses.”

“Visual evidence suggests US equipment is being deployed by a variety of PMU militias accused of serious human rights violations,” Amnesty’s report said. 

While the Iraqi government and the PMU try to present a unified front, the threat of “diversion to armed groups including IS (Daesh)” remains. The Amnesty report counts more than 20 countries as supplier states to Iraq over the last five years, with the US and Russia at the forefront. Another significant contributor to the Iraqi armament is Iran.

PMU militias advance towards the village of Shwah, south of the city of Tal Afar on the western outskirts of Mosul in December. (Getty)

“It’s disingenuous — a country that is transferring weapons to the government of Iraq not to be aware that these weapons are being used by militias and they’re facilitating abuses,” Amnesty’s Iraq researcher Diana Eltahawy told TRT World. “[Supplier states] have to ensure that whatever weapons they transfer to the Iraqi government do not end up in the hands of militias with a very long history of abuses.”

The Razzaza checkpoint, where hundreds of Sunni men are alleged to have been forcibly disappeared by members of the Hezbollah Brigades ever since late 2014, is one of the abuses cited in the report. The crossing between the Anbar and Karbala governorate was, at the time, the only relatively safe route for civilians fleeing Daesh territory.

“This has been happening consistently from October 2014,” she said. “The authorities are very much aware of this, because not just Amnesty International but local activists, local parliamentarians, other organisations have raised concerns about this.”

“We spoke to dozens of families who essentially say the same story,” Eltahawy said. “The [Sunni Arab] men that are considered of fighting age ... boys sometimes as young as 15, 16, 17, are separated from their families; they’re taken out of their cars and then they disappear without a trace.”

Iraq is waging a war against Daesh to retake its land with the help of the US-led coalition and various militia factions. Yet with so many allegations that militia fighters are employing the very tactics used by Daesh, they risk losing hearts and minds even as they win territory.