More Bad News Emerges About Shiite Militias Central To ISIS Fight

The controversial fighters targeted Sunni Iraqis just months ago, Human Rights Watch says.
In this March 15 photo, young Shiite militia fighters pose for a photo before battle against Islamic State fighters in Tikrit, Iraq.
In this March 15 photo, young Shiite militia fighters pose for a photo before battle against Islamic State fighters in Tikrit, Iraq.

WASHINGTON -- Mostly Shiite militias who are at the core of the Iraqi government's strategy to combat the Islamic State group and have worked alongside the U.S. coalition battling that group detained hundreds of civilians and wreaked havoc on recaptured towns after their latest victory, Human Rights Watch argued in a report released today.

The militias have yet to release at least 160 of the men and boys they detained, the report states, adding that they have also demolished hundreds of homes and other buildings.

The advocacy organization used interviews with civilians and satellite imagery to document the militias' behavior after they dealt a significant blow to the Islamic State group in March and April. That triumph -- accomplished by the militias, Iraqi government forces and air support from the U.S. and its allies -- pushed the extremists out of Tikrit and three other towns northeast of Baghdad. But Human Rights Watch maintains that by mistreating the Sunni residents of those areas, the Shiite militias are preventing the final defeat of the Islamic State group, or ISIS, by fueling the very sectarian tensions that drove some Sunni Iraqis to support it.

“Iraqi authorities need to discipline and hold accountable the out-of-control militias laying waste to Sunni homes and shops after driving ISIS out,” said Joe Stork, the organization's deputy Middle East director, in a statement accompanying the report's release. “Abusive militias and their commanders acting with impunity undermine the campaign against ISIS and put all civilians at greater risk.”

Human Rights Watch said the forces involved in abuses include prominent militias linked to Iran, such as the Badr Brigades and Kataib Hezbollah, and some volunteer Sunni fighters collectively involved in the volunteer Popular Mobilization Forces. Called up by Iraq's top Shiite religious authority to defend the country's key shrines and prevent the spread of ISIS's brand of Sunni extremism, the Popular Mobilization Forces has proven controversial in the year since it was formed. Some reports suggest its members have recruited child soldiers and massacred Sunnis in recaptured areas using brutal methods similar to those of ISIS.

The Iraqi government pledged in December 2014 to bring the Popular Mobilization Forces under government control after evidence emerged of militia misbehavior during the battle for the town of Amerli. And the U.S. has emphasized that it has faith in that process, even as it has said it is avoiding direct coordination with the often vicious fighters.

But Human Rights Watch underscored that the excesses it documented occurred months after that promise was made.

"The massive unlawful destruction of houses following the recapture of Tikrit shows that reining in the militias and holding accountable those responsible for crimes remains an urgent priority," the report states. "The Iraqi cabinet on April 7 formally recognized the Popular Mobilization Forces as state security forces directly responsible to the prime minister, who is commander-in-chief, but Iraqi authorities have not made available any details indicating increased command responsibility and very limited accountability for past crimes."

The group wrote to Baghdad about its findings on July 17, it said in the report -- and it has not received a response. The U.S. State Department also did not respond to a Huffington Post request for comment.

The new allegations about the militias come as Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is attempting to reconcile with Sunnis who were alienated by his sectarian-minded predecessor and who are the best bet for retaking the large swathes of Iraq presently governed by ISIS. The Huffington Post recently revealed details of his latest effort to do so, a failed attempt at cooperation with Qatar. Abadi is also trying to limit the influence of pro-Iranian players in Iraq's Shiite community, in hopes that sidelining them will allow for a more inclusive government that can keep the fractured country together.

Though ISIS is just as vicious as the Shiite militias if not more gruesome, as the Human Rights Watch report shows, the government-aligned forces face particular scrutiny because Iraq watchers worry that their actions will prevent future peace between Shiites and Sunnis even if the Islamic State group is vanquished.

“Iraq needs to ensure individual accountability for crimes, whether by Sunni extremists or Shia militiamen," Stork said.

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