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After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Shiite Militias Accused of Looting, Burning Sunni Villages

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Image Credit: Human Rights Watch

A new report finds Shiite militias in Iraq have burned down entire Sunni villages after liberating them from control of the Islamic State. This comes as Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias are in their fourth week of a fight to retake Tikrit from ISIS militants. We air a Human Rights Watch video report from the Iraqi town of Amerli and speak to Erin Evers, Iraq researcher for HRW, who co-wrote the group’s new report, “After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to Iraq, where the battle for Tikrit has entered its fourth week. Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias have fought the Islamic State since early March, trying to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown. The Iraqi government is expected to soon request U.S. assistance in the form of airstrikes. If the U.S. accepts, it would mark the biggest collaboration to date between Shiite militias and the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes at a time when Shiite militias are being accused of carrying out widespread sectarian abuses targeting Sunni civilians. Last week, Human Rights Watch published a report titled “After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli.” In a moment, we’ll be joined by the report’s co-author, but first we want to bring you this short piece produced by Human Rights Watch.

NARRATOR: Witnesses say that pro-government militias, volunteer fighters and Iraqi security forces carried out a campaign of destruction in the aftermath of operations to drive the extremist group ISIS away from the town of Amerli in Iraq.

IRAQI WOMAN: [translated] At first, we were afraid of ISIS. When ISIS came, we didn’t escape. They were all around us, so where could we go? Then we were hit by heavy airstrikes. Everyone stayed in their homes. Then the militia came and started firing at us. When they attacked us, we fled to the mountains.

NARRATOR: Last June, ISIS laid siege the mostly Shia town of Amerli for nearly three months. Thousands of people were trapped until U.S.-backed Iraqi forces drove ISIS fighters out with airstrikes and ground operations by an alliance of Shia militias and Iraqi and Kurdish government forces. Witnesses told us that on September 1st, the day after the siege was broken, Shia militias returned to the Sunni villages around Amerli and began looting, burning and destroying homes and businesses.

IRAQI MAN 1: [translated] From what I saw, they used fire [to burn houses], but we also heard explosions. We thought it was bombs that ISIS had left behind, but about 10 days ago, when we snuck back in, we saw that houses had been blow up with explosives. The walls were gone, and the ceilings were collapsing.

PESHMERGA OFFICER: Amerli, behind the electric poles.

TIRANA HASSAN: Amerli is just behind these electric—how many kilometers?

NARRATOR: In mid-October, we visited some of the villages on the outskirts of Amerli. Our escorts were Kurdish military forces known as peshmerga.

PESHMERGA OFFICER: [translated] The Shia militias destroyed all of these shops. This restaurant used to be owned by a Kurd. That one belonged to a Sunni Arab. They came to the area after the airstrikes. The houses and shops were untouched during the airstrikes, but when the militias came, they were destroyed. When we came back, we saw militia flags with the words “Ya Hussein” and “Ya Ali.”

NARRATOR: As we headed towards the village of Yengija, we saw the yellow flags of the pro-government militia, Saraya al-Khorasani. They still controlled the area at the time of our field investigation in mid-October. Once inside the village, we saw homes still burning. It was nearly seven weeks after the siege of Amerli was broken. Other homes and buildings showed signs of arson. Black soot marked the windows and doors where flames had engulfed the interior and charred the outer walls. On many of the houses, militias spray-painted sectarian slogans and the names of their group. We analyzed satellite imagery recorded over Yengija and found evidence of a systematic and sustained campaign of arson and demolition that lasted over two months after the end of the siege of Amerli. We also analyzed a 500-kilometer square radius of Amerli, which confirmed destruction in 30 out of 35 villages. Most of the damage was caused by arson and intentional demolition inflicted after ISIS had fled the area.

IRAQI MAN 2: [translated] Those 20 families, living over there, all fled Suleiman Bek when the militia came.

NARRATOR: Iraq clearly faces serious threats in its conflict with ISIS. But the abuses committed by the forces fighting ISIS are threatening the country in the long term. Iraqis are caught between the horrors ISIS commits and the abuses by militias, and civilians are paying the price.

AMY GOODMAN: That video produced by Human Rights Watch. When we come back, we’ll be joined by Erin Evers, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch. She co-wrote the new report, “After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli.” She has been on the ground in Iraq with Human Rights Watch since September 2012. We’ll also speak with journalist Matthieu Aikins. His latest piece for Rolling Stone is headlined “Inside Baghdad’s Brutal Battle Against ISIS.” This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Saleh, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

AARON MATÉ: So, Erin, thank you for joining us. As we talk about your report on the rise of militias in Iraq, we’re joined by Erin Evers, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch. She co-wrote the new report, “After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli,” on the ground in Iraq with HRW since September 2012. Also joined by Matt Aikins, award-winning foreign correspondent. His latest piece for Rolling Stone is “Inside Baghdad’s Brutal Battle Against ISIS.” He joins us by video stream from Karachi, Pakistan.

Erin Evers, thank you for joining us, as I said. Talk about what you found in Iraq.

ERIN EVERS: Well, we essentially documented that after U.S. coalition strikes in the town of Amerli, in Salahuddin province, routed ISIS from the town of Amerli, along with—along with militias and security forces fighting on the ground—

AMY GOODMAN: And describe where Amerli is.

ERIN EVERS: Amerli is in Salahuddin, which is north of Baghdad. It’s the same province that Tikrit is in. And the town itself is kind of the northeast of the province. So, ISIS had been laying siege to this town for two months. The ground forces alone were unable to route ISIS from the town, but then, after the U.S. airstrikes on August 31st, they cleared ISIS from the town, then proceeded to spread out throughout Salahuddin province and neighboring Kirkuk province, and attacked the Sunni villages in those provinces. So they essentially laid siege to all of the Sunni villages in a pretty broad area, set homes on fire, looted them, in some cases destroyed them with explosives and earth-moving equipment.

We used satellite imagery. We were on the ground, obviously, and saw some of the destruction with our own eyes, spoke to about 30 persons who were displaced as a result of—as a result of this clearing operation. And then we used satellite imagery in order to determine that the damage that we saw was in fact caused by militias and not in the course of fighting or by ISIS. So we had determined the timeline, essentially, of when what we saw happened, so that we could be clear that those areas were under the control of militias and not under the control of ISIS or not, you know—not engaging in battle at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are the militias doing this? And what is their relationship to the Iraqi army?

ERIN EVERS: So, the militias are not under any formal chain of command. They are leading the fight against ISIS, and they are responsible, essentially, to themselves.

Why they’re doing this, I think, is really anybody’s guess. But from statements that—you know, statements that we’ve heard from militia leaders and from what people on the ground have told us that militia—you know, militia fighters were saying to them when they were on the ground, it seems like they were essentially trying to clear the area of Sunnis.

And after this campaign, several months afterwards, in January, the same militias went through Diyala province, which is a province neighboring Iran, and essentially carried out the same kinds of operations, except at an even more extreme kind of level. So, whereas in this report we documented militias kidnapping people and torturing people, in Diyala we documented the same militias carrying out summary executions of Sunni civilians and even a large massacre of 72 civilians in one town in Diyala in the course of their fighting.

AARON MATÉ: Is there any evidence they’ve been doing this with U.S. weapons?

ERIN EVERS: We’ve seen them with U.S. weapons. We don’t know exactly how they’ve gotten their hands on these weapons, you know, so there’s a lot of speculation as to how they’re getting the weapons. Some people say that they’re getting them through the Iraqi army, which is the official recipient of the weapons. And other people—you know, other people are saying that they’re getting them from ISIS, which obviously is also getting the weapons in the course of their fight on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read to you a quote from the former CIA director, David Petraeus, former—he’s also a general. He told The Washington Post, quote, “I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by—and some guided by—Iran,” Petraeus said. He went on to say, quote, “Longer term, Iranian-backed Shia militia could emerge as the preeminent power in the country, one that is outside the control of the government and instead answerable to Tehran.” Your response to this, Erin?

ERIN EVERS: I think, unfortunately, that that’s a correct evaluation of where Iraq is headed. So even though, you know, in Iraq right now we have a new government with a reformist prime minister, and his allies are also, you know, definitely keen to rein in these militias, to undo some of the kind of very abusive legislation and practices that the former prime minister put in place, unfortunately, the power on the ground that is the strongest right now is the militias, and they are not answerable to the government. There is no accountability for any of the abuses that we’ve documented on the part of militias. And this is going back even before—you know, even before Mosul fell, the militias were gaining power within the security forces. Once Mosul fell, that relationship flipped, and the militias became the leading force on the ground, and the security forces are kind of following behind.

AARON MATÉ: On the issue of U.S. weapons, there are arms control laws. What has been the White House response about these atrocities potentially enabled with U.S. weaponry?

ERIN EVERS: The White House has not specifically addressed the issue of militias getting their hands on U.S. weaponry. But they have, in recent weeks, kind of ratcheted up their language. They’re voicing concern about militia abuses, about the possibility of militias being sectarian—which obviously is a foregone conclusion. So, I think that it’s something that the U.S. is seriously considering. But they haven’t—they haven’t publicly addressed specifically the issue of militias getting their hands on weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the Iraqi security forces. A report by ABC News revealed U.S.-trained and -armed Iraqi military units are under investigation for committing war crimes. This is an except of ABC’s report by Brian Ross.

BRIAN ROSS: Innocent civilians massacred, prisoners tortured, acts that shock the civilized world—all discovered by ABC News online, not from the usual ISIS accounts, but on social media sites connected to elite units of the Iraqi army, the very forces the U.S. is counting on to help stop such atrocities.

Here, a group of men in Iraqi army uniforms give a sign of approval after a civilian is beheaded behind them. In this video, a young boy, a suspected ISIS recruit, is about to be executed, shot dead in the street with men in what appear to be Iraqi uniforms crowding around the scene. This appears to be an insignia of the Iraqi special forces. There are dozens of such videos and still images now being investigated by U.S. and Iraqi authorities to determine if they are in fact part of the Iraqi army, like these men with a severed head or these men dragging the body of a captured prisoner. In this video, what appears to be two unarmed Iraqi civilians are about to be murdered, like the others already dead next to them. This video, slowed down, shows militia fighters with U.S.-supplied weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of an ABC report by Brian Ross. Erin Evers, you reviewed all of this footage for them?

ERIN EVERS: Yes, I did. You know, the sad thing about all this footage is that it’s essentially visual documentation of abuses that we, other organizations and the media have been documenting for years on the part of Iraqi security forces, and that successive U.S. and Iraqi governments have turned a blind eye to. So, the kinds of abuses that we saw in that report, these atrocious—you know, absolutely atrocious acts of no accountability whatsoever, is something that the U.S. government has known about for a long time and just failed to do anything about.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s their response to you, Human Rights Watch?

ERIN EVERS: You know, their response to the report was that they have actually withheld aid from specific groups who they knew were committing these abuses before. That’s the first time that I ever heard about the U.S. actually withholding aid from abusive groups. That’s, of course, their obligation under the Leahy Law, which prohibits the U.S. from providing weapons to human rights-abusing forces. But they have never responded directly to us in terms of the allegations, you know, the kind of documentation that we’ve done of these kinds of abuses by Iraqi security forces.

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“Inside Baghdad’s Brutal Battle Against ISIS”: In Chaos of Post-Invasion Iraq, Militias Take Hold

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