Special Report: Massacre reports show
U.S. inability to curb Iraq militias
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[August 24, 2016]
By Ned Parker and Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON(Reuters) - Shi’ite militias in
Iraq detained, tortured and abused far more Sunni civilians during the
American-backed capture of the town of Falluja in June than U.S.
officials have publicly acknowledged, Reuters has found.
More than 700 Sunni men and boys are still missing more than two months
after the Islamic State stronghold fell. The abuses occurred despite
U.S. efforts to restrict the militias' role in the operation, including
threatening to withdraw American air support, according to U.S. and
The U.S. efforts had little effect. Shi’ite militias did not pull back
from Falluja, participated in looting there and now vow to defy any
American effort to limit their role in coming operations against Islamic
All told, militia fighters killed at least 66 Sunni males and abused at
least 1,500 others fleeing the Falluja area, according to interviews
with more than 20 survivors, tribal leaders, Iraqi politicians and
They said men were shot, beaten with rubber hoses and in several cases
beheaded. Their accounts were supported by a Reuters review of an
investigation by local Iraqi authorities and video testimony and
photographs of survivors taken immediately after their release.
The battle against Islamic State is the latest chapter in the conflict
between Iraq's Shi’ite majority and Sunni minority, which was unleashed
by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The war ended decades of Sunni rule under
Saddam Hussein and brought to power a series of governments dominated by
Shi’ite Islamist parties patronized by Iran.
Washington’s inability to restrain the sectarian violence is now a
central concern for Obama administration officials as they move ahead
with plans to help Iraqi forces retake the much larger city of Mosul,
Islamic State’s Iraqi capital. Preliminary operations to clear areas
outside the strategic city have been under way for months. Sunni leaders
in Iraq and Western diplomats fear the Shi’ite militias might commit
worse excesses in Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. Islamic
State, the Sunni extremist group, seized the majority-Sunni city in June
U.S. officials say they fear a repeat of the militia abuses in Mosul
could erase any chances of reconciling Iraq’s Sunni and Shia
communities. "Virtually every conversation that we have had internally
with respect to planning for Mosul - and virtually every conversation
that we’ve had with the Iraqis - has this as a central topic," said a
senior Obama Administration official.
In public, as reports of the abuses in Falluja emerged from survivors,
Iraqi officials and human rights groups, U.S. officials in Washington
initially played down the scope of the problem and did not disclose the
failed American effort to rein in the militias.
Brett McGurk, the special U.S. envoy for the American-led campaign
against Islamic State, expressed concern to reporters at a June 10th
White House briefing for reporters about what he called “reports of
isolated atrocities” against fleeing Sunnis.
Three days before the briefing, Gov. Sohaib al-Rawi of Anbar Province
informed the U.S. ambassador that hundreds of people detained by Shi’ite
militias had gone missing around Falluja, the governor told Reuters. By
the time of the White House briefing, Iraqi officials, human rights
investigators and the United Nations had collected evidence of scores of
executions, the torture of hundreds of men and teenagers, and the
disappearance of more than 700 others.
Nearly three weeks later, on June 28, McGurk struck a measured tone
during testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said
reports of abuses had been received in the early days of the operation,
“many of which have turned out not to be credible but some of which
appear to be credible.”
McGurk declined a request for an interview. Mark Toner, the State
Department’s deputy spokesperson, said American officials had expressed
“concern both publicly and privately” about reported atrocities. “We
find any abuse totally unacceptable,” Toner said, and “any violation of
human rights should be investigated with those responsible held
Militia leaders deny that their groups mistreated civilians. They say
the missing men were Islamic State militants killed in battle.
Iraqi government officials also challenged the reports of widespread
violence against civilians. In an interview, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider
Al Abadi’s deputy national security adviser, Safa al-Sheikh, said there
were a few incidents, but added: “There are a lot of exaggerations, and
some of the reports didn’t have any basis.”
Iraq’s main Shi’ite militias, trained and armed by Tehran, emerged
during the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation and have grown in power and
stature. After helping the government defend Baghdad when Islamic State
seized Mosul in 2014, the militias became arms of the Iraqi government.
Islamic State has slaughtered thousands of Iraqis, of all faiths.
There now are more than 30 Shi’ite militias whose members receive
government salaries. The major groups have government posts and
Their might has also been enhanced by some of the more than $20 billion
in military hardware the United States has sold or given to Iraq since
2005. Their weaponry includes armored personnel carriers, trucks,
Humvees, artillery and even tanks, according to U.S. officials,
independent experts and pictures and videos militia members have posted
on the internet.
Collectively, the Shi’ite militias are known as the Hashid Shaabi, or
Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The militias officially answer to
Abadi. In reality, the main groups answer only to themselves, display
their own flags and emblems, and are advised by the Quds Force - Iran’s
elite foreign paramilitary and intelligence service.
The Falluja offensive began on May 22. For more than a year, American
officials had warned Iraqi officials repeatedly that the United States
would suspend air support in areas where militias were operating outside
the Iraqi military’s formal chain of command. The policy was designed to
prevent American planes from inadvertently bombing Iraqi forces and to
restrain militias from entering areas considered sensitive to Sunnis,
according to U.S. officials.
In the first two days of the Falluja offensive, reports emerged of
militiamen separating males from fleeing families. American, Western and
U.N. diplomats pressured Abadi, other top Iraqi officials and militia
leaders to stop the abuses.
Abadi and other political leaders publicly called for protection of
"DON'T BE TREACHEROUS"
The Americans' influence was hindered by the fact they had no forces in
Falluja and couldn’t observe specific abuses, according to the Western
diplomat who tracked the campaign.
On May 26, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading Shi’ite cleric, pleaded
with combatants to protect civilians. Aid agencies estimated at the time
that as many as 100,000 people remained inside Falluja.
“Don't be extreme ... don't be treacherous. Don't kill an old man, nor a
boy, nor a woman. Don't cut a tree unless you have to,” Sistani said,
citing sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.
Sistani’s pleas and the American threats fell on deaf ears.
The first known instance of systematic abuse by the militias in the
Falluja offensive occurred May 27 northeast of the city, in the farming
region of Sejar. Militiamen and security forces stopped a group of
fleeing Sunnis, pulled aside somewhere between 73 and 95 males aged 15
and older and took them away, according to Gov. al-Rawi of Anbar
Province and a Western diplomat who monitored the offensive. Women and
children were freed.
“We are still in contact with women and children who were handed to
government people,” said the Western diplomat. “They still don’t know
where the men are.”
On May 29, militiamen just west of the farming areas of Sejar, separated
20 men from a group of fleeing Sunnis and “started killing them,” said
the Western diplomat. “The police arrived when there were three left
alive. The police took the three and dumped them” in a camp east of
Falluja for people displaced by the civil war.
Terrified that the militias would storm the camp and kill them, the trio
arranged protection for themselves in Baghdad, the diplomat said. Gov.
al-Rawi confirmed this account.
[to top of second column]
An Iraqi Shi'ite fighter fires artillery during clashes with Islamic
State militants near Falluja, Iraq, May 29, 2016. REUTERS/Staff/File
A Sunni academic said he spoke to three survivors of the alleged
massacre, two brothers and their cousin. The men said the killings
occurred during fighting between Iraqi federal police forces and
Islamic State, according to the academic.
The three survivors told the academic that they were among some 50
people who had sought shelter in a house when they saw federal
police raise the Iraqi flag at a nearby school. The group waved
white cloths and was directed to leave the house by the police.
When the group emerged, the three said, the police separated the men
from their families. One officer then opened fire and killed 17 men,
the academic quoted the survivors as saying, adding that the three
were spared when another officer intervened. The shooter was
arrested, according to the Anbar governor.
Worse was to come. Shi’ite militiamen seeking vengeance against
Islamic State rounded up Sunnis on June 3 from the town of
Saqlawiya, according to witnesses interviewed by Reuters, U.N.
workers, Iraqi officials and Human Rights Watch.
According to these accounts, more than 5,000 Sunnis, mostly members
of the al-Mohamda tribe, left Saqlawiya, a farming community five
miles northwest of Falluja. The Sunnis made their way toward what
they thought was the safety of government lines marked by Iraqi
flags. A gray-haired man described the scene in a video recorded by
local officials after he and 604 other men were freed two days
“When we arrived there, we discovered they were the Hashid,” the
Shi’ite militias, the witness said.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein, two
senior Iraqi officials, and a 69-year-old survivor interviewed by
Reuters identified the militiamen as members of Kataib Hezbollah.
One of the most powerful Shi’ite paramilitaries, Kataib Hezbollah
was organized by and retains close ties to Iran’s Quds Force. Both
are deemed to be terrorist groups by the United States.
Kataib Hezbollah denied being involved in abuses in Falluja. "They
make these claims based on accusations from politicians that ISIS is
depending on," said Kataib spokesman Jaafar al-Husseini. "They are
trying to keep us far from the operations of Anbar and Mosul."
The militiamen separated out an estimated 1,500 males aged 15 and
older and moved them in groups to different locations, including
warehouses and an Iraqi base called Camp Tariq, according to
survivors, U.N. investigators and Human Rights Watch.
"FISTS, KNIVES AND CABLES"
The survivors described being crammed into small rooms and halls and
denied food and water, straining to breathe in the stifling heat.
Militiamen using sticks, pipes and hoses beat the detainees and
declared that they were taking revenge for Camp Speicher – a June
2014 massacre by Islamic State of 1,566 Shi’ite and other non-Sunni
air force cadets.
A 32-year-old man, one of six survivors Reuters interviewed, said he
was packed into a room with dozens of other captives, his hands tied
behind his back.
“They started hitting us with their fists, knives and cables,” he
said. “When people fainted, we yelled they were going to die, and
the guards told us that’s what they wanted.”
The guards, the survivor said, told the captives they were avenging
the deaths of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers killed in fighting around
Falluja since 2014.
In a video recorded by local officials, another survivor told how
men craving water were given bottles in which to urinate and told to
drink their own waste.
A 47-year-old survivor described how he watched militiamen
repeatedly beat his 17-year-old son and carry off the corpses of 15
men who appeared to have been beaten to death. The man was one of
the 605 survivors released on June 5. His son was not among them, he
said; the boy hasn’t been seen since.
“We want to know the destiny of our sons,” the man told Reuters. “We
consider the Americans responsible for everything that has
In all, militiamen killed at least 49 men who were detained in
Saqlawiya, four of whom were beheaded, according to the U.N.'s Zeid.
The brutality ended without explanation for some 800 detainees after
two days. But 643 Saqlawiya detainees remain unaccounted for. Their
names are recorded on a list circulated by local officials to the
United Nations, Human Rights Watch and government investigators and
reviewed by Reuters.
On June 7, Sheikh Ali Hamad, a leader of the Mohamda, a Sunni tribe,
decried on television what he called “a genocidal crime” and the
deaths of “tens of our sons.”
The same day, the Anbar governor informed U.S. Ambassador Jones that
hundreds of Sunni men were missing. U.N. envoy Zeid issued a
statement citing “extremely distressing, credible reports” of abuse,
including summary executions of men and boys by militiamen.
On June 9, the day before McGurk’s White House briefing, Human
Rights Watch issued a report on the alleged atrocities in Sejar and
The regular Iraqi security forces, including the U.S.-trained
Counter-Terrorism Service, eventually established safe corridors and
guided civilians out of the city. Some 100,000 civilians escaped as
A PIECE OF THE ACTION
Today, the Shi’ite militias are clamoring to join the Mosul
offensive, fired by zeal, a desire for revenge and hopes of
burnishing their political standing within their sect.
“They will want a piece of the climactic battle,” said Kenneth
Pollock, a former CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution, a
Washington policy institute.
Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to
Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said the Obama administration has downplayed
abuses by both militia and Iraqi forces. “This administration is so
determined to be able to declare victory over ISIL (that) they don’t
really care about any of the rest of it,” said Crocker.
Over the disapproval of the Mosul provincial government, Abadi and
militia leaders have said that militias will participate in the
campaign to liberate the city.
The chief PMF administrator is Jamal Ibrahimi. Known by the nom de
guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, he is on the U.S. international
U.S. officials say Ibrahimi is the leader of Kataib Hezbollah, the
militia that Iraqi officials, Western diplomats and others hold
primarily responsible for the atrocities committed in the Falluja
Ibrahimi and the militia deny that he heads Kataib Hezbollah.
Abadi’s office has announced that a committee will investigate
allegations of rights abuses in Falluja. It is uncertain if the
inquiry will find anyone responsible beyond a handful of low-level
suspects whose arrests Abadi reported on June 13.
(Edited by David Rohde and Michael Williams)
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