Iraq: Ethnic Fighting Endangers Civilians

Baghdad, Iraq (HRW) – Kurdish and Shia Turkmen armed groups have repeatedly harmed and endangered civilians in clashes in Iraq’s Tuz Khurmatu district, in Salah al-Din province, since October 2015. The armed groups have killed, wounded, and abducted civilians and destroyed scores, if not hundreds, of homes and shops.

“Some of those involved in the conflict in Tuz Khurmatu appear to be targeting civilians on the basis of their ethnicity,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “They have been carrying out killings, abductions, and widespread property destruction with complete impunity.”

In researching the events in Tuz Khurmatu, Human Rights Watch spoke via telephone with the mayor of the town, a leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces there, a Kurdish political party official, and in person with an Arab community leader and a local lawyer. Human Rights Watch also spoke in person and via telephone with 13 witnesses to the violence.

After a car bomb explosion killed at least two civilians and wounded several more in Tuz Khurmatu, 80 kilometers south of Kirkuk, on October 22, 2015, Shia Turkmen fighters from the Iraqi government-backed Popular Mobilization Forces and arbitrarily detained at least 150 Sunni Arab residents of the town. Although they released most within days, some who had been abducted told Human Rights Watch that they witnessed or suffered torture and that they believed between eight and 34 of those abducted were killed and another 50 were still being held.

Ethnic-based clashes dramatically escalated after the October 22 car bombing.

Following an exchange of fire between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Shia Turkmen Popular Mobilization Forces at a checkpoint on November 12, the two groups engaged in a firefight around Tuz Khurmatu General Hospital. At least three people died, including a doctor, according to three witnesses who spoke with Human Rights Watch. One witness and some residents who appeared to be well-informed about the incident said the civilian death toll may have been higher. Following the clash, Kurdish and Turkmen armed groups supported on each side by armed local residents from their respective ethnic communities abducted members of each other’s community and looted and torched their homes, shops, and cars.

Tuz Khurmatu, with its mixed population of more than 100,000 Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs, has long been a hotspot for communal violence. There were clashes there during the Kurdish uprising in 1991, and communal violence has been routine since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The town and district of Tuz Khurmatu are among the areas disputed between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil.

Starting in September 2014, Kurdish Peshmerga and Asayish (Kurdish political police), together with the Popular Mobilization Forces, drove the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) from areas of Sulaiman Bek and Amerli, just south of Tuz Khurmatu. Primarily Shia militias then looted, burned, and destroyed many of the surrounding Arab Sunni villages, while Peshmerga established control over Tuz Khurmatu. Fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, composed of members of the Badr Brigades under Atif al-Najjar, League of the Righteous forces under Shaikh Ali, and Hizbollah Battalions under Ahmad Chayirli, moved freely inside the town and into adjacent southwestern areas, several residents said.

An Arab lawyer and three Arab villagers who had relocated to Tuz Khurmatu after ISIS took over their villages in mid-2014 told Human Rights Watch that the recent upsurge in violence and detentions followed more than a year of sporadic abductions of Sunni Arabs by the Popular Mobilization Forces in the areas around Tuz Khurmatu, Sulaiman Bek, and Amerli.

Willful killing of captured fighters and detained civilians; torture and other ill-treatment of people in custody; and looting and unjustified destruction of civilian property are serious violations of international humanitarian law, which is applicable to all parties fighting in Iraq.

On April 7, 2015, the Iraqi cabinet formally included the Popular Mobilization Forces among the state forces under the command of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as commander-in-chief. In doing so, the government has legitimized these forces as a matter of law and became responsible for their actions.

The mayor of Tuz Khurmatu, Shelal Abdul, told Human Rights Watch that no investigations had taken place and no one had been held to account for the recent killings and abductions in Tuz Khurmatu.

Human Rights Watch reiterates its recommendation that the Iraqi government take immediate steps to establish effective command and control over the Popular Mobilization Forces and other pro-government militias and disband those that resist government control. The government should also ensure that militia members implicated in violations of international human rights and humanitarian law are fairly and appropriately disciplined or prosecuted. This includes military and civilian officials responsible for abuses as a matter of command responsibility.

“In Tuz Khurmatu, a spark is enough to ignite sprees of abduction, killing, and destruction against ethnic communities,” Stork said. “Local authorities should take an important first step to prevent mass abuses by bringing those most responsible for serious abuses on all sides to justice.”

Shooting at Tuz Khurmatu General Hospital on November 12, 2015

On the morning of November 12, Kurdish Peshmerga forces on the Tuz Khurmatu peripheral road stopped a convoy of several cars transporting Shia Turkmen fighters of the Popular Mobilization Forces and possibly some detainees. A gunfight ensued in which at least one fighter of the Popular Mobilization Forces was wounded, according to three secondhand accounts Tuz Khurmatu residents gave Human Rights Watch. Several unverified accounts indicate that at least one Peshmerga and between three and five fighters of the Popular Mobilization Forces died.

Popular Mobilization Forces include several militias, such as the Badr Brigades, Hizbollah Battalions, and League of the Righteous forces.

Popular Mobilization Forces fighters brought their wounded comrade to the Tuz Khurmatu General Hospital. Two hospital staff present said that for about half an hour medical staff treated the man, who they said appeared to be in his early 20s and was wearing a military uniform, for gunshot wounds to the leg and stomach, and then transferred him to an ambulance for further treatment at a hospital in Kirkuk.

The staff members said fighters of the Popular Mobilization Forces, perhaps mistakenly believing the hospital was denying treatment, opened fire at the hospital. Badr Brigades forces at a checkpoint several hundred meters away fired at the ambulance, one staff member said. The nurses and driver took shelter inside the hospital, but the patient died, possibly in the crossfire between Badr forces and Kurdish Asayish stationed inside the hospital. At least three artillery shells landed in the hospital parking lot, destroying or damaging 11 cars belonging to staff.

Tuz Khurmatu Mayor Shelal Abdul said that the city council had ordered the Asayish three years earlier to protect the hospital. Eight Asayish were there that morning, the two staff members said. Four went to the roof of the two-story hospital, which came under gunfire from apartments and the ground in higher surrounding buildings. The Asayish on the hospital roof returned fire. Peshmerga reinforcements arrived at an electricity station across the street and shot at both the hospital and surrounding buildings, a third witness said.

Staff members said that the hospital’s 150 to 200 staff and patients then gathered on the ground floor and that at about 5 p.m. fighters, presumably Asayish, escorted them outside in groups of 30. A staff member said that after an apparent truce, fighters of the Popular Mobilization Forces entered the hospital and continued to lead staff and patients outside to safety.

A staff member said he was among the last to leave, with Dr. Abd al-Khaliq Abd al-Karim, a Kurdish former director of the hospital who still practiced as a surgeon and internal medicine specialist. A Popular Mobilization Forces leader asked Dr. Abd al-Karim to come back as he “wasn’t finished with him.” Dr. Abd al-Karim’s body was found 20 meters from the hospital later that night, the mayor said. Pictures of the doctor’s body reviewed by Human Rights Watch showed an apparent bullet wound in the middle of his forehead and damage to his nose and mouth.

Two witnesses separately said that one Asayish officer was killed by a bullet to the eye, and that one visitor escorting a patient on the upper floor had also died from gunfire.

Burning of Kurdish and Turkmen Shops, November 12 and 13, 2015

On the evening of November 12, Peshmerga and other Kurdish armed men and Popular Mobilization Forces and other Shia Turkmen armed men entered each other’s neighborhoods and burned down houses and shops, numerous Tuz Khurmatu residents told Human Rights Watch.

The mayor said that “both sides behaved irresponsibly, burning shops and houses and thereafter taking people hostage.” A senior official of the Kurdistan Patriotic Union, the dominant Kurdish party in Tuz Khurmatu, acknowledged that Kurds destroyed Turkmen shops, and that Turkmen had destroyed Kurdish houses and shops. An Arab resident said he counted at least 50 burned Kurdish shops in the commercial street leading up to the Qaisariyyat market area. He said he saw Turkmen militia break into and burn down the house of his Kurdish neighbor, who was away at the time.

Fighters with the Popular Mobilization Forces and other armed Turkmen burned Kurdish shops in one of the main market areas of the city. At least 50 buildings belonging to Kurds, mainly shops, were destroyed, according to a witness who visited the area. One media account also described the burning of Kurdish shops and houses. A journalist separately told Human Rights Watch about the arson attacks.

On November 12 and 13, armed Kurdish men, some of whom wore Peshmerga uniform and arrived in Peshmerga vehicles, and at least one man with the logo of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on his uniform, looted and burned at least 80 Turkmen houses and shops, several Turkmen residents said. Other witnesses put the total number of shops and houses burned on both sides at more than 400.

A young Turkmen said that on the night of November 12, “armed men in green military uniforms came to my house. One of their uniforms had the PKK insignia. They slapped us around and then stole things from our house. Outside, they set our car on fire.”

A Turkmen resident in his late 40s said that more than a dozen armed men – some in Kurdish traditional clothes, some in Peshmerga uniforms – came to his house that night demanding a key to the roof. He refused and left with his family. When he returned the next afternoon, he said, his house had been burned down, including the loss of expensive photography equipment. He saw seven armed men looting and burning down his neighbor’s house.

Another young Turkmen said that at noon on November 13, Kurdish-speaking men with rifles came to his house. They “looted it, then burned it completely. I lost all my documents and clothing, even my marriage certificate.” One Turkmen said Kurdish mobs destroyed his house and his son’s house and shop in the town in the early morning of November 13.

Another Turkmen resident, Ibrahim (pseudonym), said that in mid-morning on November 13, after he heard heavy gunfire outside, he took his four young daughters and sons to safety in an inner room of his apartment. When he looked outside, he said he saw about 50 Kurdish-speaking men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and dressed in distinctive Kurdish pants. Behind them were two Humvee military vehicles with the Kurdish flag displayed and men in Peshmerga uniforms inside. The Kurdish men went from house to house burning Shia religious banners, Ibrahim said. He escaped with his family. That afternoon, a neighbor called to say that three homes on the street had been burned down – his own, Ibrahim’s, and the home of a third neighbor.

Abductions and Mass Arrests of Kurds and Shia Turkmen after November 12, 2015

Kurdish and Turkmen armed groups have abducted residents of each other’s community. An Arab community leader said that on November 12 and 13, armed Turkmen arbitrarily arrested 56 Kurds and Arabs, most “from the workshops at the Shai water canal and from inside Tuz.” The mayor said that Turkmen fighters with the Popular Mobilization Forces took a policeman and two guards from the hospital, but released them later. He also said that armed men on both sides kidnapped people from the city.

A Turkmen resident said:

At 2:30 p.m. on Friday [November 13], I saw around seven armed men come in two Land Cruisers and start shooting at our neighbor’s house. They ransacked it and took the father even as his daughter threw herself to the ground in front of them begging them not to. I did not see who they were exactly but heard them yelling in Kurdish.

A resident in his late 40s said that the wife of his friend Jawdat Zain al-‘Abidin Abbas, an Arabic teacher, told him that on November 12, three men in camouflage uniforms speaking Kurdish entered their house, fired some shots into the walls, and took Abbas away. They then burned down that house and eight others. Abbas’s neighbor confirmed this account and said that as of January 7, Abbas remained missing.

The mayor, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan official, and the friend of Abbas all said that of the several dozen people abducted by both sides, three Kurds and Abbas had not been released. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan official said the missing Kurds had been abducted driving on the road to Tuz, not inside the city. The Kurds and the Turkmen remained missing as of January 7, 2016.

Arbitrary Arrests, Killings, Extortion, and Torture of Arabs After October 22, 2015

Turkmen Popular Mobilization Forces were responsible for a new wave of arbitrary arrests of Arab residents in late October. On October 22 – the day before the Shia Muslim Ashura processions, which commemorate the martyrdom in 680 C.E. of Imam Husain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad – Shia Turkmen residents of Tuz Khurmatu had erected traditional mourning tents in the streets to accommodate large crowds.

Shortly after noon on October 22, there was an explosion. A policeman told an Arab community leader that within minutes he saw several pickup trucks full of fighters of the Popular Mobilization Forces drive in various directions into Arab neighborhoods.

News reports quoted Mayor Abdul, who said that the explosion killed three people and wounded 36. Three residents told Human Rights Watch that two people died, a Kurd and an Arab, and 18 were injured when an explosive-laden car blew up about 20 meters from the Sunni Martyrs Mosque.

Several residents gave widely varying numbers of initial arrests by Popular Mobilization Forces of Sunni Arabs, but all said it was over 150 and probably several hundred. Mayor Abdul said that large numbers of Sunni Arabs had been arrested and that 40 remained unaccounted for as of early December. Muhammad Mahdi al-Bayati, a Turkmen leader of the Badr Brigades within the Popular Mobilization Forces, said that his forces had detained only 16 Arabs and had handed them over to the police as they had outstanding arrest warrants. He said he did not know their current whereabouts. An Arab lawyer from Tuz who keeps a list of arbitrarily arrested people said on November 25 that the whereabouts of 54 Arabs taken by Popular Mobilization Forces remained unknown. Six had been released over the previous week.

One of those released described his abduction. He said he and another person were held in a village between Tuz Khurmatu and Amerli for over three weeks in one of the few remaining structures standing. They were continuously shackled, had no access to a toilet, and were kept on a starvation diet. His captors regularly beat him, he said.

One Arab resident of Tuz said that in the days after the October 22 bombing, two Toyota pickup trucks with logos of the Badr Brigades came to his street and targeted two Sunni homes, arresting Amir Muhammad Isma’il, 26, a student, and his brothers in one home. He said he heard that four men were taken from the other house:

After a day or two, two of the brothers from the Isma’il house were released. They packed their things and left immediately. The next day, two bodies of the people taken from our street in the Industrial Neighborhood [Hayy al-Sina’i] were found in the street, dead. The police took them to hospital. My relative, who works there, said he heard that they died from gunshot wounds. The family came back briefly from Kirkuk to identify them.

Another person found dead the day after the explosion was Ghazi Nasir al-Din, in his 40s, a former policeman. I saw people gathered over a body in a public park saying he was shot dead. I have relatives who are policemen and they said they later learned it was Ghazi.

He said that a day or two after the explosion, he saw about 50 Sunni Arabs being released. But he said that a Turkmen neighbor, whose son is in the Popular Mobilization Forces, told him that others remain detained, and that some have been moved to Camp Ashraf, close to Baghdad.

One released detainee said that fighters of the Popular Mobilization Forces held him for two days, with many others either in Tuz Khurmatu or close by. Another Arab resident released shortly after Popular Mobilization Forces abducted him on October 22 said:

Militias came to my house and took me and my brothers and drove to a three-story building not very far away. I heard screams from other parts of the building and a gunshot. Militiamen insulted and beat me. They released me and my brothers on the morning of October 24 and we packed and left Tuz immediately.

The Tuz lawyer who kept a list of those allegedly abducted said that 24 Arabs were found dead inside Tuz, most from gunshots, and their bodies dumped in garbage sites. Mayor Abdul said that eight bodies were found of people killed in the town and its outskirts. Al-Bayati, the militia leader, did not acknowledge any deaths.

One person said fighters with the Popular Mobilization Forces extorted money from his family in return for his freedom. After being held for more than 25 days and beaten with steel pipes, he said, he was freed only after his family and tribe members paid tens of thousands of dollars. The Arab lawyer and community leader said family members of several of the approximately 50 people arrested had received ransom demands, and that there had been other cases of ransom demands from Popular Mobilization Forces before the October 22 explosion.

An Arab Sunni journalist from Tuz Khurmatu said fighters of the Popular Mobilization Forces tried to arrest him on November 2, about 10 days after the bombing and the mass arrests:

I was in my sister’s house in the Military Neighborhood with a friend. Around 10 a.m., a Toyota pickup came with six men dressed in black fatigues with Kalashnikovs and pistols in the back and others in the cab. They went into my house next door and beat my father and female relatives, asking for me by name. Then they came to my sister’s house. I escaped to the roof, and out the back of my neighbor’s house.

He said that when he returned his family told him that Popular Mobilization Forces had arrested his cousin Ahmed, 17. The Popular Mobilization Forces eventually released Ahmed, who told the journalist that they held him for hours, beat him viciously, and threatened to kill him unless the journalist turned himself in. The journalist left for Kirkuk the same day. He said he was wanted because he had previously worked for pro-Sunni Arab media.

The mass arrests, killings, and torture prompted many Arab families to leave Tuz Khurmatu, with most heading toward Kirkuk. The community leader said about 3,000 families had left and that only about 80 Arab families remained in the town.

Abductions of Arabs in 2014 and 2015

Although the mass arrests and killings following the October 22 bombing were on an unprecedented scale in Tuz Khurmatu, the Tuz lawyer showed Human Rights Watch a list of 408 Arabs from the town whom he said had been killed and another 145 Arabs, including a 9-year-old child, who had been abducted or arbitrarily arrested between September 2014 and October 2015 and remained missing. Human Rights Watch cannot confirm these cases.

Image Source: Kurdishstruggle, Flickr, Creative Commons Kurdish YPG Fighters

Image Source: Kurdishstruggle, Flickr, Creative Commons
Kurdish YPG Fighters

One of those disappeared is Zain al-Abidin Hasan al-Bayati, the Tuz director of the Interior Ministry’s Nationality Department, which issues identification documents. The lawyer said that on November 20, 2014, al-Bayati drove from Tuz to Dujail, just north of Baghdad, where the Nationality Department of Salah al-Din province had relocated after ISIS forces captured Tikrit, the provincial capital. The lawyer said that al-Bayati needed new blank ID cards and nationality certificates. He returned, accompanied by Hawwas Hailan (حواص هيلان) from the department and two policemen, with the cards and certificates, but fighters with the Popular Mobilization Forces at a checkpoint near Amerli did not allow him to pass. He called the lawyer from there and again three days later saying the fighters had taken them all into Amerli. That was the last the family heard of him or the others who were with him.

Another Arab resident of Tuz said he had fled to Kirkuk in late June 2014 after men claiming to belong to the Popular Mobilization Forces threatened him over the phone, saying “there is no place for Sunni Arabs in Tuz.” He said that he continued commuting from Kirkuk to Tuz for work for a while, but gave that up after receiving more threats.

The journalist who escaped the Popular Mobilization Forces on November 2 said that in the spring of 2015, unidentified people abducted his cousin driving from Sulaiman Bek, which is under the control of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and took him to an area around Amerli. Two or three days later, the journalist said, a caller asked the cousin’s father for US$30,000. They agreed on $20,000 and set up a meeting point on the road to Amerli and handed the money to a man waiting there. This man then told them to wait for three hours and not move, as they would be under surveillance, but the man disappeared and switched off his phone and they never heard from him again. The abducted cousin’s father confirmed to Human Rights Watch that his son remained missing.

No Accountability for Killings and Other Abuses

Human Rights Watch is unaware that any members of armed groups or others implicated in apparently ethnic offenses have been brought to justice.

The case of Muhammad Murshid Shakur, 42, an Arab irrigation engineer, exemplifies the widespread impunity. A relative of Shakur told Human Rights Watch that when ISIS came, their family fled their village, Al-Bu Hasan, between Tuz Khurmatu and Amerli. They went to Tuz, but had to leave for Kirkuk when fighters with the Popular Mobilization Forces threatened them. Shakur continued to commute to Tuz for work, he said, but requested leave at the beginning of 2015 because he no longer felt safe. A brother, a policeman, has been detained in Kirkuk without charge or trial since January 14, after the Popular Mobilization Forces accused him of sympathizing with ISIS.

Shakur returned to Tuz on March 15, in response to a request from his boss. On March 16, he called his son and reported that four masked men in a vehicle without a license plate were following him, the relative said. When the men tried to grab Shakur after he parked his car, he struggled with them and ran inside his office compound, according to police records. The armed masked men chased Shakur and after they cornered him, shot him dead. Four armed Facilities Protection Services guards in the vicinity were unable to stop the killing, the police report said. Although a Tuz Khurmatu judge ordered “the police to exert efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice” for the murder, no witness, not even the Facilities Protection Service guards, testified, and the police had not even interviewed them.

A local journalist told Human Rights Watch about another typical case of impunity. On October 18, at about 3:30 p.m., two young men riding on a motorcycle fatally shot Sa’d Abdullah, 25, in his car while he was driving in the Imam Ahmad neighborhood. The journalist arrived on the scene 30 minutes after the killing occurred and heard the account from witnesses. By the time he arrived, Abdullah was dead, with three bullet wounds in the left cheek, neck, and arm. The journalist told Human Rights Watch: “There was no investigation. No one took credit for the killing, and unlike me as a journalist I can think of no reason he was targeted other than being Sunni.”

Regarding the mass arrests after October 22 and the killings and burning after November 12, Mayor Abdul said that “investigating and holding people accountable is very difficult right now.”