Shia militias in Iraq detained, tortured and abused far more Sunni civilians during the American-backed capture of the town of Falluja in June than US 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 US efforts to restrict the militias’ role in the operation, including threatening to withdraw American air support, according to US and Iraqi officials.
The US efforts had little effect. Shia 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 State.
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 Western diplomats.
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 Shia majority and Sunni minority, which was unleashed by the 2003 US-led invasion. The war ended decades of Sunni rule under Saddam Hussein and brought to power a series of governments dominated by Shia Islamist parties patronised 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 Shia 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 2014.
US 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, US 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 US 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, Governor Sohaib al-Rawi of Anbar Province informed the US ambassador that hundreds of people detained by Shia 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.”
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 Shia militias, trained and armed by Tehran, emerged during the 2003-2011 US 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 Shia militias whose members receive government salaries. The major groups have government posts and parliament seats.
Their might has also been enhanced by some of the more than $20bn 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 US officials, independent experts and pictures and videos militia members have posted on the internet.
Collectively, the Shia militias are known as the Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation 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.
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 Shia 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 Governor al-Rawi of Anbar Province and a Western diplomat who monitored the offensive. Women and children were freed.
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.
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. Shia militiamen seeking vengeance against Islamic State rounded up Sunnis on June 3 from the town of Saqlawiya, according to witnesses interviewed by Reuters, UN 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 later.
“When we arrived there, we discovered they were the Hashid,” the Shia militias, the witness said.
UN 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 Shia paramilitaries, Kataib Hezbollah was organised 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 IS is depending on,” said Kataib spokesman Jaafar al-Husseini. “They are trying to keep us far from the operations of Anbar and Mosul.”
A piece of the action
Today, the Shia militias are clamouring to join the Mosul offensive, fired by zeal, a desire for revenge and hopes of burnishing their political standing within their sect.
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 US international terrorist list.
US 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 offensive.