What Happens When the Fighting Stops?

A new report from Human Rights Watch about Sunni-targeted attacks carried out by Shiite militias in Amerli portends badly for Tikrit.

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U.S. officials say they are concerned about potential sectarian violence in Tikrit when Shiite militias eventually dislodge the Islamic State from the Iraqi city, but for now, they are waiting and watching.

But a new report from Human Rights Watch portends badly for what could happen when the fighting stops.

The report, released today, documents abuses that were carried out last fall after an unlikely combination of U.S. warplanes, Iranian advisors, Shiite militias, and Iraqi and Kurdish government ground forces worked together to end the Islamic State’s three-month siege on the town of Amerli in eastern Iraq. The battle was hailed as a success in the long, slow battle to beat back the Islamic State in Iraq.

But after the battle ended, Shiite militias raided nearby Sunni villages, looting and burning homes and businesses, according to the report. An unknown number of men were abducted as well.

The Iraqi government disputes the report’s findings, saying the Islamic State was responsible for most of the destruction. The rest of it was caused by the “extremely violent and protracted” battle for Amerli, the government said in a March 12 letter. The Iraqi government acknowledged what it called “individual lapses,” and said those were being handled by the Iraqi judicial system.

Human Rights Watch says satellite imagery backs up the stories it collected from over 30 eyewitnesses, including Kurdish Peshmerga officers. The imagery shows the destruction was not caused by the Islamic State when it controlled the towns, but occurred once the Shiite militias moved in when the fighting was over.

Human Rights Watch identified over 3,800 destroyed buildings in 30 towns and villages, including 2,600 buildings likely destroyed by fire, and another 1,200 buildings that were either bombed after the battle or demolished with heavy machinery. Notably, the group did not find any instances of civilian killings.

Still, “the short term victory was in the long run a total disaster, and this bodes really poorly for the way the fight is being conducted in general,” said Erin Evers, Human Rights Watch’s Iraq researcher based in Baghdad.

Now these same militia commanders are leading the charge in Tikrit, far outnumbering the Iraqi security forces fighting there. Of the ground forces, 20,000 are Shiite militiamen, compared to roughly 3,500 Iraqi security forces and 1,000 Sunni tribesmen.

The battle in Tikrit is not over yet, but the Islamic State’s defeat there is widely expected. When it is, the question becomes: Will Amerli be repeated?

Evers said it’s too soon to say whether the same thing that happened in Amerli could happen in Tikrit. But, she said, “We have an incredibly damning pattern of destruction.”

For now, U.S. officials say they are concerned about the potential for reprisals by the Shiite militias but that they are waiting to see what happens next.

Human Rights Watch is urging the U.S. to do more. The group recommends the U.S. make its military assistance dependent on Baghdad taking immediate and concrete steps to end “widespread war crimes” being carried out not only by Shiite militias, but also by some Iraqi security forces.

ABC News released an investigative report last week that showed atrocities being committed by Iraqi military units who are U.S.-trained and armed. U.S. officials say the abuses have led to some Iraqi units being cut off from U.S. assistance, but have provided few details.

“The U.S. needs to have more conditions for support” — not just to distance itself from atrocities being committed, Evers said, but because “human rights abuses make for terrible counterterrorism strategy.”

She said Shiite militias “are literally getting their hands on U.S. weapons.”

Meanwhile, planning for what happens in towns where the Islamic State has been defeated is just getting started.

On Monday in Baghdad, U.S. officials and experts urged Iraqi leaders to start planning stabilization efforts.

That “will be the most important signal of the intentions of this government towards any and all Iraqis who have been victims of Daesh and those who have been driven from their homes,” said retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the U.S. special envoy charged with building the coalition against Islamic State. He was using an alternative name for the Islamic State.

“Iraq’s future as a unified nation depends upon how the liberating force treats those living under Daesh rule,” Allen said.

Satellite Image: © CNES 2015 / Distribution Airbus DS

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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