Human Rights Watch saw Shia armed forces allied with the Iraqi government commit horrific abuses against the Sunni civilian population during the operation to retake Fallujah back in May. We didn’t want it to happen again in Mosul.
As a result, Human Rights Watch pressed the Iraqi government to keep the abusive units within the Popular Mobilization Forces, also known as Hashd al-Sha’abi, out of the Mosul operation. Diplomats I spoke with at the time said that letting these militia participate could be the biggest risk to the Sunni Arab civilians of Mosul as they fled the fighting against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).
In an attempt to curb the abuses while still relying on the fighting forces, the Iraqi government, with strong U.S. support, took steps to bring the Popular Mobilization Forces under Iraqi central command. They also started integrating Sunni units into the Popular Mobilization Forces.
The authorities miscalculated, however. It turned out that integrating Sunni units into the Popular Mobilization Forces, so that fighters would represent the same sectarian background as the civilians inside Mosul, was not in and of itself a safeguard against abuse.
We have documented several incidents of abuse by Sunni forces within the Popular Mobilization Forces since the fight against ISIS in Mosul began, including unlawful detention, ill-treatment and torture of civilians, executions, and the use of child soldiers.
In late October, the Hashad al-Asha’ri Fares al-Sabawy militia detained and beat at least 22 men from two villages near Mosul. We have found that the unit, and another called the Hashad al-Asha’ri Farsan al-Jubour, had been recruiting child soldiers from a camp for internally displaced people since the spring. In late November, Farsan al-Jubour, a militia made up of Sunni fighters, also summarily executed at least four men they suspected of affiliation with ISIS, without any judicial proceeding.
We even documented one incident of a Shabak unit within the Popular Mobilization Forces unlawfully detaining at least 150 families overnight.
We know that the U.S. government is training some of the Shia and Sunni Popular Mobilization Forces, though we don’t know if the groups we found to have committed these abuses benefited from this training.
The lesson from the last months of fighting in Iraq is clear: Simply including Sunni fighters in militias is no guarantee that they will suddenly perform like well-trained military units with clear command and control structures, accountability processes for abuses, with the interests of the Iraqi people at heart. Absent accountability for abuses committed by these armed forces, we can expect these abuses to continue.
Similarly, just integrating groups into the official Iraqi state forces is not a cure-all for abusive groups.
In February, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued Order 91, officially incorporating the Popular Mobilization Forces as an “independent military formation” within Iraq’s security forces. On November 26, Iraq’s parliament passed a law formalizing the decision. Military analysts in Washington and Baghdad are split on whether this integration will prove beneficial to Iraq. They first believe that this step represents an important way for Abadi to bring some order to Iraq’s security structures by establishing limits to their powers. Others think that this will increase sectarianism in the armed forces, or worse still, will allow the Popular Mobilization Forces to carry out abuses in the name of the Iraqi government with increased power and impunity.
If the past is any guide, however, what is clear is that if Abadi’s government is unwilling to investigate allegations of abuse by Popular Mobilization Forces or other forces including the Iraqi Security Forces and hold the abusers responsible, any plans of bringing Shia, Sunni and other minority forces in line may fail miserably. So far we have not seen the results of a single government investigation.
Meanwhile, senior U.S. military commanders — like Brig. Gen. Rick Uribe and Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend — say they are so far impressed with the behavior of the Iraqi forces.
But if the U.S. government wants to continue to support the Iraqi military and to train these groups, it should be leaning hard on Baghdad to investigate the growing list of abuse allegations and to bring to justice those it finds responsible for any wrongdoing.