Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq to Hold Referendum

By Justin Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East 

KIRKUK, Iraq The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq has elected to hold a non-binding referendum signaling its desire to provincially separate from the central Iraqi regime. The referendum is scheduled to be put to a vote on 25 September. The independence referendum has gained its most support over the last couple of months as Iraq continues its counterterrorism-minded overtaking of provincial and regional governments. Moreover, the referendum is facing much criticism from both the central Iraqi government and the nearby Turks. The central Iraqi government view the measure as an impingement upon their regional control in northern Iraq, especially because the referendum expresses intention to reject central Iraqi control of the security forces and recruit, train and develop an exclusively Kurdish security apparatus. The Turks view the referendum as granting empowerment to the minority Kurdish political parties and forcing terrorists to seek more readily available opportunities in Turkey. The primary opposition again refers to the weakening of Turkey’s counterterrorism apparatus.

Kurdish Regional Government President, Massoud Barzani. Photo Courtesy of Reuters.

The KRG President, Massoud Bazani, has expressed the intention to move forward with the referendum, despite its mass criticism. In speaking to Kurds on 24 September, Barzani told Kurds that the future of the Kurdish people depends upon the passage of the referendum. Barzani continued that the referendum would give the KRG important standing to continue negotiations with the Iraqi government. Barzani concluded that the Kurds currently maintain the most bargaining power since their ousting by the Hussein regime. As momentum continues to build, the passage of the referendum is important because it allows the government to continue to forge relationships with Baghdad, while also building the governmental institutions that are central to success and stability. Barzani, whose tenure began in 2005, urged his commitment to recruit Kurdish forces and receive international aid and training.

Counterterrorism remains at the forefront of both criticism and support for the referendum. While Barzani claims that the ability to recruit and develop independent security forces will allow for a more specialized focus in repelling ISIS fighters from the region. Conversely, the Iraqi central government disagrees in saying that independent security forces will not be well equipped nor prepared to endure the challenges of repelling ISIS fighters. Moreover, the time lapse in acquiring and building the security apparatus lends itself to a void in time, for which terrorists can take advantage, especially when such a schedule is well promulgated. With the referendum looming, its determination can ultimately change the mechanisms with which the Middle East combats ISIS and other regional terrorists. The United States has publicly denounced the referendum, calling it illegitimate.

For more information, please see:

U.S. Department of State – Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s Referendum – 25 September 2017

Aljazeera News – Barzani to Kurds: Vote in Referendum to Secure Future – 24 September 2017

Reuters – Kurds Stick with Independence Vote – 24 September 2017

Aljazeera News – Barzani: Kurd Region Poll to Occur Despite Opposition – 23 September 2017

After regaining Mosul, Iraq continues steadfast prosecution of ISIS

By:Justin D. Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

Iraqi Security Forces Detain a suspected ISIS fighter (Photo Courtesy of Human Rights Watch). 

Since the Iraqi government regained control of Mosul and much of its northern provinces from the Islamic State in recent weeks, much emphasis has been placed on rebuilding the punitive institutions of government. In rebuilding its criminal justice capacity, Iraq has sought the counsel of the United Nations Human Rights reports, which began implicating the Islamic State human rights abuses in 2015. Together, with independent militia groups, Iraq’s Executive Office, under Haider Al-Abadi and the United Nations, launched an investigatory campaign in 2016. In August 2017, the Iraqi government charged a number of ISIS fighters in absentia with crimes against humanity. Al-Abadi is expected to formally address the United Nations Security Council in the coming weeks. He will likely request that the Security Council adopt a formal resolution to aid in the charging and capture of ISIS fighters.

The Iraqi government and the United Nations have focused the majority of its attention on balancing the sectarian divisions that continued to exist throughout the country. Since the Islamic State divided much of Iraq, the Shia-backed Iraqi military was forced to alienate many of its previous Sunni allies in pursuit of repelling ISIS. Additionally, Yazidis and Kurds have been historically persecuted by both Sunni and Shia. Until Al-Abadi gained the aid of western military forces in recovering Mosul, much of the Northern provinces were neglected, which left Yazidis and Kurds with little support. Al-Abadi’s most arduous challenge will continue to be regaining the trust of these religious sects, while also being successful in repelling ISIS fighters from the region. Human Rights Watch has been highly critical of the Iraqi government’s response to many of these groups, citing their continued detention and torturing of minority sects as a mechanism for screening their loyalties to ISIS.

The Iraqi investigation has faced much criticism from Human Rights Watch. It reports that ISIS fighters continue to be tried arbitrarily and with prejudice. While the imperative for national security remains a central priority for the government, Human Rights Watch has nearly 2,000 trials that have universally resulted in convictions and stringent sentences. Moreover, Human Rights Watch reports that Iraqi security forces have begun prosecuting lawyers, both domestic and international, that are representing the alleged ISIS fighters. Additionally, Iraqi courts do not issue different sentences for minor involvement or otherwise. The sentences have near universally been undisclosed, or death. Iraq continues its roundup by seeking additional avenues of criminal conduct. Among them include the possibility of charging doctors and other officials working under the Islamic State, but not directly toward their combative interests.

For more information, please see:

CBC News – Sectarian divisions exploited by ISIS still endure in Iraq – 5 September 2017

Human Rights First – Iraq Finally Holds ISIS Responsible for Crimes Against Humanity – 1 September 2017 

Human Rights Watch – The Justice Question After ISIS – 25 August 2017

Turkish Military Launches Airstrike into Iraq and Syria

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Turkish military released a statement indicating that its military jets attacked fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (“PKK”) with airstrikes on Tuesday, April 25th, in northern Iraq and northeast Syria.

Turkey’s attack, which hit “shelters, ammunition depots and key control centers[,]” was intended to “prevent infiltration of Kurdish rebels, weapons, ammunition and explosives from those areas into Turkey.” (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)
Despite the Turkish military’s statement claiming that the attack was carried out “within the scope of international law[,]” it has been characterized as “unusually intense[.]” The statement indicated that the airstrike, which took place before dawn, hit targets on Sinjar mountain in Iraq and a mountainous region in Syria. It noted that the attack was necessary to “prevent infiltration of Kurdish rebels, weapons, ammunition and explosives from those areas into Turkey.” A second statement indicated that the airstrikes hit “shelters, ammunition depots and key control centers[.]”

The spokesperson for the Syrian Kurdish militia, also known as the People’s Protection Units (“YPG”), Mr. Redur Khalil, stated that Turkey’s jets struck their headquarters in the town of Karachok in the northeastern Syrian province of Hassakeh. Mr. Khalil added that the attack caused extensive damage to the headquarters as well as to neighboring civilian property.

The Turkish military’s statement noted that the airstrike killed a minimum of seventy people, with forty militants in Sinjar and thirty in northern Syria being “neutralized.” The YPG, however, stated that the attack killed twenty of its fighters and wounded eighteen more. The mayor of Sinjar, Mr. Mahma Khalil, stated that five members of the Iraqi Kurdish militia (“the peshmerga”), who support the fight against the Islamic State (“ISIS”) with the U.S.-led coalition, were also killed in the airstrike.

The YPG is a close ally to the U.S.’s fight against ISIS. However, Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group due to its ties to Turkey’s Kurdish rebels, the PKK, which are being harbored in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

The attack attracted immediate international criticism and condemnation. The U.S.-led coalition stated that Iraq’s neighbors must be respectful of state sovereignty and encouraged “all forces to . . . concentrate their efforts on [defeating] ISIS [in Iraq and Syria.]” While Turkey claimed to have notified the U.S. and Russia in advance of the attack, the U.S. State Department indicated that it was “deeply concerned” by the airstrike and that it was not authorized by the U.S.-led coalition. The Foreign Minister of Iraq, Mr. Ahmad Jamal, stated that the airstrike was a “violation” of its sovereignty, and called upon the international community to end Turkey’s “interference[.]” The Syrian Kurdish fighters denounced Turkey’s airstrike, noting that the attack was “treacherous[,]” and accusing Turkey of “undermining the anti-terrorism fight.” Russia, which is a close ally of the Syrian government, also criticized the airstrike by stating that it “hindered efforts to combat [ISIS]” and added that it was “serious[ly] concern[ed]” about the strikes.

For more information, please see:

ABC News—Tensions rise after Turkish attack on Syrian Kurds—26 April 2017

The New York Times—Turkish Strikes Target Kurdish Allies of U.S. in Iraq and Syria—25 April 2017

AlJazeera—Turkey targets Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria—25 April 2017

BBC News—Turkey air strikes on Kurds in Syria and Iraq spark US concern—25 April 2017

The Washington Post—The Latest: Russia slams Turkish strikes in Iraq, Syria—26 April 2017

Boston Herald—Turkey strikes Kurds in Iraq, Syria, drawing condemnation—25 April 2017


Hundreds of Iraqi Civilians Killed in Airstrikes

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — After a one-day break, Iraqi forces resumed their operations against the Islamic State (“ISIS”) on Sunday, March 26th. The Iraqi army’s efforts were briefly put on hold following suspicions of a U.S.-led coalition airstrike killing dozens of civilians in Mosul on March 17th.

Hundreds of civilians lost their lives as a result of the airstrikes, and hundreds more are feared trapped or dead (Photo courtesy of the Guardian)

Local residents and witnesses stated that the bodies of over 200 civilians had been recovered from the rubble of a collapsed building in the area hit by the airstrike. Photographers at the attack site reported seeing twelve bodies, including those of women and children, being placed in blue plastic body bags. Hundreds more civilians are still believed to be trapped. An AlJazeera reporter, Ms. Hoda Abdel-Hamid, stated that she interviewed a man who had been trapped under rubble for several days before being rescued, and had lost twenty-two relatives in an airstrike.

According to Ms. Abdel-Hamid, local residents indicate that the “main problem” is the agility with which ISIS fighters move around. She stated that the fighters “go[] in and out of houses, on top of rooftops . . . and then disappear.” By the time an airstrike is called in, “the ISI[S] fighters have disappeared.”

U.S. defense officials confirmed that a coalition airstrike struck a target in Mosul on March 17th. U.S. Central Command (“CENTCOM”) officials indicated that the aircraft had acted at the request of Iraq. This is a stark contrast to the statement issued by Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi, who characterized the conditions as a “humanitarian catastrophe” by blaming U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and “excessive force” used by federal police forces. Mr. al-Nujaifi subsequently called for an emergency parliament session to initiate an investigation into the attack. The spokesman for the Joint Operations Command further indicated that the Iraqi Defense Ministry opened an investigation into the attack.

While CENTCOM officials stated that coalition airstrikes are carried out in compliance with the Laws of Armed Conflict, March could produce the highest number of civilian deaths attributed to U.S. airstrikes since the beginning of the war. Estimates for the amount of civilians killed by the end of the month is currently set at 1,000. The U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq indicated that the organization is “stunned by this terrible loss of life[.]”

A senior public information officer in Iraq with the U.N.’s refugee agency, Ms. Caroline Gluck, indicated that country conditions are “deteriorating daily.” Ms. Gluck noted that the fighting takes place closer to civilian homes in a “densely-packed area,” which results in families being “terrified by the mortars, the shelling and the airstrikes[.]” She stated that most families rely on one meal per day, which typically consists solely of water and flour. She further added that people are “desperate” due to the lack of fuel and heating. The U.N. estimates that over 600,000 people are still trapped in the city of Mosul.

For more information, please see:

Yahoo News—Iraqis remove bodies from rubble in west Mosul—26 March 2017

The Guardian—Shell-shocked Mosul survivors tell of intense airstrikes—26 March 2017

AlJazeera—In west Mosul, ‘nowhere is safe for civilians’—26 March 2017

New York Post—Iraqi military pulls 61 bodies from Mosul as airstrikes probed—26 March 2017

NBC News—Coalition Airstrikes Hit Mosul Location Where Scores of Civilians Were Killed: CENTCOM—26 March 2017

The Guardian—Iraq probes reports of civilian deaths in Mosul—26 March 2017

Iraqi Forces Kill ISIS Commander During Fight for Iron Bridge in Mosul

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — On Tuesday, March 14th, the Iraqi government announced that its forces killed the commander of the Islamic State (“ISIS”).

ISIS commander Abu Abdul Rahman al-Ansary was killed during a fight to take over the Iron Bridge near Mosul (Photo courtesy of Daily News)

ISIS’s commander, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Ansary, was killed in the Old City of Mosul during a fight for the Iron Bridge crossing the Tigris River, which is the terrorist group’s last stronghold in the country. Mr. al-Ansary was reportedly killed by federal police in an attempt to clear the Bab al-Tob district.

Iraqi officers reported that ISIS snipers were attempting to slow down the Interior Ministry’s Rapid Response Units on the Iron Bridge, which links eastern and western Mosul. The officers stated, however, that despite these attempts, the “elite forces” were still moving forward. The Brigadier General of the Rapid Response Unit, Mr. Mahdi Abbas Abdullah, stated that Iraqi forces are progressing towards the Iron Bridge by “taking out snipers hiding in the surrounding buildings[.]” Moreover, the Iraqi military is reportedly using armored vehicles and tanks to remove snipers who are “pinning down troops clearing areas around the bridge.”

Regaining control of the Iron Bridge would transfer the strategic advantage to Iraqi forces. At the moment, Iraq controls two of the pivotal bridges in the area. If captured, Iraqi forces would hold three of the five bridges in Mosul that span the Tigris River. All three bridges have already been damaged by either ISIS militants or air strikes led by the United States.

Mr. al-Ansary’s death was characterized as a “blow” to the ISIS militants after many leaders of the terrorist organization have already retreated from Mosul. The group is now reportedly defending “their shrinking area of control[.]” As of March 14th, Iraqi forces were within 330 feet of the Iron Bridge, and were expected to take over the bridge, and its surrounding area, by the end of the day. A Rapid Response Unit spokesperson stated that recapturing the bridge would “help further tighten the noose around [ISIS] fighters entrenched inside the old city[.]”

Over 600,000 civilians have been trapped in the area held by ISIS. Local residents poured out of western neighborhoods retaken by the government, thankful to be rescued from ISIS’s “grip.” They escaped the violent fighting taking place around their homes, carrying only suitcases, water bottles and “other possessions.” Some were reportedly pushing their children and ill elderly relatives in handcarts and wheelbarrows. They were ushered into trucks by soldiers to be taken to processing areas, and reported that food has been “scarce,” while adding that they have mostly been consuming “water mixed with tomatoes.”

For more information, please see:

International Business Times—End Of ISIS: Islamic State Commander Killed In Iraq As US, Russia And Turkey Compete In Syria—14 March 2017

AlJazeera—Iraqi forces kill ISIL commander in Mosul—14 March 2017

Reuters—IS Mosul commander killed, government forces battle for bridge—14 March 2017

ISIS Torturing Sunni Arab Women and Girls

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Human Rights Watch issued a statement on Monday, February 20th, reporting that Islamic State (ISIS) militants are “arbitrarily detaining, ill-treating, torturing, and forcibly marrying Sunni Arab women and girls[.]” The allegation states that ISIS fighters are carrying out such abuses in Iraq, within regions that are still in their control.

Human Rights Watch stated that Sunni Arab women’s sexual abuse is widely unreported (Photo courtesy of Middle East Monitor)

The report released by Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) was prepared based on interviews with six women in Kirkuk. Four of these women stated that in 2016, they had been detained by ISIS for a period of three days up to one month. Another indicated that her cousin, who is an ISIS fighter, had raped her after forcing her to marry him. One woman stated that ISIS fighters had attempted to forcibly marry her after burning down her house in response to her husband’s escape from ISIS. Of the six interviewed women, five indicated that ISIS militants had beat them.

One woman indicated that ISIS captured her and her three children, along with fifty other women, when they attempted to escape Hawija. She was branded a traitor by ISIS after her husband had escaped the town, and was told that she should marry the local ISIS leader. Upon her refusal, ISIS fighters “blindfolded [her], beat[] [her] with plastic cables, suspended [her] by her arms, and raped [her].” She, and the other women, were held by ISIS in an abandoned house for over one month, while being blindfolded and raped her in front of her children on a daily basis. She noted that the other women were most likely raped in the same manner, and forced to marry their rapists.

HRW’s Deputy Middle East Director, Ms. Lama Faikh, stated that the sexual abuse endured by Sunni Arab women living under ISIS’s control is widely undocumented and unknown. She urged the international community and local Iraqi authorities to take action to ensure that victims receive much needed support.

A foreign aid worker indicated seeing many cases of forced marriage and rape. She noted, however, that most victims do not report the abuse because women tend to cover it up due to fear of societal stigma or retribution. She highlighted the concern that “babies born of rape or forced marriage may also face stigma[,]” while stating that “long-term psychological support and medical treatment” are particularly noteworthy.

HRW indicated that efforts to overcome the stigma associated with sexual violence are present, yet insufficient. The rights group highlighted the “lack of awareness” with regards to services, psychosocial or mental health support, and medical professionals in Kirkuk. A psychiatrist at an international organization in Iraq’s Kurdistan region stated that men are not being adequately informed on how to support women who are victims of gender-based violence. She indicated that male relatives will typically “forbid women” from obtaining counseling.

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch—Iraq: Sunni Women Tell of ISIS Detention, Torture—20 February 2017

Middle East Online—HRW says IS jihadists raping, torturing Sunni Arab women too—20 February 2017

Daily Mail—’I was raped every day for a month in front of my children’: Women reveal the horrors they endured as ISIS sex slaves… despite being SUNNI Muslims just like their captors—20 February 2017

Middle East Monitor—HRW: Daesh rapes and tortures Sunni Arab women—21 February 2017

International Business Times—Sunni Arab women raped, tortured and forced to marry Isis fighters, Human Rights Watch says—21 February 2017

Ten-Year-Old Iraqi Girl Killed by ISIS Torture Device

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — A new group of female-only “ISIS police” have been administering a new torture technique in which women are “ripped to death with ‘metal jaws’” if they violate the strict rules set by the group. Upon breaking one of the rules set forth by the brigade, a ten-year-old Iraqi girl bled to death after being “bitten” by a poison-lined medieval torture device.

The al-Khansaa have been administering torture to women who violate the strict morality laws set forth by ISIS (Photo courtesy of Daily Mail)


The Iraqi girl, Faten, allegedly stepped over the threshold of her home while cleaning. Per the strict rules imposed by ISIS fundamentalists in Mosul, women are not permitted to leave their homes by themselves. In response, the al-Khansaa brigade, ISIS’ female “morality police,” approached Faten’s mother to ask whether punishment should be administered to her or her daughter. Thinking the punishment would be in the form of a bite delivered by a person, Faten’s mother elected to have her daughter take the penalty instead of herself. Her mother, however, was not aware that the punishment would be administered by a medieval torture device, lined with poison.

The device is described as a “clamp with four ends as sharp as knives, like teeth, which can pierce the skin from both sides when pressed down.” While administering the punishment, the device tore the girl’s flesh in various places. After receiving the “bite,” Faten bled to death from the wounds before the poison could take effect.

The al-Khansaa brigade acts as a religious law enforcer, in which they punish females who violate the strict moral rules set forth by ISIS, including breastfeeding outside, not wearing black socks, wearing high heels, or lifting a full-face veil.

The women of Al-Khansaa have been administering brutal punishment all over Mosul. A woman reportedly died from injuries she sustained after being punished for “slightly” lifting her veil to examine merchandise at a market. She was immediately ordered to sit on the ground by the al-Khansaa and received thirty lashings. A woman who witnessed the death cried out against having to wear a hijab and face veil by stating “[i]t’s like I’m getting into a bag and it’s closed on me so I can’t even breathe . . . .”

For more information, please see:

Daily Mail—Iraqi girl, 10, is ‘bitten to death’ with medieval torture device by female ISIS fanatics after her mother was asked to choose if she or the child would be punished for stepping outside their house—7 February 2017

The Sun—Sick ISIS female jihadis ‘bite Iraqi girl, 10, to death’ with medieval torture device as punishment for stepping outside her house—7 February 2017

Express—Iraqi girl, 10, ‘bitten to death’ for stepping outside house in horror ISIS torture—7 February 2017

Mirror—Mother’s horror after ISIS female fighters tear daughter to death with metal jaws—7 February 2017

Daily Star—ISIS unleash lady jihadi BITING BRIGADE armed with ‘metal jaws’ to tear women to death—7 February 2017

Iraqi Men and Boys Being Screened and Secretly Detained by Iraqi Military Forces

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) issued a statement accusing Iraqi military members of screening men who are fleeing Mosul for Islamic State (“ISIS”) membership and secretly detaining them in undisclosed prisons.

Fighters of Popular Mobilization Units have been detaining men and boys for interrogation without justification (Photo courtesy of Voice of America)

The HRW report indicated that fighters with the Popular Mobilization Units (“PMU”) have been abducting such men and holding them at detention centers for interrogation. HRW urged that the men are at “heightened risk of abuse, including arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance” as PMU’s are not trained in screening. The rights group further highlighted that the screenings and detentions are carried out abnormally, while prisoners are denied contact with the outside world.

The deputy Middle East director at HRW, Ms. Lama Fakih, stated that relatives are increasingly reporting male family members’ disappearance following questioning by PMU fighters. She further stated that the “lack of transparency” with regards to the detained mens’ whereabouts is a “cause for real concern.”

HRW interviewed families which stated that PMU fighters had evacuated their village to a refugee camp. They indicated that five men never returned to the village after they had left to sell sheep. The same men were later shown on a television broadcast depicting them as captured ISIS militants. One of these men stated that he had been attacked and detained by PMUs after leaving the village to sell sheep. Although he had been released and reunited with his family, the remaining men have not resurfaced.

The HRW report stated that the interviewed families all provided the same description for the screening process. Notably, they indicated that screening would be carried out overnight by members of the Iraqi military, who would separate men and boys over the age of fifteen from women and children. The military forces would crosscheck the men and boys’ IDs against Iraqi watchlists for suspected ISIS associations. They would then be detained without any justification for interrogation.

Ms. Fakih indicated that men have been disappearing with increasing frequency, even though official screenings by Iraqi security forces reveal that they are not on a watchlist. She noted that only those with a “screening mandate” should be permitted to screen individuals, while calling upon Iraqi authorities to ensure that prisoners are kept only at “recognized detention center[s]” which provide access to “independent monitors” and guarantee due process rights. She stated that all detention must be based on “clear domestic law.” Ms. Fakih further highlighted the importance of guaranteeing that each prisoner be brought before a judge promptly, as Iraqi law mandates a judicial hearing within 48 hours of detention. Additionally, she also indicated that prisoners’ family members should be made aware of their whereabouts.

PMUs were officially integrated into the Iraqi army in November. Yet they remain autonomous and have attracted widespread criticism regarding mistreatment of prisoners and “carrying out indiscriminate sectarian retributions.”

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch—Iraq: Men Fleeing Mosul Held in Secret—2 February 2017

Middle East Eye—HRW: Iraqi militias detaining men fleeing Mosul—2 February 2017

Al-Jazeerah—Iraqi Government Militiamen Forcibly Transfer Whole Sunni Villages, Abduct Men Fleeing Mosul, Abuse and Torture them, Steal their Money—3 February 2017

Voice of America—Rights Group: Iraqi Shi’ites Detaining Sunni Men Fleeing Mosul—2 February 2017


Children in Prison Allege Being Tortured by Kurdish Security Forces

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Seventeen children imprisoned by the Kurdistan Regional Government (“KRG”) stated that they were tortured or abused by government security forces while in detention. Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) reported that the children were detained due to suspicion of involvement with the Islamic State (“ISIS”).

Children allege being burned with cigarettes and electrocuted during interrogations (Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch)


HRW stated that it had privately interviewed nineteen boys, ranging in age from eleven to seventeen, who were being held on suspicions of terrorism. The interview took place at the Women and Children’s Reformatory without the presence of a security or intelligence official. The rights group reported that the children were “held in stress positions, burned with cigarettes, punched and kicked, beaten with plastic pipes and cables, and shocked with electricity” by the KRG. A young boy stated that he “felt that my eyes were popping out” while being interrogated with an “electricity machine” after being drenched in water. Another child indicated that he could not breathe after his face was covered up with a towel and tied with tape. He was subsequently beat for over eight hours while being told to confess. The officer then pulled down the young boy’s pants and “threatened to rape him if he did not confess an ISIS affiliation.” Furthermore, five children also reportedly had marks from cigarette burns or electric shocks administered during interrogation.

Most children stated that they denied any involvement with ISIS. Others, however, admitted that they were associated with the group because of “family connections, desire to earn money or pressure from recruiters.” A deputy director at HRW, Ms. Lama Faikh, indicated that security forces are not granted permission to “beat, manhandle or use electric shocks on children” on the basis of “legitimate security concerns.” While characterizing children escaping from ISIS as “victims,” she stated that many are faced with further abuse from Kurdish security forces. Ms. Faikh strongly urged the KRG to “thoroughly investigate” the allegations of child abuse in prisons, and prosecute those who may be responsible.

The seventeen children are among at least 183 other boys under the age of eighteen who have been imprisoned by KRG based on alleged ISIS involvement. Most, if not all, are being held without charge, and were not permitted access to an attorney during interrogation. The report further indicates that government officials have not informed the children’s families of their whereabouts, and most children have not been permitted to contact their families since being detained.

In response to the HRW report, the KRG denied the allegations of torture by Kurdish security forces. The Head of the KRG High Committee to Evaluate and Respond to International Reports, Dr. Dindar Zebari, stated that KRG authorities are “strongly prohibit[ed]” from using physical and psychological torture on prisoners. He stated that detainees’ rights are protected through established policies, legislations and practices against torture.

For more information, please see:

The Guardian—Children held in Iraq over suspected Isis links ‘say they were tortured’—29 January 2017

Human Rights Watch—Children Allege Torture by Security Forces—29 January 2017

RT—Kurdish militia tortured children to extract ISIS confessions – HRW—29 January 2017

International Business Times—Beaten, electrocuted and abused: Kurds accused of torturing Isis child soldier suspects—29 January 2017

ARA News—Iraqi Kurds deny torturing ISIS child soldiers—30 January 2017


Iraqi Prime Minister Orders Investigation into Alleged Human Rights Violations

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — On January 23rd, the Prime Minister of Iraq, Mr. Haider al-Abadi, ordered an investigation into human rights violations allegedly committed by government troops and a Shia paramilitary group.

Iraqi forces are being accused of torturing and killing civilians following a video that surfaced on social media (Photo courtesy of Washington Post)

The allegations include claims of kidnapping and civilian abuse as the troops attempt to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS). The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq demanded a governmental inquiry from Iraq when a video surfaced on social media allegedly showing “brutal treatment” and the murdering of at least three ISIS members. The video, which is almost three minutes in length, showed several members of the Iraqi security forces wearing army and police uniforms. The video then contains graphic recordings of the individuals “dragging and beating [] suspects in a residential area before showering them with bullets.”

Two days later, Mr. al-Abadi’s office issued a statement saying that he had “ordered to form a committee to investigate cases of kidnappings, mistreatment and violations . . . against civilians by groups exploiting the name of the security forces and Shia paramilitary units.” Mr. al-Abadi subsequently indicated that he had instructed field commanders to ensure that the laws of armed conflict were followed to prevent human rights violations from being committed under the guise of war operations. He further stated that cases of abuse had been recorded and later uploaded to social media to “spoil the joy of victory[,] defame the real image of the brave security forces and their sacrifices to liberate the land[,] and [] maintain security.”

On January 5th, Amnesty International had issued a statement indicating that Iraq’s “Popular Mobilization Units” (PMU) had been “engaged in a systematic pattern of violations, including enforced disappearances, torture and unlawful killings targeting the Sunni community.” Formed in 2014 to join in on the war against ISIS, PMU is a coalition made up of mostly Iranian-trained Shia groups. The coalition was officially merged with the Iraqi armed forces in 2016.

In January 2016, Human Rights Watch had issued a statement in which it “accused Shia militias of abducting and killing [scores] of Sunni civilians in central Iraq.” The rights group had later called upon the Iraqi government to prevent Shia militias from joining the Mosul operation due to concerns of severe human rights violations.

For more information, please see:

Middle East Eye—Iraq PM orders investigation into abuses reported in Mosul battle—23 January 2017

Washington Post—Iraq premier orders probe into violations by troops in Mosul–23 January 2017

Business Standard—Iraqi PM orders probe into abuses by troops in Mosul—23 January 2017

Kurdistan24—Iraqi PM orders investigation of alleged abuses by Iraqi troops in Mosul—24 January 2017

ISIS Using Drones to Drop Grenades on Civilian Targets

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Islamic State (ISIS) has evolved the use of commercial drones to release explosive devices and grenades on civilian targets in districts of Mosul.

ISIS struck a civilian market with modified drones capable of carrying grenades (Photo courtesy of Mirror)


ISIS’s newest effort to modernize technology lies in modifying commercial drones for use as “weapons that terrorize the city of Mosul[.]” Off-the-shelf drones are capable of flying for up to half an hour with a range of several miles, and can easily be afforded by terrorist groups. The improvised drones, which are made up of a “plastic tube attached to a camera drone,” can drop 40 milimeter grenades. This creates a medium through which ISIS can engage in acts of terrorism from afar, thus reducing the risk of death to members of the group.

During the week of January 9th, a U.S. Army commander stated that ISIS was using these improvised weapons as part of their effort to avoid losing control of the “former ISIS stronghold of Mosul.” At the time, ISIS had carried out a strike on a market in Eastern Mosul, where eight people were injured. A young boy, Hussein, stated that he had been shopping with his family when a “small ISIL plane dropped a grenade on [them].” He was later treated for a “broken bone protruding from his foot.”

ISIS has a history of using drones to record footage for propaganda videos and to conduct aerial surveillance. A research fellow at a U.K. military think tank, Mr. Justin Bronk, stated that ISIS is “known for turning things they can get hold of into weapons.”

International fear has developed over the possibility of ISIS leaving behind an “army of brainwashed and dangerous children[.]” Mosul’s youth have been exposed to long-term messages of hate while ISIS has occupied the country’s second largest city. They have further been taught “how to become terrorists and suicide bombers[,]” while learning the “extreme views of Muslim Sharia law[.]”

The Iraqi Commission for Human Rights urged the United Nations (U.N.) to “save a generation of children from religious extremism.” The Commission’s media director, Mr. Jawad al-Shamri, stated that two years ago, ISIS started modifying school syllabi to teach children how to make explosive belts, prepare booby traps and take female hostages.

For more information, please see:

Tech Times—ISIS Weaponizes Everyday Consumer Drones, Turns The UAVs Into Bombers—17 January 2017

Mirror— ISIS use drones to drop grenades on Iraq forces in Battle of Mosul’s desperate last stand—19 January 2017

The Telegraph—Islamic State using drones to drop explosives on civilians and troops advancing on Mosul—14 January 2017

The Washington Times—ISIS strikes Iraq with drone grenades—January 17, 2017


Mass Grave with Approximately 100 Bodies Found Near Mosul

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraqi investigators are examining a mass grave discovered by Iraqi soldiers advancing on the Islamic State-held city of Mosul.

Authorities believe the mass grave contains approximately 100 bodies (Photo courtesy of BBC News)
Authorities believe the mass grave contains approximately 100 bodies (Photo courtesy of BBC News)

On Monday, November 7th, Iraqi troops noticed a pungent smell while approaching the town of Mosul. The mass grave was discovered behind an “earthen embankment” near an agricultural college. Upon bulldozing, the land revealed bones poking out from beneath the surface, along with scraps of clothing, garbage bags, and “human remains swarming with flies.” An Iraqi cabinet official in charge of mass grave inspections stated that investigators are on their way to the grave site to conduct examinations and determine the cause of death.

The first officials at the site noted that the grave likely holds approximately 100 bodies, most of which are decapitated. Although the victims’ identities are currently unclear, authorities believe that the bodies are likely those of Iraqi security forces members and their relatives. There is rising concern, however, that children may be among the deceased due to a child’s stuffed animal that had been pulled from the grave by a soldier.

The U.N. Office of Human Rights indicated that it is investigating into whether the mass grave is connected to reports of police officers being killed in the same area. The spokeswoman for the Office of Human Rights stated that it had received reports of 50 former Iraqi police officers killed in a building outside Mosul. She further noted that the building cited in these reports was the same as the agricultural college near which the mass grave was found.

On Tuesday, November 8th, authorities discovered two additional mass graves containing 23 bodies, including the remains of women and children. Officials are concerned that these mass graves could be just the “tip of the iceberg.” It appears to be the latest of several mass graves found in territory that has been retaken from the Islamic State, which is known for massacring hundreds of individuals across northern and central Iraq.

For more information, please see:

Northwest Herald—Investigators probe mass grave found near Mosul, Iraq—09 November 2016

Wall Street Journal—Remains in Mass Grave Near Mosul Identified—08 November 2016

Fox News—Iraqis investigate decapitated bodies in mass grave near ISIS-held Mosul—08 November 2016

BBC News—Mass graves in Iraq reveal Islamic State horrors—08 November 2016

ISIS Using Thousands of Civilians as “Human Shields”

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The UN stated that ISIS has executed over 200 people near the city of Mosul and has taken thousands of individuals hostage to use as “human shields” against Iraqi forces.

ISIS is using thousands of civilians as “human shields” (Photo courtesy of ABC News)

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that ISIS carried out the mass execution as revenge against individuals who refused its orders to join them. The UN further noted that it fears the group intends on using those held hostage as “human shields” against the advance of Iraqi forces on Mosul.

High numbers of civilian deaths have been reported over the last week as ISIS attempts to gather people into its last major stronghold in Iraq. Over 7,500 families have reportedly been abducted by ISIS at gunpoint from surrounding Iraqi cities and have been moved to “strategic locations where ISIS fighters are located.” The civilian death toll is expected to grow exponentially once ISIS enters Mosul, which is Iraq’s second largest city.

The use of human shields is banned under international humanitarian law. The UN refugee agency stated that it is considered a violation of the right to not be arbitrarily deprived of life. The Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International further stated that using a civilian to “shield yourself from attack is a war crime.”

An increasing number of civilians have been fleeing their homes as the fighting around Mosul intensifies. The International Organization for Migration reported that the operation in Mosul has displaced over 16,000 people thus far. UNICEF warned of an impending, “unprecedented humanitarian crisis” due to the millions of civilians that are expected to escape the city in the upcoming days and weeks.

Some civilians who were able to flee indicated that ISIS fighters had deliberately prevented them from escaping conflict areas. One civilian recounted an attack in which ISIS fighters based in a neighbor’s house shot his brother. Due to the ongoing crossfire, they were unable to escape their home for two days, during which his brother lost consciousness from severe blood loss. He was only able to carry his brother to a hospital after an air strike created an opportunity for escape. Another civilian reported that he lost his wife after she was struck by a mortar because ISIS fighters would not let them leave their house. He further stated that the fighters shot at neighbors who tried to escape.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights indicated that ISIS’ “depraved, cowardly strategy” is to use the presence of civilians to render certain areas immune from military operations by effectively using thousands of men, women and children as “human shields.” The Commissioner urged those fighting ISIS to withhold revenge attacks. He further called on the government of Iraq to ensure the application of international humanitarian law.

For more information, please see:

ABC News—ISIS Using Tens of Thousands as ‘Human Shields’ as Iraqi-Led Forces Advance on Mosul—28 October 2016

Daily Mail—ISIS slaughters more than 200 people and abduct nearly 8,000 families to use as human shields as it retreats into the centre of Mosul—28 October 2016

Amnesty International—Iraq: new testimony shows ISIS taking human shields in battle for Mosul—27 October 2016

CNN—ISIS ‘executes’ 232 near Mosul, takes thousands as human shields, UN says—28 October 2016

The Guardian —Islamic State using hostages as human shields in Mosul – UN—28 October 2016

International Outrage Over Executions of 36 Islamic State Fighters

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq —  In June 2014, Islamic State (ISIS) forces took over Camp Speicher, located just north of Tikrit. Upon assuming control, ISIS militants executed approximately 1,700 Shia army recruits who had fled the Camp. The families of those lost have been demanding justice since these killings.

Iraqi forensic team writes on the body bag of remains belonging to Shia soldiers from Camp Speicher (Photo Courtesy of Human Rights Watch)

In July 2015, the Iraqi government held a group trial for the individuals accused of taking part in the executions. The defendants alleged that they were tortured into confessing their role in the killings, and that these confessions were the basis upon which the cases against them were built. The militants were ultimately convicted and sentenced to death at the close of the proceedings. Despite the higher court’s overturning of the verdict, the lower court still convicted several men in a group hearing that lasted only one day. The defendants were denied a second appeal, and several death sentences were issued.

On August 17, 2016, Iraq’s President approved the execution of 36 individuals who were convicted of taking part in the Speicher massacre. These soldiers were hanged on Sunday, August 21 by the Iraqi government.

Several international organizations, such as the United Nations and Amnesty International, have issued statements raising concerns about the hearings and subsequent executions.

The United Nations issued a report in April 2016 stating it found the hearings to lack “international fair trial standards.” The report further noted that the defendants were not provided effective means for a defense at trial and that the Iraqi government failed to fully investigate the allegations of coerced confessions. Amnesty International’s senior crisis response advisor stated that the execution of the 36 militants resulted from an erroneous judicial process that did not meet the standards of international law.

Amnesty International reported that the Iraqi government had received threats of retaliation from militia leaders if the executions were not carried out. Subsequently, in August 2016, the United Nations expressed concern over Iraq’s efforts to speed up militant executions, which could potentially lead to the death of innocent individuals.

Iraq’s Justice Minister dismissed all of these concerns on the grounds that each case “was reviewed in detail” before being delivered to the President for approval of the death sentence.

For more information, please see:

Middle East Monitor — Iraq executions are part of political and sectarian agenda, claim human rights groups — 23 August 2016

Los Angeles Times — Iraq executes 36 men convicted in massacre carried out by Islamic State — 21 August 2016

Reuters — Iraq hangs 36 people sentenced to death for killing of troops in 2014 — 22 August 2016

Human Rights Watch — Executions in Iraq Not Real Justice for Speicher Massacre — 23 August 2016

Al Arabiya English — Rights groups condemn executions over Iraq massacre — 24 August 2016

Iraqi Forces Retake Rutba; Battle for Fallujah Next

By Zachary Lucas

Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — After a two-day battle with the Islamic State, Iraqi forces reported that they had retaken the remote town of Rutba in the Andar Province. This comes on the heels of other military victories against IS in the northern and western regions of Iraq. This string of victories has been followed by some Iraq military officials stating that plans are being made to retake Fallujah next.

Iraqi Forces Have a String of Military Victories Against IS (Photo courtesy of the BBC)

Iraqi forces, backed by United States led coalition airstrikes, entered Rutba on Tuesday. These forces were helped by elite commandos and local tribal fighters to retake the city within two days. Coalition spokesperson, Colonel Steve Warren, stated that there were approximately 200 IS fighters in the town. Colonel Warren and Iraqi military officials added that little resistance was made by IS to defend the city.

Rutba was captured by IS in June 2014 and quickly became a home for IS training grounds and bases due to its remoteness. IS used Rutba as staging grounds for attacks in both Syria and Iraq. Colonel Warren stated that the retaking of Rutba will deny IS a “critical support zone” for future attacks against military forces and civilians.

Retaking Rutba is one of a few victories that the Iraqi military has seen in the last few months. In February, the Iraq military retook Ramadi from IS and last month they retook the town of Hit in Anbar province. Coalition forces estimate that IS has lost more than 30 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria. Some officials have stated that the loss of territory and supplies has led IS to put up less military resistance and instead focus attacks on civilian populations like the recent bombings in Baghdad.

These recent victories and the strategic victory in Rutba, lead many into thinking that Fallujah is next. Both Iraqi military officials and local, allied militia leaders stated plans for retaking Fallujah are in the works. Fallujah was the first city to fall to IS control in 2014 and was later followed by numerous Iraqi military defeats, including losing the second largest city Mosul. Fallujah and Mosul, where IS has headquartered military operations, attacks on civilians, and sex trafficking of women, have been IS strongholds for almost two years.

For more information, please see:

The Washington Post — Iraqi forces retake Rutba from ISIS and eye Fallujah for next battle — 19 May 2016

BBC — IS conflict: Iraq forces retake remote western town of Rutba — 19 May 2016

Radio Free Europe — Iraqi Forces Retake Remote Western Town From Islamic State — 19 May 2016

Reuters — Iraq says it retakes western town of Rutba from Islamic State — 19 May 2016