The US air war in Iraq officially has a unsavory stain

Shia Militia Men Celebrate Amerli TikritAhmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty ImagesIraqi Shiite militia fighters raise up their weapons as they celebrate pushing back ISIS militants on Sept. 3, 2014, on the road between Amerli and Tikrit, in Iraq.

The US-led coalition air war against ISIS has a human rights blemish.

In August, the US provided aerial support as Iraqi security forces, Iranian-backed Shiite militias, and Kurdish Peshmerga pushed ISIS militants out from the town of Amerli and the surrounding environs. At the time, the success was hailed as a “golden victory” by Iraq’s military spokesman.

However, evidence collected by Human Rights Watch (HRW) after the liberation of Amerli suggests that various militias carried out a campaign of retribution against civilian Sunni targets for purported support of ISIS. The campaign, largely from the beginning of September to mid-November 2014, targeted at the Sunni residents of Amerli and the surrounding villages.

The report paints an ominous image of what could happen elsewhere in Iraq as sectarian Iranian-led Shiite militias play a key role in forcing back ISIS in Sunni-majority Tikrit and other battle fields.

Amerli destruction overview mapHuman Rights WatchA look at buildings destroyed by Shia militias.

Using both witness testimony, corroboration from Peshmerga commanders and soldiers who disagreed with the Shiite militias, and satellite imagery, HRW established evidence of a concerted campaign aimed at the collective punishment of Sunni citizenry in the area.

HRW identified more than 3,800 buildings across 30 towns and villages that showed purposeful destruction and signs of arson occurring after ISIS retreated from the area at the beginning of September.

“The destruction was overwhelming,” Tirana Hasan of Foreign Policy reported in early November. “The only houses that remained standing shared one common feature — blackened exterior windows showing where the militia had set fire to them in their efforts to destroy whatever they could not loot.”

Witnesses, both local and Peshmerga, also told HRW of how militiamen would loot these damaged homes before their destruction of all valuables, “such as refrigerators, televisions, clothing and even electrical wiring.”

HRW also documented the abduction of 11 men who returned to Amerli after the fighting to obtain valuables. Not all of the men have been released yet.

All of these actions constitute an example of collective punishment, HRW notes, which is prohibited in international law.

Arson habashHuman Rights WatchSmoke rises from militia-committed arson in Habash.

The carrying out of collective punishment by the Iranian-backed militias did not occur in conjunction with the US air campaign against Amerli in August. However, there are reports that the arms being used by the Shiite militias have likely come from the US via the Iraqi government.

The US is not directly arming the Shiite militias. However, administration officials are reportedly aware that the arms they are supplying to Iraq are at times ending up in the hands of militiamen.

“One senior administration official told us that the U.S. government is aware of [US arms going to Shia militias], but is caught in a dilemma,” Bloomerg reports. “The flawed Iraqi security forces are unable to fight Islamic State without the aid of the militias, who are often trained and sometimes commanded by officers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. And yet, if the U.S. stopped sending arms to the Iraqi military, things would get even worse, with IS overrunning more of the country and committing human-rights horrors on a broader scale. The risk of not aiding them was greater than the risk of aiding them, the official said, adding that this didn’t mean the administration was unconcerned about the risks involved.”

Shia militantsAlaa Al-Marjani/ReutersMehdi Army fighters loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during a parade in Najaf, June 21, 2014.

That said, Commander Elissa Smith from the Pentagon’s public affairs office has denied that arms have been supplied to the Shiite militias. Smith also insists that there is no reason to believe that the Iraqi government has transferred any US-supplied weaponry to the militias.

In any case, the US air war enabled the militias to carry out such collective actions against the Sunni inhabitants of the region. HRW recommends that both the US and Iran should condition all future military assistance in Iraq on the premise that proxies on the ground will abstain from committing any future crimes.

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