This morning Human Rights Watch released a report, “After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli.”
Amerli is a town of about 25,000 people, mostly Shi’a Turcomen, in the east of Saladin Province, close to Diyala Province, sixty miles from the Iranian border.
The Islamic State (ISIS) invaded Iraq from Syria, conquering Mosul on June 10, 2014, then swept across central Iraq into Diyala. In a situation not dissimilar to the Assad regime’s terror-sieges and ISIS surrounding of the Yazidis on Sinjar Mountain, ISIS imposed a siege on the population of Amerli on June 14.
By the time the Iraqi government forces and Hashd al-Shabi (a.k.a. the Popular Mobilization Units, PMUs), the Shi’ite militias that are largely Iran proxies, broke the siege on August 31, with the help of airstrikes from the American-led Coalition, “at least 15 civilians in Amerli, including newborn infants, had died from lack of food, water or medical treatment, and more than 250 children were suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration,” HRW reports. On Sept. 1, the militias and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) entered Amerli.
HRW names the Shi’ite militias that entered Amerli as the Badr Corp, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hizballah, and Saraya Tala’a al-Khorasani—all of them Iranian proxies.
Between early September and mid-November,
Human Rights Watch identified over 3,800 destroyed buildings in 30 towns and villages, including 2,600 buildings likely destroyed by fire and a further 1,200 buildings likely demolished with heavy machinery and the uncontrolled detonation of high explosives. This destruction was distinct from damages resulting from air strikes and heavy artillery and mortar fire prior to ISIS’s retreat from Amerli … In the four towns and villages … researchers found evidence of extensive fire damage limited to the interior of buildings that would not be detectable in satellite imagery, indicating actual fire-related building damages are likely to be substantially higher than 2,600 in the affected 30 towns and villages assessed.
Within five-hundred square-kilometres of Amerli, the Shi’ite militias attacked at least forty-seven villages, and razed fourteen of them entirely. The destruction was “methodical and driven by revenge and intended to alter the demographic composition of Iraq’s traditionally diverse provinces of Salah al-Din and Kirkuk.” The militias looted at will.
HRW “documented 11 instances of militias abducting men,” six of them now released and five still missing, and while on this occasion HRW “did not document reports of killings of civilians, despite documenting fairly vicious reprisals,” previous reports—including by Amnesty International—have documented anti-civilian atrocities by Iran’s proxies.
Video footage from Amerli after the Shi’ite militias conquered it shows Kataib al-Imam Ali (KAI), another Iranian proxy, posing with beheaded Sunnis. KAI is overseen by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iranian agent who even has Iranian citizenship. Muhandis was, until recently, the commander of the PMUs, and is a close adviser to Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s expeditionary wing, the Quds Force, charged with exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution. Suleimani is now Baghdad’s de facto commander-in-chief.
HRW records instances of torture by the Shi’ite militias in Amerli, including against children, who were tied to ceiling fans, beaten, and burned with cigarettes.
One young man, who was among seven people abducted by Saraya al-Khorasani on or about October 13 in the village of Yengila and among the four released on October 22, described his treatment:
They were beating me randomly on my face, head, shoulders using water pipes and the butts of their weapons. … They went to have lunch and then came back and beat us for an hour and half.
The young man adds:
They kept saying, ‘You are ISIS,’ and I kept denying it. … Later that night they asked me if I was Shia or Sunni. I told them I was Shia Turkoman and they ordered me to prove it by praying the Shia way.
This is very reminiscent of Abu Waheeb, the ISIS commander who demanded of three Alawi truck drivers who claimed (for their safety) to be Sunnis that they say prayers the Sunni way, and murdered them when they could not. Had this man been Sunni, it is likely we would not have heard his story.
In and around Diyala, the dominant force is Badr, Iran’s oldest proxy, created in 1982, led by Hadi al-Ameri, an Iranian agent now in command of the PMUs, who is responsible for much sectarian mayhem and has a fondness for using power drills to murder Sunni civilians. While the U.S. hopes the militias will be integrated into the ISF, in Diyala “the Iraqi army is integrating into Amiri’s Badr Organization“.
Later in 2014, there was a mass-expulsion—ethnic cleansing—of Sunnis from the Diyala/Saladin area as part of Iran’s project to redraw the demographics, expanding the Shi’a-majority area of Iraq from Diyala on Iran’s border to Samarra, home to the Shi’ite shrine of al-Askari, which was bombed in February 2006, triggering Iraq’s sectarian civil war. Iran has used the narrative of protecting shrines to further its power across the region, notably in organising a Shi’ite jihad in Syria to protect Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny by fabricating a religious crisis about the need to protect Sayyida Zaynab shrine south of Damascus.
What this means is that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s pledge to severely discipline militias that abuse human rights is wholly meaningless; the Iraqi security sector has been taken over by Iran, operating through vicious, sectarian proxies, with much blood—some of it American and British—on their hands. While Iran has cast a narrative of having “stood by” the Iraqis against ISIS, the reality is that the expansion of Iran’s proxies in Iraq is decades old and Iran has used the ISIS crisis to consolidate control over Iraq through militias whose only interest is to further Iranian influence—however helpful their program might incidentally be to others in the short-term.
Last month I pointed out that Kataib Hizballah now had anti-aircraft batteries, and was claiming it needed them to prevent “logistical” support to ISIS. ISIS has no such support, but Iran’s proxies and allies have disseminated a conspiracy theory that the U.S. is dropping supplies to ISIS. I surmised that this meant Kataib Hizballah was threatening the Coalition that it would shoot down its planes if they crossed Iran’s interests. Yesterday, Kataib Hizballah said just that: it is operating anti-aircraft weapons to guard against any “violations” by the Coalition, such as dropping supplies to ISIS or bombing Iraqi military positions.
Kataib Hizballah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group that also bragged in its statement of having shot down an American helicopter in January 2007, now has American weaponry, which is being supplied through Iran-controlled Baghdad, and is on the frontlines in Tikrit. If the stalling of the Tikrit offensive continues, and the U.S. supplies airstrikes, it would be in support of Kataib Hizballah.
Some of us worried from the start that intervening in Iraq against ISIS, which had become the vanguard of a Sunni uprising against a sectarian autocracy, with a scope wider than preventing genocide against the Yazidis and protecting Kurdistan would have the West supporting the expansion of Iranian power. It was obvious by last fall that this was exactly what was happening, and the Obama administration’s rapprochement with the Islamic Republic has entrenched this still further. Amerli was one of the first examples of this U.S.-Iranian partnership against ISIS in action, and now the results are clear.
To be providing air support for Iran in Iraq and Syria, while aligning with Iran across the region in places like Yemen, is not only morally repulsive but strategically blind, since it furthers the power of a regime that has conceived of itself as at war with the West since its inception and whose proxies openly threaten us, while being counterproductive to the effort to destroy ISIS. Sunnis are needed to defeat ISIS, and for as long as ISIS can present itself as the only barrier against a vengeful Shi’ite theocracy, ISIS will survive.