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Iraq: Peshmerga have destroyed thousands of Arab homes in revenge campaign - new report

Yezidi militia also bulldozed Arab homes, with ‘support for Islamic State’ being cited as justification for possible war crimes

Tens of thousands of Arab civilians now in makeshift camps in desperate conditions

UK must ensure any assistance to Peshmerga does not fuel abuses

Peshmerga forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish militias in northern Iraq have bulldozed, blown up and burned down thousands of homes in an apparent effort to uproot Arab communities in revenge for their perceived support for the Islamic State armed group, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.

The 45-page report, Banished and Dispossessed: Forced displacement and deliberate destruction in northern Iraq, is based on field investigations in 13 villages and towns, and testimony gathered from more than 100 eyewitnesses and victims of forced displacement. 

Amnesty’s report is backed up by satellite imagery revealing evidence of widespread destruction by Peshmerga forces, or in some cases Yezidi militias and Kurdish armed groups from Syria and Turkey operating in coordination with the Peshmerga. The report reveals evidence of forced displacement and large-scale destruction of homes in villages and towns in Ninewa, Kirkuk and Diyala governorates - which Peshmerga forces recaptured from Islamic State between September 2014 and March 2015. 

Though KRG officials have justified the displacement of Arab communities on the grounds of security, it appears to have been used to punish them for their perceived sympathies with Islamic State, and also to consolidate territorial gains in “disputed areas” which the KRG authorities have long claimed as theirs - part of a drive to reverse past abuses by the Saddam Hussein government, which forcibly displaced Kurds and settled Arabs in these regions.

Amnesty acknowledges that the KRG authorities have faced unprecedented humanitarian and security challenges since hundreds of thousands of people sought refuge in areas under their control after Islamic State captured large parts of northern Iraq in 2014. However, these difficult circumstances cannot excuse deliberate destruction and other serious abuses committed by KRG forces and other militias.

Peshmerga forces have also tried to prevent Amnesty’s research into this topic. On two occasions shortly after their arrival in destroyed villages, Amnesty researchers were apprehended by Peshmerga, who escorted them out of the area and prevented them from taking photographs. 

Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Advisor said Donatella Rovera, who carried out the research in Iraq, said:

“KRG forces appear to be spearheading a concerted campaign to forcibly displace Arab communities by destroying entire villages in areas they have recaptured from IS in northern Iraq. 

“KRG forces have a duty to bring to justice in fair trials individuals who are suspected of having aided and abetted IS crimes. But they must not punish entire communities for crimes perpetrated by some of their members or based on vague, discriminatory and unsubstantiated suspicions that they support IS.

“The forced displacement of civilians and the deliberate destruction of homes and property without military justification, may amount to war crimes.

“Tens of thousands of Arab civilians who were forced to flee their homes because of fighting are now struggling to survive in makeshift camps in desperate conditions. 

“It is also critical that the international community - including members of the US-led coalition fighting IS such as the UK and Germany and others who are backing the Peshmerga forces - publicly condemn all such violations of international humanitarian law. They must also ensure that any assistance they are providing to the KRG is not fuelling such abuses.” 

Thousands displaced near Jalawla

In the case of Arab villages near Jalawla in the east of Diyala governorate, thousands of residents are still unable to return and villages have been largely destroyed by Peshmerga forces who recaptured it four months after Islamic State fighters attacked the area in June 2014. Maher Nubul, a father of 11 who left his village Tabaj Hamid in August 2014, said the whole village was “flattened” after it was recaptured by the Peshmerga: 

“All I know is that when the Peshmerga retook the village the houses were standing. We could not go back but could see it clearly from the distance. And later they bulldozed the village, I don’t know why. There is nothing left. They destroyed everything for no reason.”

Amnesty researchers who visited the area in November found that Tabaj Hamid had been razed to the ground, and satellite images obtained by Amnesty also show that not a single structure is left standing. 

Meanwhile, in the village of Jumeili, researchers found the main part of the village had been reduced to rubble. These findings are also supported by satellite imagery evidence showing 95% of all walls and low-lying structures destroyed. Satellite images also provide evidence of large-scale destruction in two other nearby villages, Bahiza and Tubaykh. 

Yezidi militia involvement

Amnesty also found evidence of repeated deliberate mass destruction of homes and property in Arab villages under Peshmerga control in Iraq’s north-western Ninewa governorate, home to numerous Yazidis. In Sibaya and four nearby Arab villages - Chiri, Sayir, Umm Khabari and Khazuqa - most of the houses were first burned down in January 2015 by members of Yezidi militias and fighters from Syrian and Turkish Kurdish armed groups operating in the Sinjar region. They were destroyed when the perpetrators returned with bulldozers five months later. 

Amnesty visited the area in November and found the villages largely destroyed. During a previous visit in April 2015, many houses had been ransacked and burned, but were still standing. Satellite images obtained for four of the five villages also show them largely destroyed. In Sibaya, for example, more than 700 structures were damaged or destroyed out of an estimated total of 897 structures. 

In a nearby Arab village, Barzanke, where virtually every single house had been destroyed, Peshmerga tried to blame the destruction on Islamic State fighters, despite a lack of any evidence to support these claims and their own colleagues’ admission that they had destroyed the village to ensure that Arab residents would have nothing to return to. 

Ayub Salah, a resident of Sibaya, north-east of Mount Sinjar, said:

“After our homes were burned down we were ready to roll up our sleeves and repair them, but the Peshmerga did not allow us to go back and then the Yezidi militias came back and bulldozed and destroyed everything, including our orchards; they left nothing for us to salvage.”

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Banished and Dispossessed: Forced displacement and deliberate destruction in northern Iraq