The extremist armed group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has committed genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Iraq. As they confront ISIL, some Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militias are also committing possible war crimes.
Following the launch of a major offensive to recapture Mosul from ISIL, who have declared a caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq, the humanitarian situation in the city has become increasingly dire. Since the offensive began on 17 October, ISIL has engaged in widespread fighting across northern Iraq with a coalition comprised mainly of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdish Peshmerga, operating with United States air support.
On 23 January the Iraqi government announced the recapture of eastern Mosul, and on 19 February it began an offensive to retake western Mosul. On 25 April a senior ISF commander reported that ISIL had been driven out of the al-Tanek neighborhood, the largest in western Mosul. Although the ISF now control 70 percent of western Mosul, UN agencies and humanitarian organizations continue to raise grave concerns regarding civilians trapped in ISIL-occupied neighborhoods.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) over 414,000 people have been displaced from western Mosul, and up to 7,500 people flee the city each day. On 25 March the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the ISF temporarily paused military operations in western Mosul due to a sharp increase in civilian casualties, but fighting resumed on 26 March.
Since the start of the Mosul offensive, the UN has received credible reports of ISIL perpetrating mass killings and forcibly displacing civilians. ISIL has also used civilians as human shields. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), on 20 March ISIL militants allegedly forced 38 families to leave their homes in the Bab al-Beth neighborhood and used them to shield their fighters as they relocated to western Mosul.
A United States-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq since August 2014, following the Iraqi government's request for assistance after the group seized the northern town of Sinjar. On 17 March up to 200 civilians may have been killed in an airstrike in the al-Jadidah district of Mosul. A senior United States commander in Iraq subsequently conceded that a United States airstrike was likely responsible for some of these deaths.
The ISF and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have discovered at least five mass graves in towns near Mosul. Three of the mass graves were discovered in Hammam al-Alil and likely contain the bodies of hundreds of missing Iraqi police officers. Peshmerga discovered two other mass graves of members of the Yazidi community near the Shababit junction in northwestern Iraq. On 22 March Human Rights Watch reported that ISIL had executed and dumped the bodies of unknown numbers of ISF members in a sinkhole near Mosul. OHCHR has reported that at least 20 mass graves have been found in formerly ISIL-held territory since October 2016.
The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported that 317 civilians were killed in acts of terrorism, violence and armed conflict during April. Given access constraints, UNAMI states that these figures "have to be considered as the absolute minimum." OCHA estimates that as of April 2017, 11 million people in Iraq – one third of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance, with 3.1 million people internally displaced.
ISIL continues to systematically attack and persecute vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shabak, Yazidis and Turkmen, causing their mass displacement. UNAMI and OHCHR have reported that ISIL's violations, "may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide." The Commission of Inquiry on Syria has also reported that ISIL "has committed the crime of genocide as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yazidis" in Iraq. On 30 April OCHA reported that 36 Yazidi were rescued from slavery, having been held captive by ISIL for nearly three years. It is estimated that up to 1,500 Yazidi women and girls remain enslaved by ISIL.
ISIL also routinely targets civilians from the majority Shia population in sectarian attacks. On 20 March at least 20 people were killed in a bombing that targeted the largely Shia neighborhood of Amil in Baghdad.
Responding to sectarian terrorist attacks and the rise of ISIL, some members of the ISF and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have carried out violent reprisals against Sunni civilians. OHCHR has expressed concern at reports of forced evictions and extrajudicial killings committed by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and affiliated militias "against Sunni Arab communities in parts of Iraq that have been reclaimed from ISIL," particularly Fallujah and Mosul. On 2 February UNHCR reported that at least 116 families had been forcibly expelled from their homes by local government authorities in Salah al-Din governorate.
ISIL poses an existential threat to Iraq's ethnic and religious minorities, who face the risk of further mass atrocities. ISIL's sectarian violence also poses a direct threat to members of the majority Shia community. ISIL is committed to the extermination of all religious communities and minority cultures that do not conform to its strict interpretation of Islam.
The recapture of Mosul is a crucial step towards defeating ISIL in Iraq. However, as the ISF and Peshmerga forces advance, ISIL continues to use civilians as human shields and to target those who attempt to flee. As the territory controlled by ISIL shrinks they will also likely increase terrorist attacks across Iraq. It remains essential that all parties combatting ISIL ensure the protection of civilians and uphold their obligations under international law.
Despite a November 2010 power-sharing agreement between political parties representing Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, many Sunnis felt marginalized under former President Nouri al-Maliki. ISIL exploited widespread disaffection to build alliances with Sunni tribes and seize large swathes of territory and resources during 2014. Cultural identities and religious loyalties continue to be manipulated by various political forces in Iraq. Some Shia militias, mobilized by the government to fight ISIL, continue to pose a direct threat to Sunni civilians.
The Iraqi government needs ongoing international assistance to uphold its Responsibility to Protect.
In addition to international support for the Iraqi government, several European Union (EU) member states, as well as Albania and Canada, have provided ongoing assistance to Kurdish fighters battling ISIL.
On 25 July the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2299, renewing the mandate of UNAMI until July 2017.
On 18 August OHCHR and UNAMI released a report calling for Iraq to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and hold ISIL perpetrators accountable for "targeting and seeking to destroy" the Yazidi.
On 1 November the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, condemned crimes committed by ISIL and retaliatory violence against Sunni communities during the Mosul offensive.
The international community should continue to provide support to the Iraqi government to combat the threat ISIL poses to vulnerable populations, especially religious and ethnic minorities. The Kurdistan Regional Government is also in need of international support to defend against ongoing ISIL attacks.
While confronting ISIL and other armed groups, it is essential that the Iraqi government protects all civilians and addresses the underlying sources of conflict between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. The government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government must strictly uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL). Iraq's international supporters must ensure that all parties participating in the battle for Mosul take effective measures to ensure the consistent protection of civilians.
The government must investigate and punish human rights abuses and actively prevent reprisals by the ISF and allied militias against Sunni civilians in areas recaptured from ISIL.
The UNSC, with Iraqi government support, should immediately establish an international investigative commission to collect and preserve evidence regarding mass atrocity crimes perpetrated by ISIL in Iraq, including the genocide against the Yazidi. Perpetrators should be held accountable under international law.
Last Updated: 15 May 2017