A human rights group is accusing the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government of carrying out a deliberate campaign to prevent the return of Arabs to towns in Iraq once occupied by the Islamic State group, a practice it says may amount to war crimes.
Armed and equipped by the United States and other major powers – and backed by U.S. airstrikes – Peshmerga forces and allied militias have played a key role in reclaiming territory captured by the Islamic State group.
However, Amnesty International is accusing those forces of razing the predominantly Arab villages they have liberated from the extremist group as part of an apparent attempt to expand the autonomous region’s territory.
More than 3 million people have been refugees by the latest conflict in Iraq, with the country experiencing “the highest and fastest rate of people displaced in the world in 2015,” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The U.S. government has pledged to help rebuild those towns and villages its allied forces have retaken from the Islamic State group. However, some Arab Iraqis are discovering that their former homes no longer exist, having been bulldozed to the ground soon after liberation. “These villages were terrorists,” one KRG security official told Amnesty International, according to the report. “They didn’t just support IS, they were part of it.”
That the largely Sunni residents of razed towns either sympathized with or actively supported the extremist Islamic State is a frequent charge, but other KRG officials offered different explanations, including that areas freed from the Islamic State’s control were not yet safe enough for refugees to return to — or that Kurdish forces were merely correcting past wrongs.
“We are just taking back some of what was ours,” one official reportedly told Amnesty International, referring to former Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein’s efforts to “Arabise” formerly Kurdish parts of Iraq.
Whatever the motivation, Maher Nubul, a father of 11, told Amnesty International, “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.”
According to Amnesty’s International’s Donatella Rovera, that destruction could be grounds for a criminal prosecution.
“The forced displacement of civilians and the deliberate destruction of homes and property without military justification may amount to war crimes,” said Rovera, part of a team that carried out field research in 13 towns and villages and interviewed 120 witnesses.
What researchers saw and heard on the ground was also backed by satellite imagery — and it was not isolated. “Rather,” the report states, the alleged crimes “are examples of a wider pattern across the disputed areas of northern Iraq, where parties which had long vied for exclusive control of these areas are now intent on consolidating territorial gains they have made as a result of battlefield successes against IS.”
WATCH: Amnesty International’s Donatella Rovera on the Ground in Northern Iraq