Human Rights Watch today accused Iranian-trained Iraqi Shia jihadists battling Daesh of demolishing hundreds of Sunni Arab houses near the city of Mosul, leading to accusations that the paramilitary organisation perpetrated war crimes.
The New York-based rights group said the mainly Shia units known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) had destroyed 345 houses in villages to the west of Mosul in northern Iraq after retaking them from the hardline Daesh militant group.
"There was no apparent military necessity for the demolitions, which may amount to war crimes and which took place between Nov. 2016 and Feb. 2017," the HRW said in a report.
The demolitions will prevent families displaced by the war from returning to their villages, HRW Deputy Middle East Director Lama Fakih told Reuters.
HRW called upon the United States and other Western powers who supply arms, funding and other support to the Iraqi government to use their leverage to force Baghdad to investigate allegations of war crimes and human rights violations and abuses.
The PMF are taking part in a US and Iran-backed offensive that started last October to dislodge Daesh from Mosul, their last major city stronghold in northern Iraq. They are attacking the group in the region that lies west of Mosul, between the city and the Syrian border.
A PMF spokesman in Baghdad said the houses cited in the HRW report were most likely destroyed by Islamic State car suicide car bombs, one of the main weapons used by the militants to counter the assailants' advance.
"In some villages, they launched as many as 10 car bombs against us, causing lots of damage and destroying many homes," the spokesman said.
However, HRW said that they "did not find evidence to support [PMF] claims that the demolitions may have been undertaken for legitimate military reasons," not least because many of the demolitions occurred after Daesh had been cleared out of the areas where Sunni Arab civilian homes were destroyed by the Shia jihadists.
"Despite the PMF statement about booby-trapped homes, satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch shows that the houses were destroyed by explosives, heavy machinery and fire after the PMF had retaken the villages," HRW said in response to the PMF's assertions.
Allegations of war crimes are nothing new against the PMF Shia jihadists. For years, international human rights organisations, including HRW and Amnesty International, have documented systematic sectarian atrocities committed by the PMF.
Earlier this month, an Iraqi Christian force, who fights under the PMF, threatened to ethnically cleanse towns and villages near Mosul from their Sunni Arab populations.
Speaking to MEMO at the time, legal expert and chairman of the UK-based Arab Lawyers Network, Sabah Al-Mukhtar, said that "[what the PMF is] threatening is genocide" against the Sunni Arabs.
The PMF is a formal part of the Iraqi military after a parliamentary bill was passed last year formally acknowledging them as a part of Iraq's armed forces. This means that the Iraqi government is responsible for any war crimes committed by the PMF, forces subordinated to Baghdad's authority.
The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilian property except where an enemy is using it for military purposes. As Daesh were completely cleared out of towns and villages the PMF later destroyed, this would suggest that the PMF and Iraqi government are culpable for war crimes.