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The Missing Victims of Iraq’s Militias

By Sophia Poteet , in Iran Iraq , at August 14, 2020

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When the US killed Iranian General Quasem Soleimani in an airstrike in Iraq at the start of this year, most press coverage focused on the resulting rise in tensions and potential repercussion for US-Iranian relations. Yet General Soleimani, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was not the only casualty of that airstrike, nor were the Iranian people the only ones affected by the resulting shift in power. Also killed in the airstrike was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a top commander of the group of Iraqi militias collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Units, or the PMU. Under the influence and control of al-Muhandis and Soleimani, several of those Iran-backed militias have been responsible for extensive human rights violations against Iraqis, including the detention and disappearance of hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqi men and boys.

For those missing Iraqis, the shifting power and influence of militia groups and their leaders is often a matter of life and death.

The PMU plays a complex role in Iraqi events. Brought together in 2014 to supplement the Iraqi armed forces in their fight against IS, the force is not one militia, but dozens of different brigades with diverse leaders, goals, and human rights records. Some of the brigades were formed in 2014 in response to Iraqi Shi’ite leaders calling men to arms against IS, while others, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, had been in existence for years, backed and funded by Iran. 

Fanar Haddad explained the variance across brigades and the nuance that exists throughout the PMU in his 2018 report, “Understanding Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’bi” (another name for the PMU), writing, “They are neither the angels that their more ardent fans portray them as, nor the Iranian-made automatons of doom that their critics would have us believe they are: neither black nor white, they occupy a spectrum spanning several shades of grey.” The PMU’s crucial role in the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq helps explain the popular support the group as a whole still enjoys amongst some (though not all) Iraqis, even as individual militias brutalize certain populations throughout the country.

In 2016, Amnesty International identified Kata’ib Hezbollah (the militia al-Muhandis founded and led before his death), ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (a group linked to General Soleimani), and the Badr Brigades (now the Badr Organization) as three of the PMU brigades with the worst records of human rights abuses. As these and other PMU militias fought with the Iraqi army against the Islamic State, pushing it out of Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul, they also inflicted countless human rights abuses against Sunni men and boys, including enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. Internally displaced persons fleeing IS occupied areas and the ensuing battles were subjected to vague security screenings which often consisted of the rounding up of Sunni men and boys for prolonged periods of detention, execution, or disappearance, according to an Amnesty International report from 2016. In one case from June of 2016, Amnesty International found that 1300 men and boys in Saqlawiyah were detained by PMU forces. Some were tortured or killed, while others were driven off in vans, 643 of whom remain missing to this day. Human Rights Watch also documented the targeted killing of Sunni civilians by PMU forces in January of 2016, purportedly in retaliation for two bombings claimed by the Islamic State a few days before. 

Raise the Voices was able to unarchive a deleted Iraqi news cut that covered the story of three brothers who were arrested and detained by militia groups in 2016. The brothers, who had previously converted from Shi’a to Sunni Islam, were accused of terrorism, but an anonymous source believes the real reason for their detention is connected to the oldest brother’s role as an Air Force officer in the Iraqi armed forces during the first Gulf War. Human Rights Watch has documented multiple cases where Sunni men were forcibly detained or disappeared under the guise of counterterrorism operations. The brothers remain missing to this day. 

Enforced disappearances are not new to Iraq, nor are PMU militias the first or the only actors to be responsible for these violations of human rights. The International Committee on Missing Persons estimates the total number of missing persons in Iraq to be somewhere between 250,000 and one million, and multiple international human rights organizations have identified enforced disappearances as a widespread and systemic problem in Iraq. A report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) focused on 25 individual cases of abduction which occurred sometime between 1 October 2019 and 29 February 2020, with the purpose of examining patterns between cases of enforced disappearances. All 25 interviewees in the review reported that they had been abducted by multiple men in public, forced into vehicles, and driven to a site where they were detained anywhere between 1 and 14 days. All abductees reported that they faced some form of torture. Families and friends seeking information about missing persons were for the most part unable to locate the abductee until they were released, receiving no assistance from government authorities or through any official channels. The report noted that these enforced disappearances were most likely carried out by unidentified members of the pro-Iran PMU militias, an element which is particularly concerning because of the PMU’s relationship with, or, more accurately, as part of, the Iraqi state.

That relationship was formalized in 2016 and expanded in 2018, when the PMU law officially incorporated the independent militias into the Iraqi armed forces. That law placed the militias under the command and (theoretically) control of the commander of the Iraqi armed forces. The militias were armed and funded by the government to aid their joint fight against the Islamic State, and the militia members were paid salaries by the Iraqi state. That legal incorporation of the PMU into the state both bolstered the PMU’s legitimacy, and narrowed the already dismal avenues available to family members of those detained and abducted by PMU militias. As PMU militias expanded their influence across the country, expanding into the political sphere as well as the police forces, the lines between state institutions and militia groups blurred, making it even more difficult for Iraqis to either advocate for the release of their loved ones or hold the perpetrators accountable.

Now, more than two years after then Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State in Iraq, those militia groups still exist, and retain influence across the country and throughout the government. In the recent anti-government protests that began in Baghdad this past October and have continued throughout the country in the months since, the PMU continued to play a role. PMU militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, were identified as part of the security forces that violently cracked down on protesters, killing hundreds and injuring thousands more. Many activists and journalists involved in the protests have also been kidnapped by unnamed militias, although the PMU continues to deny responsibility. The violent targeting of civilians by Iran-backed militias has shifted the protests from their initial focus on political and economic reforms to now also encompass protests against continued foreign intervention and influence in the country by both Iran and the United States. 

The prevalence of enforced disappearances of Iraqis involved in those protests reveals the lack of transparency between the Iraqi government and its citizens, as well as the struggles for authority between militias and government authorities. An interview with an Iraqi activist involved in the recent protests confirmed how difficult it has been to secure details on the whereabouts of missing persons. In January and March of 2020, respectively, two journalists named Mazin Lateef and Tawfiq Al Tamimi were kidnapped after participating in anti-government protests in Baghdad. Both men remain missing, and no one has been found responsible for their disappearances. Prime Minister Kadhimi recently promised to take action to secure Al Tamimi’s release, but there is no guarantee that statement will have any real impact, or that Kadhimi even has the power necessary to locate and release the missing journalist.

The international community has repeatedly expressed its disdain for the Iraqi government’s continual failure to meet fair trial or detention standards and for denying its citizens their right to due process. A report published by the Human Rights Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2014 details clear violations of humanitarian and international law on behalf of the Iraqi government. UNAMI received complaints from prisoners who had been detained for an extended amount of time without charges or a trial, as well as reports of torture and forced pre-trial confessions in police custody. In its report, UNAMI noted that most of the prisoners who were executed during the first half of 2014 were convicted of crimes under Article 4 of the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 13 of 2005, which states that any person suspected of terrorist activities can be forcefully detained. Those charged in violation of Article 4 under this law face serious punishment—either life imprisonment or the death penalty. Strict counter-terrorism laws are widely accepted by the international community as a necessary security measure in order to protect the general public, so long as they are used for legitimate purposes. In practice, however, Anti-Terrorism Law No. 13 of 2005 has been widely misused by the government (and by association, PMU militias) to arbitrarily arrest and detain dissidents and critics of the state by designating them as “terrorists”. A review by the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights, in its evaluation of Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Law (2005) with International Human Rights Standards, found that “…the law is vague and overly broad and thereby criminalizes otherwise lawful activities that are unrelated to deterring or punishng terrorism.” While by law Iraqi citizens are granted basic personal freedoms, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, the influence of PMU forces in the Iraqi government has allowed them to take advantage of substantial gaps within Iraq’s legal framework in regard to human rights. 

Raise the Voices sources in Iraq confirmed this experience, saying that it is virtually hopeless for the victimized families to take action against the culprit party due to the outside influence on the police forces. Federal law is continuously exploited to target “…anyone they don’t like. If they are not able to assassinate us. They use police and prisons to hold us,” a relative of a detained Iraqi reported. Raise the Voices sources further detailed the specific targeting of Sunni tribes and Baathist families, and the way crimes against them were reported as accidents, with no consequences to the wrongdoers. Anonymous sources also described their belief that there are secret underground detention centers in Kadhimiya and Al Muthanna air base, in facilities previously used as weapons warehouses and storage areas. Now, they have become parts of a corrupt incarceration system, where Iraqis accused of any wrongdoing against Iran or Iranian backed militias can be detained without charges, governmental oversight, or any hope of a fair trial, according to our sources. The New York Times documented the existence of a prison at Muthanna air base in 2010, where Sunnis arrested in northern Iraq were held, and some tortured.

The PMU militias play a significant role in the ongoing sectarian conflict between the Shiite and Sunni factions, employing the same tactics used in suppressing the recent protests. Some Shiite-led militia groups continue to attack or assassinate Sunnis whom they suspect were previously associated with IS or the Ba’ath Party. In the case of the three brothers who were disappeared, it has been revealed that these three individuals are accused of violations under Article 4, but that they have not yet received a trial. With the courts, intelligence police, and government all influenced to varying extents by militia groups and riddled with corruption, there are few legal pathways for Iraqi families to safely or successfully advocate for their detained family members.

The situation, and the actors involved, are ever shifting, as a militia may be identified by Amnesty International as having one of the worst human rights records in the PMU one year, and then be seen just a few years later protecting anti-government protesters from Iraqi security forces and other PMU militias. One of the few consistences is the impunity with which militias commit human rights abuses. This utter lack of accountability has to change in order for progress to be made, as Amnesty International stated in their letter to the newly confirmed Prime Minister Kadhimi earlier this year: “…it is imperative that your government secures: accountability for the unlawful killing and injuring of thousands of protesters since October 2019; an end to the collective punishment of internally displaced Iraqis; and disclosure of the fate and whereabouts of thousands of men and boys who were forcibly disappeared during the conflict against IS… The new government must demonstrate that, unlike its predecessors, it is determined to end entrenched impunity for violations of human rights, including by ending arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances by security forces and militias.”

The systemic issues within Iraq’s justice system are long, shaped and exacerbated by both the 2003 US invasion and the rise of IS. The PMU’s role within that system has harmed many Iraqis, both those who remain detained with little hope of a fair trial and those who wait without an answer as to the location of their missing relatives. The Iran-backed militias continue to exploit the ambiguity of Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Law and their close relationship with the Iraqi state to arbitrarily arrest anyone who may threaten their authority, whether that be for religious or political reasons. As long as they continue to function with impunity, thousands of Iraqis will not be able to receive justice. 

Prime Minister Kadhimi recently made an attempt to rein in the PMU militias, arresting 14 members of Kataib Hezbollah for allegedly planning an attack on Baghdad’s international zone. However, the militia members were released the next day, after fellow Kataib Hezbollah members demanded their release, and the arrests appeared to be linked more to Kataib Hezbollah’s attacks on US forces than their crimes against Iraqi civilians. How much power the government really has over the militias, and whether or not that power will be utilised for the protection of Iraqi civilians from arrests, torture, and abductions, remains to be seen.

—By Sophia Poteet, Julia Shapiro, and Soham Gawali