BAGHDAD // Iraqi authorities have arrested Iran-backed Shiite militia fighters accused of executing 49 Sunni men fleeing Fallujah during the battle to retake the city from ISIL.
Sohaib Al Rawi, the governor of Anbar province, said the men had been killed after they surrendered to a Shiite faction. Another 643 men had gone missing between June 3 and June 5 and “all the surviving detainees were subjected to severe and collective torture”.
Iraqi spokesman Saad Al Hadithi said the accusation was being investigated “and a number of arrests have been made”.
Men aged over 15 who escape from Fallujah are routinely separated from their families and screened to ensure they are not ISIL fighters. However, there have been accusations of arbitrary detention, torture and execution of innocent civilians by the Hashed Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces, the coalition of mostly Shiite militias backed by Iran. The militias surrounded Fallujah ahead of the army operation to recapture it, but have so far remained on the outskirts of the city.
Security forces said on Monday that more than 500 ISIL fighters had been caught trying to sneak out of the city with fleeing civilians.
“We have arrested 546 suspected terrorists who had fled by taking advantage of the movements of displaced families over the past two weeks,” said Hadi Rzayej, the police chief for Anbar. Many of the ISIL fighters were using fake IDs, he said.
“Daesh is fleeing among the civilians, we have arrested many and are investigating the suspects,” said Abdelwahab Al Saadi, the overall commander of the three-week-old Fallujah operation.
Estimates for the number of ISIL fighters in Fallujah vary from 1,000 to 2,500.
Until last week, an estimated 50,000 civilians were still trapped in the centre of the city, 50 kilometres west of Baghdad. The army opened a corridor to the south-west of the city on Saturday that has allowed thousands to escape and reach refugee camps.
The participation of Shiite militias in the Fallujah offensive had raised fears of sectarian killings after reports of abuses against the Sunni population in other areas that they helped to recapture from ISIL.
There have also been allegations against Iraqi government forces. Four soldiers were arrested after video footage showed them abusing people who fled Fallujah.
Iraqi defence minister Khalid Al Obeidi pledged to prosecute any servicemen involved in such acts. “Harassment of internally displaced persons is a betrayal of the sacrifices of our brave forces’ liberation operations to expel Daesh from Iraq,” he said.
Government spokesman Mr Hadithi said strict orders had been issued to protect civilians, and these instructions had also been given to the Hashed Shaabi.
The United Nations said last week it knew of “extremely distressing, credible reports” of men and boys being abused by armed groups working with security forces after fleeing Fallujah.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the screening of civilians was legitimate but should not be done by paramilitary groups.
“The country must avoid further divisions or violence along sectarian lines, lest it implode completely,” he said.
A spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting ISIL said the Baghdad government was aware of the abuses.
“We know that the prime minister has come out and said that he believes that these abuses have happened and that he … has demanded accountability of any perpetrators,” Col Chris Garver said. “We think that is the right course of action.”
In the north of the country, Iraqi troops fought ISIL militants in the village of Hajj Ali for a second day in a renewed operation to retake the city of Mosul.
The village is near Qayyara, a town under ISIL control that has an airfield that Baghdad’s forces want to use as a staging ground for a future offensive on Mosul, about 60km north.
* Reuters and Agence France-Presse