Middle East

Fallujah abuses hard to prevent: minister

Iraqi security forces enter the southern neighborhoods of Fallujah as they advance on the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah, Iraq, June 9, 2016. (AP Photo)

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s interior minister said it would be difficult to prevent attacks against people fleeing the Daesh-held (ISIS) city of Fallujah, but denied that such actions were systematic and pledged to punish anyone proven guilty of abuses. A regional governor said this week that 49 Sunni men had been executed after surrendering to a Shiite militia supporting the army offensive to retake Fallujah, and more than 600 had gone missing between June 3-5 after escaping the city.

Interior Minister Mohammad al-Ghabban, a senior member of the powerful Shiite political party the Badr Organization, said paramilitary fighters from the Popular Mobilization forces had been referred to court over the alleged violations but that no police personnel appeared to be involved.

Badr, which is backed by neighboring Iran, is part of the government’s ruling coalition and has long been criticized for controlling the Interior Ministry.

Its military wing, a leading force in the mostly Shiite Popular Mobilization, is participating in the campaign to retake Fallujah, an hour’s drive west of Baghdad.

Sohaib al-Rawi, governor of the overwhelmingly Sunni province of Anbar where Fallujah is located, accused Popular Mobilization fighters Sunday of detaining, torturing and killing civilians fleeing Fallujah amid the battle to drive out Daesh.

Ghabban told Reuters in an interview late Tuesday that such behavior was not systematic but that he could not guarantee it would not occur, noting that violations by U.S.-led coalition forces during their nine-year occupation of Iraq did not amount to a policy of rights abuse.

Some Daesh fighters disguise themselves as civilians, he said, “making it very difficult to distinguish between actual civilians and those who are pretending.”

“The diversity of formations, the large battlefield and its intersection with civilian areas is a challenge in itself which could lead to infringements, individual behavior, violations of human rights or abuses.”

Ghabban said he supported investigating the claims and punishing anyone proven guilty, but warned against jumping to conclusions before the cases went to court.

“We do not want to get ahead of events and regard these as facts before they are confirmed, nor do we want to be negligent and gloss over any crime,” he said.

Daesh, which has been pushed back from several key cities it seized in 2014 during a lightning sweep across Iraq’s north and west, has used residents as human shields to slow the troops’ advance and thwart a American-led air campaign backing them.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s initial decision to assault Fallujah appears to have gone against the plans of his U.S. allies, who would prefer the government concentrate on the northern city of Mosul.

But a string of bombings last month in Baghdad which killed more than 150 people in one week, the highest death toll this year, cranked up pressure on Abadi to do something about Fallujah, just 50 km west of Baghdad and seen by many Iraqis as an irredeemable bulwark of Sunni militancy.

Ghabban said military gains in Fallujah would help reduce attacks claimed by Daesh in Baghdad, suggesting the militants were using the city, along with other areas in Anbar and Ninevah provinces, to assemble car bombs sent to the capital.

Intelligence has helped security forces disrupt dozens of “terrorist networks,” said Ghabban, leading to a 60 percent drop in attacks in Baghdad in 2015 compared to the previous year when Daesh threatened to overrun the capital.

But the minister acknowledged that Daesh maintains safe havens in areas just outside Baghdad, like Arab Jabour in the southern outskirts as well as Tarmiya and Mishada in the north, whose terrain makes it difficult for security forces to pursue suspected militants.

Ninety percent of explosions in Baghdad come from such areas outside the city proper, he said.

Ghabban also insisted that attacks in the capital would not end unless “disorder” plaguing the country’s security apparatus was eliminated.

He said security forces outside his control, including the National Security Advisory, two Defense Ministry directorates, the elite counterterrorism service and regional security commands, overlap with the Interior Ministry’s own counter-intelligence efforts.

“This plurality leads to confusion in managing the security file.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 16, 2016, on page 8.

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