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Some Iraqi forces wage campaign of punishment against ISIS fighters, suspected sympathizers

July 26, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
As the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State nears its end, a new campaign of revenge and retribution is underway by Iraqi forces against those suspected of fighting for or aiding the militant group. Human rights organizations report a number of extrajudicial killings, mass detentions and forced displacement. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs and videographer Alessandro Pavone report.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The battle to retake Mosul from ISIS is nearing its end. And yet a new deadly campaign is under way by some Iraqi forces of revenge and retribution against those suspected to have fought for or aided ISIS.

From Northern Iraq, special correspondent Marcia Biggs and videographer Alessandro Pavone report.

And a warning: Images and accounts in this story may disturb some viewers.

MARCIA BIGGS: It starts at dawn here in West Mosul, members of Iraqi special forces going door to door in search of ISIS sleeper cells. Clashes continue in a small pocket of the Old City, but for most of Mosul, this is where the fight against ISIS stands.

In some houses, we find the remnants of life under ISIS.

This was a Da’esh prison, he says.

So this was once the home of a local politician. When ISIS took the area, they turned his house into a jail. ISIS imprisoned anyone who didn’t pledge loyalty to them, who didn’t join them and stick to their rules, this lieutenant says. They considered them outlaws.

After several hours searching, they come across this man, who they believe may have escaped the current clashes in the Old City. He is arrested immediately.

Do you believe he is an ISIS fighter?

STAFF MAJ. QUSAY KENANI, Head of Diyala Regiment, Iraqi Special Forces (through interpreter): I think he is. He is not from this area. No one has ever seen here. People here don’t know him. He is very thin, and the I.D. card is fake. So, probably he is ISIS.

MARCIA BIGGS: We are told he will be released if there is no evidence against him. But for residents here, this is a familiar and frightening scene.

We heard the same story everywhere we went.

ABU ISSA, Mosul Resident (through interpreter): For no reason, the militias took my son five months ago. We don’t know where. We are not ISIS. My son is a shepherd. If we were ISIS, you could come and kill me. Ask anyone here.

(GUNFIRE)

MARCIA BIGGS: Just last week, this photo emerged of suspected ISIS fighters rounded up and held in a small dark room in the 120-degree heat, an eye for an eye, as the captors become captive.

Dr. Mansour Maarouf Mansour was working in Qayyarah General Hospital when this video was taken last spring. The hospital was inundated with unidentified bodies coming down the Tigris River. The morgue could barely handle the grim deluge.

A local resident described the what he saw at the riverbank.

MAN (through interpreter): They had their hands tied behind their backs. They were blindfolded and shot in the head. They were floating down the river.

MARCIA BIGGS: And just last week, even more bodies.

You received a lot of bodies that looked to have been the victims of execution, is that right?

MAN: Yes.

MARCIA BIGGS: What was the state of the bodies that you received?

DR. MANSOUR MAAROUF MANSOUR: Yes, most of them were killed by shooting to the head. It’s very little in compared to those who were killed by the liberation process, through the mines, land mines, or the bombs, mortar bombs, or airstrike.

MARCIA BIGGS: The number of civilian casualties has been staggering. Former Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Hoshyar Zebari says at least 40,000 dead, many of them at the hands of coalition airstrikes, which include both Iraqi and American firepower.

As residents return home to a Mosul depleted of ISIS fighters, the new campaign may be one of collective punishment against possible ISIS sympathizers. We traveled to a village just south of the city, where many of the residents collaborated with ISIS.

We had heard reports of so-called revenge death squads coming for them in the dead of night. Um Nazim’s husband was a taxi driver, and she says he just joined the group to survive. He was later killed in an airstrike. She was too scared to let us show her full face.

“UM NAZIM,” ISIS Widow (through interpreter): They told us, if your sons and husbands do not declare loyalty, we will bring back the religious police and we will behead them. He was an old man when we were threatened, so he was scared. He thought it would be better to declare loyalty. It is better than being killed.

MARCIA BIGGS: Since the liberation of her town from ISIS, she says local militias have threatened her, demanding that she leave, even shooting up and raiding her home.

UM NAZIM (through interpreter): We have lost our minds. Every night when we sleep, we don’t know if we will be alive in the morning. What is our life? We were all throwing their clothes in bags, but we didn’t know where to go. We don’t have money to leave or even to rent a car. I don’t know what to do, where to go. I was pacing back and forth in the front yard. I told them, kill me. It’s better than this. Come on and kill me and end my suffering.

MARCIA BIGGS: The Iraqi government maintains that any abuse is being dealt with in due process, and Iraqi commanders admit the mistakes.

MAJ. GEN. NAJIM AL-JUBOURI, Iraqi Commander: We don’t lead eagles. We lead humans. I mean, our soldiers, our police, they are human, not eagles. Maybe someone make some bad thing, but the majority, the general of our forces deal very good with the people.

MARCIA BIGGS: So what do you do when you find out one of your men has been part of this abuse?

MAJ. GEN. NAJIM AL-JUBOURI: We put him in the jail, and we send him to the court. e

MARCIA BIGGS: Do you worry about revenge attacks creating an atmosphere that would make Iraq vulnerable to another ISIS?

MAJ. GEN. NAJIM AL-JUBOURI: Yes, I worry about that. We try to push the local government to put some solution to these things.

MARCIA BIGGS: Human rights groups say this is not enough.

TOM PORTEOUS, Deputy Program Director, Human Rights Watch: The Iraqi government sometimes responds to our reports and our advocacy by making the right sort of noises and making the right kinds of statements, but it’s never followed up with a proper procedure to secure accountability for the abuses that we document.

You can win the war militarily against the Islamic State, but if you are continuing to commit abuses with impunity, then you are simply sowing the seeds for the reemergence of extremism and radicalism in Iraq.

MARCIA BIGGS: Like many Sunni Arabs that lived under ISIS, Um Nazim feels she is under siege by the Shia-dominated government and militias that fought and won the battle against ISIS.

Do you hope that ISIS will come back?

UM NAZIM (through translator): I don’t hope that ISIS will come back, but there was peace and no one interfered in the life of anyone else. No one oppressed anyone. The situation was calmer.

MARCIA BIGGS: For you, but for those who weren’t part of ISIS, they were very scared.

UM NAZIM (through interpreter): No, no one in Iraq was scared. Everybody was living in peace under ISIS, not just us, because my husband was with ISIS.

MARCIA BIGGS: But how can you say that? We have heard so many stories of people who were killed, people who were repressed, who couldn’t go to school?

UM NAZIM (through interpreter): I don’t know. I didn’t go out. I didn’t see anything. I’m only responsible for myself, not for others. I didn’t see anyone kill anyone else in front of me. I heard people say that others were killed, but who knows who killed them.

MARCIA BIGGS: What do you say to the children whose parents were killed by ISIS suicide bombers?

UM NAZIM (through interpreter): I don’t know. I didn’t see. I wasn’t with ISIS to know anything about that. ISIS became a state and a government. Who can say anything to them under their rule?

MARCIA BIGGS: Like many under occupation, Um Nazim turned a blind eye in order to ensure her own safety.

The dust is beginning to settle in Mosul, but revenge can be a dirty game. The battle may have ended, but a new war in Iraq may be just beginning.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Marcia Biggs in and around Mosul, Iraq.

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