Iraq: End irresponsible arms transfers fuelling militia war crimes

  • Militias allied to the Iraqi government have access to arms from at least 17 countries
  • Recent arms transfers have fuelled enforced disappearances, abductions, torture, summary killings, and deliberate destruction of civilian property
  • Iraq is the world’s sixth-largest importer of heavy weaponry

Paramilitary militias nominally operating as part of the Iraqi armed forces in the fight against the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) are using arms from Iraqi military stockpiles, provided by the USA, Europe, Russia and Iran, to commit war crimes, revenge attacks and other atrocities said Amnesty International in a new report today.

Field research and detailed expert analysis of photographic and video evidence since June 2014 has found that these paramilitary militias have benefited from transfers of arms manufactured in at least 16 countries, which include tanks and artillery as well as a wide range of small arms.

The predominantly Shi’a militias have used those arms to facilitate the enforced disappearance and abduction of thousands of mainly Sunni men and boys, torture and extrajudicial executions as well as wanton destruction of property.

“International arms suppliers, including the USA, European countries, Russia and Iran, must wake up to the fact that all arms transfers to Iraq carry a real risk of ending up in the hands of militia groups with long histories of human rights violations,” said Patrick Wilcken, Researcher on Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International.

The USA, European countries, Russia and Iran, must wake up to the fact that all arms transfers to Iraq carry a real risk of ending up in the hands of militia groups with long histories of human rights violations.
Patrick Wilcken, Researcher on Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International

“Any state selling arms to Iraq has to show that there are strict measures in place to make sure the weapons will not be used by paramilitary militias to flagrantly violate rights. If they haven’t done that, no transfer should take place.”

The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) – comprised of as many as 40 or 50 distinct militias – were established in mid-2014 to aid in the fight against IS. In 2016, the PMU formally became part of the Iraqi armed forces, but have enjoyed government support since long before that.

The report focuses on four main militias that Amnesty International has documented committing serious human rights violations: Munathamat Badr (Badr Brigades or Badr Organization), ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), Kata’ib Hizbullah (Hizbullah Brigades) and the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades).

Amnesty International’s research shows how PMU militias have grown in power and influence since 2014. They receive arms and salaries from the Iraqi authorities, and have increasingly gone into battle or controlled checkpoints together with Iraqi troops. Under this cloak of official approval, some PMUs have been documented carrying out revenge attacks mainly targeting Sunni Arabs, and nobody is holding them to account.

“The Iraqi authorities have helped to arm and equip the PMU militias and pay their salaries – they must stop turning a blind eye to this systematic pattern of serious human rights violations and war crimes,” said Patrick Wilcken.

“Any militiamen fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi military must be thoroughly and rigorously vetted. Those suspected of committing serious violations must be removed from their ranks, pending judicial investigations and prosecutions. Unaccountable and unruly militias must be either truly brought into the fold and discipline of the armed forces, or disarmed and demobilized completely.”

The Iraqi authorities face tremendous security threats from IS, which continues to commit atrocities in areas under its control and to carry out deadly attacks on civilians elsewhere in Iraq. But measures responding to these threats must respect international human rights and humanitarian law.

Amnesty International is urging Iraq to immediately accede to the global Arms Trade Treaty, which has strict rules in place to stop arms transfers or diversion of arms that could fuel atrocities.

Systematic violations by PMU militias

The predominantly Shi’a PMU militias have used their arsenal of weapons to carry out or facilitate a systematic pattern of violations, seemingly as revenge in the wake of IS attacks. These include enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, as well as the torture of thousands of Sunni Arab men and boys.

A man from Muqdadiya told Amnesty International how his 22-year-old brother Amer was among 100 men and boys abducted from their homes in January 2016 when PMU militias went on the rampage in retaliation for a suicide attack on a Shi’a-owned café in the city. PMU fighters also burnt and destroyed Sunni mosques, shops and property.

“Many Sunnis were grabbed in the streets or dragged from their homes and instantly killed. In the first week of the events, militiamen drove around with speakers shouting for Sunni men to come out of their homes. On 13 January [2016], more than 100 men were taken and have not been seen since,” the man said.

Sunni men and boys have routinely been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment at checkpoints and detention facilities controlled by PMU militias.

In one case, a 20-year-old student told Amnesty International that, on 26 July 2016, he was fleeing fighting in Shargat when he was stopped at the Asmida checkpoint in Salah al-Din governorate. The forces controlling the checkpoint – a mix of men in civilian dress and others in military uniform, including some bearing PMU insignias – immediately blindfolded him and drove him away.

“I spent seven weeks under torture; they wanted me to confess to being Daesh [IS]. I was held with about 30 other people in a school… We were all beaten with metal rods and cables. They also used electric shocks… I was blindfolded through most of this time… After 22 days, they transferred all of us to Baghdad to a prison… There were other people there, some detained for over six months and their families did not know anything about them… I was also tortured there, and interrogated once while blindfolded…” He was eventually freed without charge.

The fate and whereabouts of thousands of other Sunni men and boys who were seized by PMU militias remain unknown. Hundreds of Sunni men and boys have been abducted at the al-Razzaza checkpoint crossing alone by the Hizbullah Brigades since October 2014.

“Instead of unequivocally hailing militias as heroes fighting to put an end to IS atrocities, thereby emboldening them, the Iraqi authorities must stop turning a blind eye to systematic abuses that have fed sectarian tensions,” said Patrick Wilcken.

Instead of unequivocally hailing militias as heroes fighting to put an end to IS atrocities, thereby emboldening them, the Iraqi authorities must stop turning a blind eye to systematic abuses that have fed sectarian tensions.
Patrick Wilcken

“Cosmetic changes recognizing militias as part of the armed forces are not enough – the Iraqi authorities must urgently rein in paramilitary militias. Iraq’s international partners, including those who arm it, need to use their influence to press for this to happen.”

Arming the PMU

The PMU deploy more than 100 types of arms originally manufactured in at least 17 countries. These include heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery in addition to a wide range of small arms – an eclectic mix including standard-issue Kalashnikov and M-16 automatic rifles, machine guns, handguns and sniper rifles.

Since their establishment in mid-2014, the PMU have increasingly been supplied directly by the Iraqi authorities, from Iraqi military stocks. This includes a significant quantity of more recently manufactured NATO-pattern equipment, mainly from the USA, along with equipment from Russia and Eastern Europe.

More than 20 countries have supplied Iraq with arms and ammunition over the last five years, led by the USA, followed by Russia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, arms exports to Iraq increased by 83% between the periods 2006–10 and 2011–15. As of 2015, Iraq was the sixth largest arms importer of heavy weapons in the world.

The Iraqi armed forces’ often haphazard and shoddy weapons tracking systems make it very difficult to trace where arms transfers go once they make it to Iraq. This, coupled with the fluid nature of the conflict, means that weapons frequently get captured or diverted to armed groups or militias currently active in both Iraq and Syria.

The Iraqi authorities must put in place strict measures to ensure stockpiles of weapons are properly secured and monitored.
Patrick Wilcken


“The Iraqi authorities must put in place strict measures to ensure stockpiles of weapons are properly secured and monitored,” said Patrick Wilcken.

Iran’s role

The sheer breadth of Iraq’s arms suppliers has led to unintended consequences – for example, US armoured vehicles almost certainly intended for Iraqi forces have wound up in the hands of Kata’ib Hizbullah, a militia with ties to Iran that the US State Department has long classified as a “foreign terrorist organization”.

Iran remains a major military sponsor of the PMU militias – particularly those with close links to Iranian military and religious figures, such as the Badr Organization, ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Hizbullah Brigades – all of which stand accused of serious human rights violations. These ongoing supplies are in breach of a 2015 UN resolution barring arms exports from Iran without prior approval from the UN Security Council.

“Iran’s provision of arms directly to the PMU risks rendering Iran complicit in war crimes. It should not allow transfers to any PMU militia groups while they remain outside the effective command and control of the Iraqi armed forces and unaccountable for abuses they commit,” said Patrick Wilcken.