Iraq will probe abuses in Fallujah operation: spokesman

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The Iraqi government will investigate allegations of abuses by the security forces in the course of the operation to retake the militant-held city of Fallujah, a spokesman said on Sunday.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the creation of a human rights committee to examine “any violation to the instructions on the protection of civilians,” Saad al-Hadithi said in a televised briefing.

He said Abadi had issued “strict orders” for prosecutions to take place in the event of any abuses.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, has issued guidelines intended as a form of code of conduct for forces fighting ISIS and aimed at curbing abuses.

Officials including Parliament Speaker Salim al-Juburi have expressed concern over reports of abuses committed by the forces involved in the operation to recapture Fallujah.

Juburi spoke on Thursday of “information indicating that some violations were carried out by some members of the federal police and some volunteers against civilians.”

The statement did not provide details on the alleged abuses, but urged Abadi to “look into these acts and deal with them in a strict and expeditious way.”

Fallujah is a Sunni city that lies only 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad and is one of ISIS’s most emblematic bastions.

The Hashed al-Shaabi taking part in the Fallujah operation is an umbrella organization that includes Sunni tribal fighters but is dominated by powerful Tehran-backed Shiite militias.

It is nominally under Abadi’s authority but some of its most powerful groups answer directly to Iran.

Those groups have been repeatedly accused of fueling sectarianism and their involvement in the Fallujah battle was seen as potentially explosive.

Hadithi reiterated Abadi’s stance that the fate of the estimated 50,000 civilians still believed trapped inside the besieged city was given utmost priority.

“The operation to liberate Fallujah could have been completed in days but we put the safety of civilians first,” the spokesman said.

Iraqi forces launched an offensive to retake the jihadist bastion on May 22-23. After a week of shaping operations, they have since struggled to break into the city center.

The UN’s top envoy in Iraq, Jan Kubis, also said in a statement that Iraq should “thoroughly investigate” reports of human rights violations against civilians.

“This noble cause of ridding Fallujah of Daesh (ISIS) terrorists should not be allowed to be tarnished by violations of human rights and dignity of people, notably on sectarian grounds,” he said.

ISIS shooting civilians

In a related story, ISIS is shooting and killing civilians who try to flee Fallujah, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said on Sunday.

“Reports from families that NRC has been in touch with describe that civilians trying to cross the Euphrates River in order to flee the fighting are being targeted by armed opposition groups,” the organization said in a statement.

NRC runs the camps in the town of Amriyat al-Fallujah to which most of the civilians who have fled areas around the besieged jihadist bastion are being housed.

“An unidentified number of civilians have been shot and killed trying to cross the river,” NRC said.

One of the only ways for civilians to try to leave the center of Fallujah, which is littered with booby traps and roadside bombs, is to sneak out by river.

Most of those who have already reached camps lived in outlying areas and as many as 50,000 civilians are believed to remain in the center of Fallujah, being used as human shields by ISIS.

“Our biggest fears are now tragically confirmed with civilians being directly targeted while trying to flee to safety,” NRC country director Nasr Muflahi said.

“This is the worst that we feared would happen to innocent men, women and children who have had to leave everything behind in order to save their lives,” he said.

The aid group said that around 18,000 civilians have reached displacement camps since Iraqi forces two weeks ago began an operation to retake Fallujah.