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Iraqi forces committing war crimes in battle for Mosul: HRW

Die-hard IS fighters are dug in among civilians as battle for last pockets of Mosul continues
An Iraqi Federal Police member at a checkpoint west of Mosul (Reuters)

Iraqi forces have been unlawfully killing boys and men fleeing Mosul as they enter the final phase of the fight against the Islamic State group, Human Rights Watch has said. 

Witnesses told HRW that they saw Iraqi forces beating unarmed men and boys attempting to escape the fighting over the past week, and that they had obtained information about the execution of unarmed men by Iraqi forces during the same time. 

Iraqi government forces attacked Islamic State's remaining redoubt in Mosul's Old City on Friday, a day after formally declaring the end of the insurgents' self-declared caliphate and the capture of the historic mosque that symbolized their power.

"As Iraqi forces are poised to retake the entire city of Mosul, allegations of unlawful killings and beatings significantly raise concerns for the civilians there who have been living under ISIS control," said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. 

"Iraqi forces are promising liberation, but they need to find out what's happening now and stop any abuse."

Most of those now fleeing Mosul are women and children (Tom Westcott/MEE)

One witness told HRW that members of the security forces boasted to him of executing unarmed men who were thought to be affiliated with IS, instead of detaining them. 

"I have heard of countless abuses and executions in this battle," one witness said. "But what's changed is that in this final phase fighters are no longer hiding what they are doing and are comfortable allowing us to witness the abuses first-hand."

Iraqi authorities say they are only days away from a victory over militants in their remaining redoubt in Mosul, though commanders of counter-terrorism units fighting their way through the narrow streets of the Old City say die-hard IS fighters are dug in among civilians and the battle ahead remains challenging.

Another witness said that earlier this week in a neighbourhood in west Mosul he saw two Iraqi counter-terrorism fighters stone the body of an alleged IS member, before posing for photos with the corpse, after having taken it down from an electric-power pole, where it had been strung up.  

"Reports of unlawful executions and beatings by Iraqi soldiers should be enough to raise concern among the highest ranks in Baghdad and among members of the international coalition combatting ISIS," Fakih said. 

"Iraqi officials should translate that concern into accountability for war crimes."

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Human Rights Watch does not know of a single transparent investigation into abuses by Iraqi armed forces, it said on Saturday, any instances of commanders being held accountable for abuse, or any victims of abuse receiving compensation.

Extrajudicial executions and torture during an armed conflict are war crimes, HRW stressed, adding that those found criminally responsible should be appropriately prosecuted.

Despoiling dead bodies and other outrages on personal dignity are violations of the laws of armed conflict and may amount to war crimes.

The human rights group urged Iraqi criminal justice authorities to investigate all alleged crimes. 

On Friday, the UN called on the Iraqi government to intervene to halt forced evictions of people suspected of having ties to Islamic State from the city of Mosul and other areas.

Hundreds of families have received threatening letters laying down a deadline for leaving, which amount to "acts of vengeance," UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said.

"We urge the Iraqi government to take action to halt such imminent evictions or any type of collective punishment, and to reinforce the formal justice system to bring perpetrators to justice," he told a news briefing in Geneva.

Any criminal liability of one family member cannot be transferred to another innocent person, he said.