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Iraqi government urged to investigate Fallujah 'outrages'

Human Rights Watch calls on Iraqi government to hold own forces to account amid reports of civilian killings in assault on IS-held city
Iraqi soldiers patrol the streets of Saqlawiya, northwest of Fallujah (AFP)

The Iraqi government must deliver on its pledge to investigate reports of abuses committed by its forces against civilians during the operation to retake Fallujah, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

Iraqi forces last month launched a vast offensive to retake Fallujah from the Islamic State (IS) group.

The Sunni city 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad is one of the group's most emblematic bastions and one of only two major urban hubs it still controls in Iraq.

HRW said it had conducted interviews corroborating allegations that members of the federal police and the Hashd al-Shaabi militia executed at least 17 people fleeing the fighting in Sijr, northeast of Fallujah.

The rights watchdog also listed reports of civilians being stabbed to death and others dying after being dragged behind cars in the Saqlawiya area, northwest of Fallujah.

Earlier this week, local activists in Saqlawiya claimed that paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) had been killing scores of civilians fleeing from the besieged city.

"The Iraqi government needs to control and hold accountable its own forces if it hopes to claim the moral upper hand in its fight against (IS)," said Joe Stork, HRW's deputy Middle East director.

"It's high time for Iraqi authorities to unravel the web of culpability underlying the government forces' repeated outrages against civilians," a HRW statement quoted him as saying.

The operation to retake Fallujah has involved tens of thousands of government fighters, including from the police, army, counter-terrorism service and forces of the Hashed al-Shaabi, a paramilitary umbrella that is dominated by Shia militias.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi responded to mounting concern over reports of abuses earlier this week by promising to investigate and prosecute all such cases.

HRW also expressed concern over reports that IS was preventing civilians from fleeing areas it still controls by shooting and executing them.

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