War is a dirty business and truth is the first casualty.
Back in August 2017, Iraqi security forces launched an offensive to retake the city of Tal Afar which is located in the north of the country. Kurdistan Regional Government forces did not take part in the operation, as was the case in the Mosul battle. Instead, they secured the lines in the north of the city to prevent ISIS jihadis escaping into Kurdistan.
The battle of Tal Afar was not a drawn-out affair as expected; ISIS lines quickly collapsed. In the 10-day battle, 2000 jihadis were killed. That is about 200 jihadis killed per day! For that to happen, either the city must have been completely flattened by the Coalition-Iraq carpet bombing, which was not the case, or the Iraqi army executed all men at arms-bearing age caught alive in the city.
Reports also emerged at the time that about 150 ISIS jihadis, including foreign fighters, were captured, either trying to escape through the KRG lines or surrendering to the peshmerga’s Asayish (internal security) wing. This was the highest number of ISIS jihadis caught by the KRG forces in a single incident that made it to the mainstream news. And it inevitably raised the question of what to do with them.
If every ISIS suspect was kept in custody for trial and punishment, the Iraqi and KRG justice systems would collapse under the sheer number of tens of thousands who were captured in the combat zone. And we did not see the images of tens of thousands of ISIS suspects being held in jails. So what happened to them?
The rumours circulating throughout the war against ISIS in Iraq (and in Syria) can be summarised thus: 1- Foreign fighters were executed to prevent them returning to the West where they can commit terrorism, 2- Local high-level ISIS operatives who were captured alive were held for interrogation and trial, some of whom were found guilty and executed, and 3- Local low-level elements were either turned to fight for the government or were released back to their families following ransoms and sponsorships that they would no longer engage in armed insurrection.
Now, however, we have a Human Rights Watch report on the specific instance of 100+ ISIS jihadis who were captured by the KRG during the battle of Tal Afar. The report details allegations of how they were taken into custody, where they were held, and where they were executed and buried. The evidence is too thin to justify the charges of war crimes, but it is compelling enough to warrant further investigation, which the HRW calls for.
War crime is not something Kurds are known for, even against Saddam’s army during the genocidal Anfal campaign of 1986-88. The HRW did a lot of credit to itself by meticulously documenting Iraq’s crimes against the Kurds at the time, including the Halabja gas attack. No independent observer ever charged the Iraqi Kurds of any criminal wrong-doing during and for this period.
War crime is what ISIS did during their short tenure in Syria and Iraq, especially after the capture of Mosul and Tikrit. War crime is what Turkey did during the 30-year civil war on Kurds, as recently as last year in Cizre and Sirnak. War crime is what the fascist Assad regime is known for, what the FSA jihadi rebels gleefully displayed, and what Iraq’s sectarian security forces did, in the combat zone of Tal-Afar, where 2000 were killed in 10 days.
As Kurds, we like to think we set the best standards in the region; in the way we conduct the war and prosecute the prisoners. We are supposed to be the beacon of civility in the sea of barbarism. If these allegations are true -it’s too early for that yet- then that beacon will not have been extinguished but dimmed somewhat.
Fortunately, the HRW report also acknowledges that this might be a local incident carried out by local commanders in the following terms:
“About 20 days after the last executions, Nadim’s Asayish friends told him that a very senior security officer made a high-level visit to the Asayish office in Zummar, he said. He said that several senior local Asayish officers have not been seen in Zummar since the meeting, and his contacts in the Asayish have told him they have been detained. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify if any officers were punished, and for what.”
The areas where the alleged executions and burials of ISIS jihadis took place is now under Iraqi government’s control. The area is also subject to seasonal flooding. Baghdad may well use this opportunity to discredit Erbil, while hiding its own war crimes in Tal Afar, but that is no reason why the bodies should not be exhumed and further investigation should not be carried out.
I should state without equivocation and prevarication that I am with the Human Rights Watch in this matter. The fate of this group did cross my mind at the time of their capture/surrender, but that they might be executed did not. If this is what the HRW alleges happened then the matter should be investigated straightaway before the evidence washes away.
That is the only way to ensure that truth does not also remain buried as the last casualty of war.