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Iraqi special forces abused civilians during Mosul campaign, PM admits 

Members of an Iraqi special forces unit abused civilians during the major offensive to retake Islamist-held Mosul, the country’s prime minister said after months of inquiry into disturbing torture allegations first reported by Germany’s Spiegel magazine. 

“The [investigation] committee has concluded ... that clear abuses and violations were committed by members of [special forces unit] the ERD,” the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement, according to Reuters. The prime minister’s office added the perpetrators would face prosecution.

The Iraqi government launched an investigation in May after German magazine Spiegel published a news story that included disturbing images taken by a freelance photographer who accompanied the soldiers of the elite Emergency Response Division (ERD) unit on their way to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) stronghold Mosul.  

In the article, titled ‘Not heroes but monsters,’ Ali Arkady said he witnessed multiple instances of rape, torture and targeted killings by members of the ERD. He added the soldiers had persecuted numerous civilians on “vague” suspicions of links with IS. 

The publication included gruesome photos by Arkady of alleged IS sympathizers hanging from the ceiling with their arms cuffed behind their backs, as well as other obvious scenes of torture, abuse and degrading treatment.

Arkady had originally intended to come up with a favorable story glorifying Iraqi soldiers fighting Islamic State. As the ERD commanding officers came to trust Arkady, he was even allowed to document soldiers torturing civilians and forcing them into confessing to siding with IS – confessions he believed were utterly false.

READ MORE: Mosul torture exposed: Iraqi forces’ abuses filmed (GRAPHIC IMAGES)

Victims were picked up during night raids, which in some cases included rape and looting, and taken to villages outside Mosul where there were no foreign journalists, the photographer said at the time. Many were brutalized and tortured to death, he said. To the photographer’s surprise, the soldiers felt free to exchange horrifying videos and photos of their victims. 

“The men that I accompanied had experienced hard, heavy fighting. But now they thought that they would be allowed to do everything and that murder and rape were halal and legitimate for them,” Arkady said.

According to Arkady, the elite unit was trained by US instructors. He said that one ERD soldier also boasted that he learned a torture technique from the Americans, which included cutting the victim with a knife behind the ear. The photographer wrote in Spiegel that “the Americans must have been aware of what has been happening” with the ERD unit.

While ERD commanders claim the report was fabricated and featured “unreal” images, Iraq’s Interior Ministry agree to probe the torture allegations. In late May, authorities promised “a clear and fair inquiry... [and] to take legal measures against those who are negligent if the investigation proves so,” the ministry said.

Iraqi forces’ long campaign to retake Mosul – once the country’s second-largest city – has been plagued by reports of abuse. Rights groups said disturbing news was coming from Mosul even during the final stages of fighting. Human Rights Watch reported in June that Iraqi troops abused unarmed men and boys fleeing the carnage, with some civilians being detained at checkpoints outside the city and taken away for execution. 

In mid-July, an execution site with 17 apparent victims of extrajudicial killings was found near the Old City of West Mosul, HRW reported. The find came amid reports of extrajudicial killings by Iraqi forces, the rights group pointed out. 

“As we well know, in Iraq, if the government doesn’t provide an accounting for these murders, the Iraqi people may take matters into their own hands,” Sarah Leah Whitson, a Middle East director at HRW, said at the time, calling upon Prime Minister al-Abadi to take “concrete steps to end the grotesque abuses by his own security forces.”