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In the ruins of Mosul, a hunt for the missing
By Simon Valmary
Mosul, Iraq (AFP) July 27, 2017

US-trained Iraqi unit carried out Mosul executions: HRW
Baghdad (AFP) July 27, 2017 - An Iraqi army division trained by American forces summarily executed prisoners in west Mosul, Human Rights Watch charged Thursday, calling for US assistance to the unit to be suspended.

The latest report of executions comes after the release of videos allegedly filmed in the Mosul area that appeared to show Iraqi forces executing one detainee and brutally beating others.

Iraq declared victory in Mosul on July 11, but abuses by security forces and the anger they stoke could pose a potentially major threat to long-term stability in an area that was only just recaptured from the Islamic State group of Sunni extremists.

"An Iraqi army division trained by the United States government allegedly executed several dozen prisoners in Mosul's Old City," HRW said in a statement, referring to an area on its western side.

"Two international observers detailed the summary killings of four people by the Iraqi army's 16th Division in mid-July 2017, and saw evidence that the unit had executed many more people, including a boy," the watchdog said.

The international US-led coalition against IS has provided training, advice and other assistance to various Iraqi units.

"The US government should make sure it is no longer providing assistance to the Iraqi unit responsible for this spate of executions," Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director, said in the statement.

The coalition said it could not confirm the allegations, but that they should be investigated.

"While we cannot verify the authenticity of reports, any violation of the law of armed conflict would be unacceptable and should be investigated in a transparent manner and those deemed responsible held accountable in accordance with due process and Iraqi law," it said in an emailed response to questions from AFP.

The coalition confirmed that it had trained, advised and equipped the 16th Division, and said: "In certain circumstances, if a supported units fails to remain compliant with vetting guidelines, support may be withdrawn."

Earlier in July, HRW found a series of videos posted online that appeared to show other abuses by Iraqi forces in the Mosul area.

In one clip, men in Iraqi army uniforms beat a bearded detainee, dragged him to the edge of a cliff, threw him off and shot him and another body at the bottom.

Three other videos show men in army and police uniforms beating detainees.

Earlier in the Mosul operation, an Iraqi journalist embedded with the Rapid Response Division reported that members of the special forces unit carried out torture, rapes and killings.

The journalist, who has since left Iraq, documented some of the abuses on film.

IS overran Mosul and swathes of other territory in the summer of 2014, but Iraqi forces backed by US-led air strikes have since regained much of the territory they lost.

Widespread anger among Iraqi Sunni Arabs -- over issues including abuses by security forces of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad -- helped aid the jihadist resurgence which culminated in the 2014 offensive.

Abuses by security forces now are likewise a boon to IS, which is thought likely to increasingly revert to bombings and hit-and-run attacks as its statehood project straddling Iraq and Syria continues to fall apart.

In Mosul, the missing are everywhere, their families hunting through the ruined Iraqi city for traces of lost husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters.

Squatting on the edge of a crater under the burning sun of an Iraqi summer, Khaled Fizaali watches as a digger of the Civil Defence service pulls up a jumble of iron bars, concrete and wood.

The smell of decay rises as the excavator reveals human remains and Fizaali quickly descends from his perch of rubble in west Mosul.

But it's not his wife Sarah, 31, or his seven-year-old girl Touqa, who he has been desperate to find for the last two months.

"It's a neighbour, I recognise the clothes," he says. "I know they're under there. My brother was with them when it was bombed."

Nineteen members of Fizaali's family died in the May 19 air strike on the building, where jihadist fighters had taken up positions on the roof. Only his brother survived.

Seventeen bodies were found in a first search a month ago, including the remains of Fizaali's 10-year-old son.

Fizaali has no illusions; his wife and daughter are dead.

"But what's important for me is to find their bodies, this would bring me peace. I could visit them when I wanted to. When I go to my son's grave, I feel calmer."

It took more than eight months of heavy fighting, air strikes and shelling to dislodge the Islamic State group from Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and once the jihadists' biggest urban bastion.

In the process significant parts of the city, and especially west Mosul's Old City, were pulverised, leaving months of work ahead for Civil Defence workers to clear out the debris and search for the many still missing.

- A skull from the rubble -

There are likely still hundreds, possibly even thousands, of bodies left to find.

"We don't have any estimates," says Major Rabia Ibrahim Hassan of the Civil Defence, as his team works in the rubble nearby.

"We can't know, because IS moved people from house to house to use them as human shields. People still come to us today to tell us they think they have loved ones buried in this or that place."

A few minutes later his men pull up a skull, which like the other remains that they find will be sent to the forensic department of the Al-Salam hospital in Mosul's Wadi Hajar district.

Every day "no less than 30 or 40 bodies" arrive at the hospital, according to Dhiyaeddin Shamseddin, the deputy head of the service. In the last month, 850 bodies have passed through, of which 180 have not been identified.

A few dozen people arrive every day to enquire about lost friends and family, he says, like Zahraa and Hajar Nashwan who came to ask about their big brother Ahmed. They have had no news of him since their home was bombed two months ago.

"We made it out alive but we feel like we died," says Zahraa, the older of the two.

"People say that even if you lose all your money and possessions, it's not so bad, the important thing is that you still have the people you love. But we've lost both."

Hajar, 18, says they have done all they can to find their brother.

"We searched in the rubble, we went to the checkpoints, we went to the camp (for the displaced) at Hamam al-Halil, we found nothing," she says. "I don't know if we will know some day. It will be up to God."

But for those spending their days searching the devastated streets of Mosul, there's always some hope.

"The other day we found eight people who survived in a cave under the rubble for 25 days," Hassan of the Civil Defence says.

Cardinal hails 'rebirth' of Iraqi Christian town
Qaraqosh, Iraq (AFP) July 24, 2017
A French cardinal hailed the "rebirth" of Iraq's devastated main Christian town of Qaraqosh on Monday, where residents are returning following two years of jihadist rule. Taking part in mass in the town's cathedral, Lyon's Archbishop Cardinal Philippe Barbarin spoke of both "sadness" and "hope" on returning to the town, which he had previously visited just a month before the Islamic State g ... read more

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