IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi Kurdish forces have destroyed thousands of Arab homes in villages under their control, according to an Amnesty International report released Wednesday, which said the actions could amount to war crimes.
After pushing the Islamic State group out of over a dozen Arab villages over the past year, Kurdish forces bulldozed, blew up and burned down thousands of homes in an attempt to prevent civilians from returning, the report said.
"The forced displacement of civilians and the deliberate destruction of homes and property without military justification may amount to war crimes," Amnesty's Donatella Rovera, who carried out fieldwork for the report, said in a statement.
Iraq's Kurdish forces, also known as the peshmerga, have been some of the most effective ground forces in Iraq in the fight against IS. The United States has closely supported them with airstrikes, intelligence sharing and training programs.
"We take these issues very, very seriously," Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said in a press briefing Wednesday. "As government forces liberate territory... whether it's in Iraq or in Syria there's got to be security for all the civilian population."
Rovera told The Associated Press the abuses documented in the report are "a form of collective punishment on families and communities who have themselves not committed any crimes." She said the group also found that Arab civilians were barred from returning to their villages by Kurdish forces.
"We are not talking about collateral damage happening in the heat of battle, rather this is deliberate destruction," she said.
Amnesty researchers investigated 13 villages in the provinces of Ninevah, Kirkuk and Diyala, and the report included satellite imagery that Amnesty said corroborated its claims.
The report said the peshmerga carried out the attacks in retaliation for alleged support for IS within Arab communities. The villages detailed came under Kurdish control when peshmerga fighters pushed back IS last year.
The Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq has said civilians are being prevented from returning to their homes for their own safety, citing the explosive booby-traps that IS often leaves behind when it retreats.
A spokesman for Iraq's Kurdish region responded to the Amnesty report by saying that Kurdish forces implement the "standards" and "principals" of human rights and international law.
"There is no strategy planned by the (Kurdistan regional government) to destroy or destruct any component villages, any component set up in these newly liberated areas," Dindar Zebari said.
But he said there were a few cases in which "an entire village stood against the peshmerga" and fought with IS.
Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq said that despite the "good stance" of the regional Kurdish authorities in helping people who have been forced of their homes, "there are some Kurdish parties (who) do what is mentioned in the report," without elaborating.
"We denounce any act that is against humanity and human rights whether from Sunnis or Shiites or Kurds," he said.
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report from Baghdad.