OTTAWA — The federal government has asked Iraqi authorities to investigate reports by two Canadian organizations of an alleged “massacre” of Yazidi girls and Sunni civilians during operations to rout ISIS soldiers from Anbar province in Iraq.
The allegations made by the Canadian groups accuse pro-Iraqi government Shia militias of killing 55 Yazidi girls and possibly hundreds of Sunni civilians on the outskirts of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar in early January.
As reported in the Saturday Toronto Star, One Free World International and Yazidi Human Rights Organization International (both based in Toronto) flagged their concerns in a Feb. 8 letter to Iraq’s ambassador to Canada and to Stéphane Dion, Canada’s global affairs minister, as well as to ambassadors of key western coalition partners: the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Canadian government, which has not yet replied to the organizations, indicated in an emailed response to the Star that it is taking the allegations seriously.
“We have asked Iraqi authorities to investigate these allegations and to take all necessary steps to ensure that civilians are protected,” said Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Rachna Mishra in an emailed statement to the Star.
The statement, couched in diplomatic language, expressed concern overall about violence directed particularly by the extremist group ISIS — also known as the Islamic State and ISIL — at civilians “including members of religious and ethnic minorities such as the Yazidis.” But it went on to express concern as well about reports of violence “by various armed groups.”
“Iraqi authorities must ensure that international humanitarian law is upheld, in particular as it relates to the protection of civilians in times of conflict. This includes investigating allegations of abuse and bringing those responsible to justice,” it said.
“We have engaged extensively with Iraqi authorities in both Baghdad and Erbil to discuss our concerns with allegations of violence perpetrated against civilians by various armed groups.’
The Star was unable to independently verify the allegations. The Canadian military said Friday it was closely reviewing the details but was “not aware of any evidence that would indicate that the incidents described in the report occurred in any area where CAF members are conducting operations.”
“The (Canadian Armed Forces) strongly condemns any unlawful practices that violate the Law of Armed Conflict,” said Capt. Kirk Sullivan, a spokesman for the Canadian Joint Operations Command Headquarters.
The numbers of deaths reported by sources of Majed El-Shafie and Mirza Ismail are in line with casualty numbers reported by the United Nations assistance mission in Iraq. Citing information from the Health Directorate in Anbar, the UN said that in January the area “suffered a total of 304 civilian casualties (56 killed and 248 injured), adding that it was “hindered from verifying” the deaths and casualties in Anbar’s conflict zone and so the figures it reported “have to be considered as the absolute minimum.”
Samir Ghattas, a UN spokesman in Baghdad, told the Star last week the UN has “no evidence whatsoever” to corroborate the Canadians’ information that Iraqi forces or associated Shia militias committed any such killings in Anbar.
The Canadian organizations cited unnamed sources in Iraq who claim “Shia militias indiscriminately killed Yazidis and Sunni civilians who remained behind after ISIS forces had fled” Ramadi during the military offensive by Iraqi security forces, supported by coalition airstrikes, to liberate Anbar in early January. Canadian CF-18 fighter jets participated in airstrikes in Anbar throughout January and early February.
El-Shafie of One Free World International and Ismail, head of Yazidi Human Rights Organization International say their concern is what might happen next in light of an anticipated offensive to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, where several thousand more Yazidi women and girls are believed to be held by ISIS.
Ghattas, the UNAMI spokesman, said the pattern seen elsewhere is that ISIS soldiers have been responsible for killing Yazidis and other moderate Sunnis as they are pushed out of territory they once held.
El-Shafie said Tuesday he was not contacted directly by the Canadian government in response to his letter. He questioned how seriously it was taking the allegations. “How can you make a real investigation without . . . even talking to us. Come talk to us,” he said.
The Star has also contacted the Iraqi embassy by phone and email but has had no reply.