30 May 2015

Troops not in danger, says Amnesty investigator

3:55 pm on 30 May 2015

A war crimes investigator stationed in Iraq believes New Zealand troops based at Camp Taji are not at any real risk from Islamic State fighters at the moment.

IS recently captured the city of Ramadi, an hour's drive from the base where the troops are stationed.

A New Zealand Defence Force protection soldier observes ISF troops. Iraq 2015

An NZDF protection soldier observes ISF troops. Photo: New Zealand Defence Force

The Government is backing the continued involvement of New Zealand troops in Iraq despite the advance of IS forces.

Amnesty International senior crisis response adviser Donatella Rovera said Taji was not an area of combat.

"Taji's not a front line by any stretch of the imagination."

She said that neither New Zealand forces or those from other countries were leaving their camps.

"They're generally in the military bases where they conduct training for the Iraqi forces, so they're not experiencing life as ordinary people in Iraq do. They're not exposed to the same sort of risks."

She cautiously added that though New Zealand's troops were not exactly in harm's way in Taji, there really was nowhere in Iraq that was entirely safe, given that its capital could be subject to car bombs several times a day.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told the BBC that Ramadi might be recaptured "within days".

Mr Abadi also defended the decision of the 1,500 soldiers, reportedly stationed in the city, to flee in the face of an assault by as few as 150 militants.

Ms Rovera said in some cases IS could be swift when it takes a city or territory, generally if there was little or no defence.

"They have been a fast-moving force in places where, frankly, the places weren't well defended."

An example was of Mosul, which IS took over last June in the space of a couple of days, virtually without a fight as well as a raft of other areas, she said.

"What they took over, they mostly took over pretty much without a fight. The Iraqi armed forces virtually collapsed last year so it wasn't a very difficult endeavour for IS to take over the territory that they did take over."

However, she said, since then IS had faced a push back in several areas with the exception of Ramadi.

"In a place like Ramadi, they were able to take over the city relatively quickly because they were already in control. They were controlling areas that were territorially contiguous to Ramadi."

But she said IS had lost ground to Shia militias in the centre of Iraq and the Kurdish Peshmerga Forces in the north, with some participation to different degrees by the Iraq armed forces, and of course with the participation of the air campaign by the Coalition Forces.

She said she thought it was unrealistic to think that IS could currently take Taji given all the current circumstances.

She said what she hoped New Zealand's troops could do for their Iraqi peers was to reinforce and train them to have a better understanding of humanitarian law.

Ms Rovera said during the past year she had investigated a range of humanitarian law violations committed by Islamic State and Iraqi Government Forces, including state backed militia.

She said it was difficult at this stage to say whether New Zealand would be able to make an impact in reducing war crimes committed by Iraqi soldiers.

She said due to information restrictions, no one on the ground knew what foreign forces were doing, except for air strikes and whatever involved governments released to the public.

Despite that, Ms Rovera said she thought that New Zealand Forces could make a positive difference.

"Whether the training can result in a better conduct of the forces: I sincerely hope so."

She said whatever training or advice was given to the Iraqi Government Forces, she hoped it included very clear and concrete training on human rights and international humanitarian law.

"That it gives a very clear message to those being trained and advised that that the kind of war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been committed are not acceptable, and that there is the necessary follow-up to see that those who have benefited from that training are not engaging in such practices."

In some of the investigations she has carried out in the past year in Iraq, she has looked into massacres of hundreds of people carried out by IS, thousands of abductions by IS - hundreds of them have been women and girls whom are raped, sexually enslaved, and sold as slaves.

At the same time she has dealt with war crimes committed by Iraqi Security forces and the militias that are operating in Iraq outside of any legal frame work, but with the blessing of the Iraqi Government, she said.

"They've committed massacres of unarmed civilians - not just once or twice, but several times. They have destroyed and burned down, looted entire towns, villages. They have abducted people for sectarian reasons.

"People have been killed inside detention centres. Torture is something that's quite widespread by various Iraqi security forces."

Ms Rovera said Iraq was a country that had been at war for well over a decade, and war crimes and crimes against humanity have been cyclically committed for a long time.

"The situation in Iraq is extremely serious. I spent a lot of time in Syria too, where the situation is also incredibly serious."

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