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Report: Kurds displacing Arabs in Iraq in what could be 'war crimes'

BEIRUT — Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, close partners of the United States, have burned and bulldozed the homes of Arab families in actions that may constitute war crimes, Amnesty International alleged in a new report.

Kurdish forces under the regional government, known as the peshmerga, have spearheaded a "concerted campaign" to displace Arab communities in northern Iraq, Amnesty said. A spokesman for the peshmerga said the allegations were false and that the destruction was caused by their enemies, the Islamic State.

The allegations came as the United Nations highlighted the ongoing impact of the Islamic State's war in Iraq, describing the continuing violence suffered by civilians as "staggering."

The United States has worked closely with Kurdish forces in their battles with the Islamic State since the extremists swept into northern Iraq in mid-2014, seizing the northern city of Mosul. The American military has backed the Kurdish fighters with training and airstrikes, helping them to push back Islamic State militants.

But while Kurdish villagers and members of the minority Yazidi sect have been allowed to return to areas liberated from the Islamic State, Arabs are in some cases being barred from going home and their property has been destroyed, Amnesty said.

"The forced displacement of civilians and the deliberate destruction of homes and property without military justification may amount to war crimes," said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's senior crisis response adviser, who carried out the field research in northern Iraq.

The report was based on investigations in 13 villages and towns, in Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala provinces, that peshmerga forces recaptured from the Islamic State between September 2014 and March 2015. It was corroborated by satellite imagery, Amnesty said.

In Jalawla, east of Diyala province, residents are unable to return and the villages have been largely destroyed, the report said.

However, Jabbar Yawar, a spokesman for the Kurdish peshmerga, said that hundreds of families have been allowed to go back in the past two weeks.

"These are false accusations," he said. He said houses had been heavily damaged by fighting and by booby traps set by Islamic State militants. "It's normal for there to be destruction, and it was caused by Daesh," he said, using a term for the extremist group derived from its Arabic acronym.

Shiite militia forces and Syrian Kurdish forces have been accused by rights groups of similar abuses in the past. Such forces have suspected Arabs of being sympathetic to the Islamic State militants, who are overwhelmingly Sunni Arabs.

Some Kurdish officials have justified the displacement of Arab communities on security grounds, the report said. In some cases Yazidi militias and Kurdish armed groups from Syria and Turkey have also been involved, it said.

The Kurdish government has been accused of using the conflict as a way of consolidating its grip on areas that have long been the subject of territorial disputes with Baghdad.

The demographic makeup of such regions is particularly sensitive. Many Arab families moved into them - and many Kurds were displaced - during the rule of Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish government is now attempting to "reverse past abuses,"Amnesty said.

In a separate report released Tuesday, the United Nations also documented alleged abuses by the Iraqi security forces, including militias, tribal forces and peshmerga. The United Nations also said it had received reports in August that peshmerga forces had demolished houses in Sunni-Arab-inhabited areas in Jalawla.

The U.N. report said that the Islamic State "continues to commit systematic and widespread violence and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law." It added, "These acts may, in some instances, amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide."

The United Nations said that the Islamic State has enslaved around 3,500 people in Iraq.

The northern town of Sinjar was the site of some of the Islamic State's most notorious abuses. Men were killed en masse and women and children captured and enslaved.

Women who were taken as sex slaves were bought and sold for between $500 and $2,000 each, the report said.

After Sinjar was recaptured by Kurdish forces in November, Kurdish officials said that Arab villagers who were not associated with the Islamic State would eventually be allowed home, but many Yazidi civilians said they would never be able to live side by side with them again.

Yazidis openly took part in mass looting of Arab homes in the area, driving past checkpoints of Kurdish security officials in trucks stacked with goods from the houses of their Arab neighbors.

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The Washington Post's Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.

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