STUTTGART, Germany — Nearly 19,000 civilians were killed in Iraq during the past two years in a “staggering” display of violence largely blamed on the Islamic State group, whose tactics sometimes bordered on genocide, the United Nations said in a report released Tuesday.
“The so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL) continues to commit systematic and widespread violence and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law,” according to the report, compiled by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “These acts may, in some instances, amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.”
The report details the damage the ongoing conflict has had on civilians, who often have been directly targeted by militants. The U.N., which says it relied on testimony obtained from survivors and witnesses to attacks, reported that at least 18,802 civilians were killed and 36,245 others were wounded between January 2014 and October 2015.
During that time, 3.2 million people were forced to flee their homes, among them about 1 million school-age children. Victims included those who were targeted by the Islamic State group for opposing the group’s ideology, those connected to the Iraqi government, and journalists and religious leaders.
“Others have been abducted and/or killed on the pretext of aiding or providing information to government security forces,” the report said.
Punishments have been barbaric, with a penchant for public spectacles such as beheading, bulldozing, throwing victims off buildings and burning them alive. Stoning and amputations have also been used as punishment, the report said.
For its part, the U.S.-led military coalition says it has gone to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties in its airstrike campaign against the Islamic State. Critics, including several contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, say the U.S. has been too cautious in attempting to avoid civilian casualties, saying it is hindering the military effort.
The U.N. report did not cite any cases of civilian casualties attributed directly to American airstrikes but did say a significant number of casualties have resulted from the bombardment campaign being carried out with the help of numerous nations from the West and the Mideast. The U.N. cited more than 500 instances in which civilians were killed or wounded from airstrikes, but the report says those cases could not be verified as a result of conflicting information.
The U.N. “was unable to verify most of these reports. Difficulties also arise in attributing airstrikes to specific military forces,” the report said. “It is also complex to assess whether principles of distinction and proportionality were adhered to, considering that ISIL deliberately bases itself in civilian areas, often fails to distinguish themselves as fighters, and use civilians and civilian infrastructure as shields.”
Other areas highlighted in the report were the well-documented atrocities committed against women, particularly of the Yazidi sect.
“ISIL continued to subject women and children to sexual violence, particularly in the form of sexual slavery,” the report said.
While the Islamic State group was singled out as the primary perpetrator of attacks on civilians, the U.N. said that other groups, such as the Iraqi Security Forces and associated militia forces, and major military units such as the American-backed peshmerga, have committed acts of violence against civilians.
“Some of these incidents may have been reprisals against persons perceived to support or be associated with ISIL,” the report stated.
Some civilians, who have been forced to go on the run as they fled violence, have faced restrictions from the Iraqi government in their ability to access safe areas, the U.N. said.
“The conduct of pro-government forces’ operations raises concern that they are carried out without taking all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population and civilian objects,” the report said.
Jan Kubis, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Iraq, called on the international community to increase its support for the government of Iraq as it attempts to rebuild in areas liberated from Islamic State control. That will help Iraqis displaced by violence to return home "in safety and in dignity and that affected communities can be re-established in their places of origin,” he said.
Meanwhile, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein warned that the civilian death toll could grow much higher.
“The figures capture those who were killed or maimed by overt violence, but countless others have died from the lack of access to basic food, water or medical care,” he said.