Iraq's Kurdish security forces have unlawfully destroyed Arab homes and villages in northern Iraq over the past two years in what may amount to a war crime, rights group Human Rights Watch said on Sunday.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters are part of a ۱۰۰,۰۰۰-strong Iraqi alliance, backed by U.S.-led air strikes and advisers, that is battling to retake Mosul from Islamic State but has so far gained just a small foothold in the city.
The New York-based group said in a report that violations between September ۲۰۱۴ and May ۲۰۱۶ in ۲۱ towns and villages within disputed areas of Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces had followed "a pattern of apparently unlawful demolitions".
The areas are nominally under the jurisdiction of Baghdad but are controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which pushed back Islamic State from swathes of northern Iraq that the jihadists seized in ۲۰۱۴ and has accepted more than ۱ million people - mostly Sunni Arabs - displaced by the conflict.
The HRW report is based on more than a dozen field visits and interviews with over ۱۲۰ witnesses and officials. Analysis of satellite images suggests property destruction targeted Arab residents long after any military necessity for such actions had ended.
"In village after village in Kirkuk and Nineveh, KRG security forces destroyed Arab homes – but not those belonging to Kurds – for no legitimate military purpose," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW. "KRG leaders' political goals don't justify demolishing homes illegally."
The satellite imagery provides evidence of destruction in ۶۲ other villages following their capture by Kurdish security forces, but HRW said a lack of witness accounts made it difficult to determine cause and responsibility in those instances.
Kurdish officials have stated their intention to absorb land recovered from Islamic State into their autonomous region and prevent Arab residents from returning to areas "Arabised" decades ago by Saddam Hussein.
A KRG spokesman was not immediately available to comment on the report.