Covering events from January - December 2003

Hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands injured as a result of bombing by US-led Coalition forces during a war on Iraq launched in March. Mass graves containing thousands of bodies of victims of human rights violations committed under the government of President Saddam Hussain were unearthed. Thousands of people were arrested and detained without charge or trial during the year. Many civilians were killed as a result of excessive use of force by Coalition forces. Scores of women were abducted, raped and killed as law and order broke down after the war. Torture and ill-treatment by Coalition forces were widespread. Armed groups were responsible for gross human rights abuses: scores of civilians, including foreigners, were killed in attacks. A bomb attack on the UN headquarters in August killed 22 people.


The threat of military intervention in Iraq mounted early in the year. The US and United Kingdom (UK) government accused Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction. In January, February and March the heads of the UN weapons inspection teams, Hans Blix and Mohammed al-Baradei, presented their reports on Iraq to the UN Security Council. They reported no evidence of weapons of mass destruction but expressed concern that Iraq had not fully accounted for large quantities of chemical and biological agents. They asked for more time to continue inspections. During this period there were major disagreements at the UN level with many countries urging that all peaceful means be exhausted in the dispute between Iraq and the USA. There were also mass anti-war demonstrations in major cities worldwide.

On 20 March a US-led Coalition invaded Iraq from Kuwait, beginning a sustained war by air and land by Coalition forces. In early April US forces took control of Baghdad, ending the 25-year rule of President Saddam Hussain. UK forces took control of the south. On 1 May US President George W. Bush declared the main combat operations over. A former US diplomat, Paul Bremer, was appointed as US Administrator for Iraq and Head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

In May the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1483 which lifted the sanctions that had been imposed on Iraq in 1990. However, the human rights provisions in the resolution were few and weak. The Security Council, through this resolution, ignored the appeal of several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to establish a UN commission of experts to consult Iraqi society, analyse past human rights crimes and recommend the best options to address them. The same month a UN Special Representative for Iraq was appointed.

In July the CPA appointed a 25-member Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) from the various religious and ethnic groups. The Council had some executive powers, but Paul Bremer retained power to overrule or veto its decisions. In early September the IGC appointed an Iraqi interim government, comprising 25 ministerial portfolios, including a Human Rights Ministry.

After May many former Iraqi officials were arrested by or surrendered to Coalition forces. In July, the two sons of former President Saddam Hussain, 'Uday and Qusay, were killed by US troops in Mosul. On 13 December Saddam Hussain was arrested by US soldiers near the town of al-Dawr, south of Tikrit.

Coalition forces failed to live up fully to their responsibilities under international humanitarian law as occupying powers, including their duty to restore and maintain public order and safety, and to provide food, medical care and relief assistance. Widespread looting of public and private buildings and a sharp rise in criminal activities were seen across the country in the aftermath of the war. Many people faced grave dangers to their health owing to power cuts, shortages of clean water and lack of medical services.

Insecurity quickly became the major concern for the Iraqi population, a problem heightened by the lack of appropriate policing and the wide availability of arms. An increase in serious abuses against women, including rape and murder, was reported, and scores of former Ba'ath Party and security force members were targeted in revenge attacks, particularly in the Shi'a dominated districts of Baghdad and in southern Iraq.

In August fighting erupted between Kurds and Turkmen in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, near Kirkuk, leading to eight deaths.

Mass graves containing thousands of bodies were uncovered in many parts of Iraq. The victims were believed to have been executed by Iraqi security forces in the 1980s, in the aftermath of the 1991 uprisings, and in early 2003. Many bodies were exhumed by people desperate to locate missing relatives.

Many new Iraqi human rights NGOs, including women's groups, were formed and began a wide range of human rights activities, including documenting past and present violations. They worked in difficult circumstances and lacked resources and training.

In October the International Donors' Conference for the reconstruction of Iraq was held in Madrid. Donor nations pledged US$33 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq.

In November the CPA signed an agreement with the IGC paving the way for a transfer of power to an Iraqi interim government by mid-2004.

Coalition forces continued to face regular attacks after May. Most took place in central and northern Iraq, as well as in Baghdad, and led to scores of deaths of US and other nationals. There were increasing attacks on international NGOs and UN agencies, leading to the withdrawal of most or all of their staff.

Little action was taken to address past human rights violations, including mass "disappearances", or to investigate and bring to justice those found responsible for committing crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes, or to provide compensation and restitution to victims. However, in December the IGC established the statute of the Iraqi Special Tribunal in order to try Saddam Hussain and other former Iraqi officials. The tribunal may impose the death penalty. Also in December the IGC set up a Committee on Truth and Reconciliation.

Iraqi Kurdistan

In February, prior to the invasion of Iraq, opposition groups met in Salahuddin and appointed a six-member leadership council. Widespread anti-Turkish demonstrations were held in April to protest against Turkey's stated intention to send troops to northern Iraq. A leading military commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and member of the Kurdish parliament, Shawkat Haji Mushir, was killed by members of the Islamist group Ansar al-Islam near Halabja. Five other people were killed in the ambush.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, PUK forces took control of the city of Kirkuk, reportedly to prevent clashes between the various ethnic groups. However, many Arab villagers who had been brought to northern Iraq by the previous Iraqi government fled their homes. PUK forces withdrew from Kirkuk at the end of April and were replaced by US forces.

After May, US military forces and others were targeted in attacks. In September, one person was killed and scores injured, including US military officials, in a car bomb attack in Arbil.

Human rights concerns during the war

Hundreds of civilians were killed during the war by US and UK forces. Some were victims of cluster bombs, others were killed in disputed circumstances. Unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs posed a threat to civilians, particularly children.

Iraqi forces used unlawful tactics during the war that endangered civilians, including siting weapons near civilian facilities and wearing civilian clothes in order to launch surprise attacks.

  • On 31 March US soldiers opened fire on an unidentified vehicle as it approached a US checkpoint near al-Najaf. Ten of the 15 passengers, including five children, were killed.
  • On 1 April at least 33 civilians, including many children, were reportedly killed and around 300 injured in US attacks allegedly involving cluster bombs on the town of al-Hilla, southeast of Baghdad.

Human rights violations after the war

Excessive use of force

Scores of civilians were killed apparently as a result of excessive use of force by US troops or were shot dead in disputed circumstances.

  • US troops shot dead or injured scores of Iraqi demonstrators in several incidents. For example, seven people were reportedly shot dead and dozens injured in Mosul on 15 April; at least 15 people were shot dead, including children, and more than 70 injured in Fallujah on 29 April; and two demonstrators were shot dead outside the Republican Palace in Baghdad on 18 June.
  • On 14 May, two US armed vehicles broke through the perimeter wall of the home of Sa'adi Suleiman Ibrahim al-'Ubaydi in Ramadi. Soldiers beat him with rifle butts and then shot him dead as he tried to flee.
  • US forces shot 12-year-old Mohammad al-Kubaisi as they carried out search operations around his house in the Hay al-Jihad area in Baghdad on 26 June. He was carrying the family bedding to the roof of his house when he was shot. Neighbours tried to rush him by car to the nearby hospital, but US soldiers stopped them and ordered them to go back. By the time they reached his home, Mohammad al-Kubaisi was dead. CPA officials told AI delegates in July that Mohammad al-Kubaisi was carrying a gun when he was killed.
  • On 17 September a 14-year-old boy was killed and six people were injured when US troops opened fire at a wedding party in Fallujah. The soldiers reportedly believed they were under attack when shots were fired in the air in celebration.
  • On 23 September, three farmers, 'Ali Khalaf, Sa'adi Faqri and Salem Khalil, were killed and three others injured when US troops opened a barrage of gunfire reportedly lasting for at least an hour in the village of al-Jisr near Fallujah. A US military official stated that the troops came under attack but this was vehemently denied by relatives of the dead. Later that day, US military officials reportedly went to the farmhouse, took photographs and apologized to the family.

Incommunicado detention

People held in prisons and detention centres run by Coalition forces – such as Camp Cropper in Baghdad International Airport (which closed in October), Abu Ghraib Prison and the detention centres in Habbaniya Airport and Um Qasr – were invariably denied access to family or lawyers and any form of judicial review of their detention. Some were held for weeks or months; others appeared to be held indefinitely.

  • Qays Mohammad Abd al-Karim al-Salman, a businessman with Danish citizenship, returned to Iraq 10 days before his arrest by the US army on 6 May. He alleged he was forced to lie down on the road, then taken to the Holding Centre at Baghdad Airport where he was held for 33 days on suspicion of murder. He was denied contact with the outside world and subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Torture or ill-treatment

Torture or other ill-treatment by Coalition forces was frequently reported. Detainees suffered extreme heat while housed in tents and were supplied with insufficient water, inadequate washing facilities, open trenches for toilets, no change of clothes, and no books, newspapers, radios or writing materials. Detainees were routinely subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest and the first 24 hours of detention. Plastic handcuffs used by US troops caused detainees unnecessary pain. Former detainees stated they were forced to lie face down on the ground, were held handcuffed, hooded or blindfolded, and were not given water or food or allowed to go to the toilet. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment by US and UK troops during interrogation were received. Methods reported included prolonged sleep deprivation; prolonged restraint in painful positions, sometimes combined with exposure to loud music; prolonged hooding; and exposure to bright lights. There were frequent reports of abuses by US forces during house searches, including allegations of looting and wanton destruction of property. Virtually none of the allegations of torture or ill-treatment was adequately investigated.

  • Abdallah Khudhran al-Shamran, a Saudi Arabian national, was arrested in al-Rutba in early April by US and allied Iraqi forces while travelling from Syria to Baghdad. On reaching an unknown site, he said he was beaten, given electric shocks, suspended by his legs, had his penis tied and was subjected to sleep deprivation. He was held there for four days before being transferred to a camp hospital in Um Qasr. He was then interrogated and released without money or passport. He approached a British soldier, whereupon he was taken to another place of detention, then transferred to a military field hospital and again interrogated and tortured. This time torture methods included prolonged exposure in the sun, being locked in a container, and being threatened with execution.
  • Nine Iraqis arrested on 14 September by the British military in Basra were reportedly tortured. The men all worked for a hotel in Basra where weapons were reported to have been found. Baha' al-Maliki, the hotel's receptionist, died in custody three days later; his body was reportedly severely bruised and covered in blood. Kefah Taha was admitted to hospital in critical condition, suffering renal failure and severe bruising.

Violence against women

In the aftermath of the war, women and girls increasingly faced violent attacks, including abduction, rape and murder, as law and order broke down. Many women became too afraid to leave their homes, and girls were kept away from school. Women who were victims of violence in the street or home had virtually no hope of obtaining justice.

  • In May, Asma, a young engineer, was abducted in Baghdad. She was shopping with her mother, sister and a male relative when six armed men started shooting around them. Asma was forced into a car and driven to a farmhouse outside Baghdad, where she was repeatedly raped. A day later she was driven back to her parents' neighbourhood and pushed out of the car.

Human rights abuses by armed groups

From May onwards there was an increasing incidence of attacks by armed groups on US military targets, Iraqi security personnel, Iraqi-controlled police stations, religious leaders and buildings, media workers, NGOs and UN agencies. These resulted in the death of hundreds of civilians, including foreign nationals.

  • In August the UN headquarters in Baghdad was bombed, killing 22 people including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Special Representative in Iraq. In September a bomb attack killed the bomber and a security guard, and injured 19 others, near the UN headquarters.
  • Ayatollah Muhammed Baqer al-Hakim, Head of the Shi'a Muslim Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and 80 other people were killed in a car bomb attack in August in al-Najaf. At least 240 people were injured.
  • In September 'Aqila al-Hashimi, a woman member of the Iraqi Governing Council, died in hospital a few days after her car came under fire in Baghdad.
  • In September UK national Ian Rimell, an employee of the Mines Advisory Group, was killed in his car near Mosul.
  • In October a bomb attack on the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) killed 12 people and injured at least 15.

Review of legislation

There was a continuing lack of clarity about the arrangements to establish a permanent governmental authority in Iraq and about the process for reviewing and amending legislation. The CPA undertook a review of the Iraqi Penal Code of 1969 and the Criminal Procedure Code of 1971 to evaluate their compatibility with international human rights standards. It also introduced legal amendments; these entered into force prior to their publication in Arabic in the Official Gazette, in contravention of Article 65 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The amendments did, nevertheless, include some welcome reforms. Section 9 of CPA Memorandum No. 7 prohibited the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The Revolutionary, Special and National Security Courts, which had conducted grossly unfair trials, were abolished, and Order No. 13 established a new Central Criminal Court with jurisdiction over crimes committed since 19 March 2003 and applying the Iraqi Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure. However, Order No. 13 contained provisions that violate the principle of judicial independence. Section 2(3) of CPA Memorandum No. 3 removed the jurisdiction of Iraqi courts over any Coalition personnel in both civil and criminal matters, resulting in a lack of accountability for such personnel. There were no proper mechanisms to ensure competent, impartial investigations into allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the CPA or Coalition forces.

AI country visits

AI delegates visited Iraq in April for the first time in 20 years. Based in Basra, the delegates researched current and past human rights violations. They met victims of past and recent abuses, Iraqi political groups and British military officials.

Between May and August AI delegates maintained a permanent presence in Baghdad. They met former detainees held by the Coalition forces, researched past human rights violations, particularly "disappearances", raised human rights concerns with civil and military officials at the CPA, and met international and local NGOs. They were denied access to Coalition-run detention centres in Um Qasr in the south and in Baghdad.

In June AI delegates visited the Kurdish-controlled city of Arbil and met police officials, women's organizations and human rights representatives. They travelled to Kirkuk and Mosul to carry out research on internally displaced persons as well as to meet US military officials, former Coalition detainees, and local and international NGOs. They also visited police stations, prisons and hospitals.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.