IDRIS KHUBBAZ, Iraq: In this handout image provided by Human Rights Watch, destroyed houses are seen in this Iraqi village. - AP IDRIS KHUBBAZ, Iraq: In this handout image provided by Human Rights Watch, destroyed houses are seen in this Iraqi village. - AP

ERBIL, Iraq: Iraqi Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State in northern Iraq unlawfully destroyed Arab homes in scores of towns and villages in what may amount to a war crime, US-based rights group Human Rights Watch said yesterday. The Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi armed forces have faced a common enemy in Islamic State since the militants took over large parts of Iraq in 2014. Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters make up the 100,000-strong, US-backed alliance currently battling to retake Mosul.

But animosity persists, going back to decades of mistreatment of Kurds by ruling Arabs in Baghdad, especially under Saddam Hussein. Reuters found last month that Kurds are using the battle against Islamic State to settle old disputes and grab land in ethnically mixed territory separating the Kurdish region in the north from the majority Arab south.

Human Rights Watch said in its report that violations between Sept 2014 and May 2016 in 21 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).  The Kurdish region has taken in more than 1 million people from elsewhere in Iraq, who have been displaced by the conflict, most of them Sunni Arabs.

The KRG has denied any systematic policy of destruction of Arab homes, but said peshmerga had carried out demolitions for security reasons such as clearing booby-trapped homes. The HRW report is based on more than a dozen field visits and interviews with over 120 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. The satellite imagery provides evidence of destruction in 62 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.

Dindar Zebari, the head of a KRG's committee tasked with responding to international reports, said authorities had carried out a thorough investigation, examining cases in individual villages. "There was a strategic intention for the destruction of houses or a number of these villages," Zebari told reporters in Erbil. "(The) large presence of IEDs placed in these areas, especially in civilian properties, has been a huge cause of the destruction following the liberation process. "Sometimes we have no choice ... before entering a village you destroy as much as you can to make sure everything is safe."

Zebari attributed much of the rest of the damage to US-led coalition air strikes on IS positions or to exchanges of artillery fire during fighting. He said militiamen allied to the peshmerga had demolished some homes in apparent revenge, but denied peshmerga participation in those cases. HRW called on the United States and other members of an international coalition backing Iraqi forces in the fight against Islamic State to pressure the Kurdish authorities to end the demolitions.

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces yesterday said they had recaptured the site of an ancient Assyrian city blown up by the Islamic State group, as they battled the militants south of Mosul. The troops pushed towards Nimrud last week as they pressed an offensive begun on Oct 17 to recapture Iraq's second city, which the jihadists seized along with swathes of Iraq and Syria in mid-2014.

"The villages of Al-Nomaniyah and Al-Nimrud and the ruins of Nimrud were recaptured," Staff Brigadier General Saad Ibrahim of the 9th Armoured Division told AFP. Iraq's Joint Operations Command had announced earlier in the day that the entire Nimrud area was retaken, but later said that this was incorrect. The village of Nimrud and the archaeological site have however been recaptured, the JOC said.

Nimrud was the one of the great centers of the ancient Middle East. Founded in the 13th century BC, it became the capital of the Assyrian empire, whose rulers built vast palaces and monuments that have drawn archaeologists for more than 150 years. In April last year, IS posted a video on the internet of its fighters smashing monuments before planting explosives around the site and blowing it up. - Agencies