Kurdish forces that are key partners of a US-led anti-jihadists coalition have destroyed thousands of north Iraq homes in an apparent attempt to uproot Arab communities, Amnesty International said Wednesday.
The rights watchdog said the destruction took place after areas were captured from the Islamic State jihadist group, which overran swathes of territory north and west of Baghdad in 2014.
The US has been carrying out strikes in support of forces from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region since August 2014 and has been joined by a coalition of countries in backing them with air support, training and weapons.
Destruction and theft of property has been a frequent occurence in the war against IS, angering residents whose support security forces need to hold recaptured areas and sowing the seeds of future conflict.
"Peshmerga forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish militias in northern Iraq have bulldozed, blown up and burned down thousands of homes in an apparent effort to uproot communities in revenge for their perceived support" of IS, Amnesty said in a statement.
The rights group carried out a field investigation and interviewed witnesses, and said that satellite images also provided evidence of "widespread destruction".
The Kurdistan region's "forces appear to be spearheading a concerted campaign to forcibly displace Arab communities," Donatella Rovera, Amnesty's senior crisis response adviser, said in the statement.
"The forced displacement of civilians and the deliberate destruction of homes and property without military justification may amount to war crimes," Rovera said.
Arab civilians who fled fighting have also been barred from returning home.
- 'No justifiable military grounds' -
Amnesty documented evidence of "forced displacement and large-scale destruction of homes" by Kurdish forces in three provinces: Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala.
The London-based rights watchdog published a similar report about Kurdish forces in neighbouring Syria in October, accusing the "autonomous administration" led by Syrian Kurds of war crimes.
It said those forces had deliberately demolished civilian homes and forcibly displaced inhabitants "with no justifiable military grounds".
Although the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) pushed back against the allegations at the time, it said on Tuesday that it would prosecute four of its fighters accused of damaging property in a town recaptured by IS several months ago.
Syrian Kurdish forces have also received air support and other backing from the US-led coalition.
In Iraq, IS was driving Kurdish forces back toward their regional capital Arbil in August 2014 when the US began carrying out air strikes against the jihadists, playing a key role in stopping their advance and later helping the Kurds regain ground.
All three provinces where Amnesty said destruction of property took place are outside the borders of the autonomous Kurdistan region.
However, Kurdish forces gained or solidified control over areas in the provinces after federal troops fled IS's devastatingly effective offensive in June 2014.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders want to incorporate territory from the provinces into their autonomous region, and depopulating them of Arabs aids efforts to solidify Kurdish control.
Baghdad strongly opposes Iraqi Kurdistan's incorporation of the areas, which it wants to remain under federal control, but after fighting IS for these areas, the Kurds are even more committed to keeping them.