WASHINGTON - The United States is closely monitoring Iraqi forces in Tikrit amid allegations of human rights abuses committed by Baghdad's troops and allied fighters in an assault to retake the city, a US military official said Thursday.
It was "unclear" if executions and other alleged atrocities had taken place, the senior military official told reporters, but "that's exactly what we're going to be watching" for as Iraqi forces move to secure Tikrit.
Iraqi troops backed by paramilitary groups and US-led air strikes took back Tikrit from the IS group last week.
Amnesty International said Thursday it was investigating reports of serious rights violations during the Tikrit offensive, including allegations of executions, abductions and the burning and looting of homes.
The United States agreed to provide air power to back up the assault on the IS in Tikrit after the Iraqi government assured Washington it had full control over all forces involved in the operation. That required some Shiite militias with ties to Iran to pull back from attacks on the Tikrit town centre.
The decision to provide US-led air raids demonstrated Washington's support for the Iraqi government, the military official said.
But the Iraqis "need to understand we will hold them accountable for the aftermath of the Tikrit operation," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Shiite-led government in Baghdad will need to fulfil its promises to turn the city over to police, to respect the rights of Sunnis in the area and to deliver prompt humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, the official said.
"We're watching them very carefully, once the city is completely under control of the central government, whether the central government lives up to its commitment," the official said.
The United States and rights groups have repeatedly warned that any sectarian-driven abuses will only sow the seeds of future violence and play into the hands of the IS jihadists.
Next battle: Baiji
In Tikrit, Iraqi forces still face "pockets" of resistance from the IS group and "they are working there through those pockets," the official said.
Once the Tikrit military operation is complete, "the next step is Baiji," the official said.
The town of Baiji lies north of Tikrit along the Tigris River and remains under the IS group's control.
"That's really the next significant military manoeuvre because, of course, the Baiji oil refinery is important to the Iraqi economy," the official said.
The nearby Baiji refinery was recaptured by Iraqi forces last year but Baghdad still needs to dislodge the IS extremists from the town and surrounding areas, the official said.
An offensive in Baiji is a necessary step towards an eventual large-scale operation to seize back Mosul, the country's second largest city and a bastion for the IS group.
But an offensive to recapture Mosul is several months away and likely will not come before the autumn, the official said.
No operation in Mosul was expected to be carried out during Ramadan, which falls in mid-June, or during the summer months when intense heat would hamper any major military action, the official said.
A potential offensive is likely "to extend into the fall for reasons of Ramadan preparation and weather," he said.
A US defence official had predicted in February that an Iraqi assault in Mosul could come as soon as April or May but top Pentagon officials later backed away from that forecast.