BAGHDAD, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch on Thursday accused Iranian-trained Iraqi paramilitary units battling Islamic State of demolishing hundreds of Sunni Arab houses near the city of Mosul, but a spokesman for the units blamed the militants for the damage.
The New York-based rights group said the mainly Shi'ite Muslim units known as Popular Mobilisation had destroyed 345 houses in villages to the west of Mosul in northern Iraq after retaking them from the hardline Sunni Islamic State.
"There was no apparent military necessity for the demolitions, which may amount to war crimes and which took place between Nov. 2016 and Feb. 2017," the HRW said in a report.
The demolitions will prevent families displaced by the war from returning to their villages, HRW Deputy Middle East Director Lama Fakih told Reuters.
Popular Mobilisation are taking part in a U.S.-backed offensive that started last October to dislodge Islamic State from Mosul, their last major city stronghold in northern Iraq.
They are attacking the group in the region that lies west of Mosul, between the city and the Syrian border.
But a Popular Mobilisation spokesman in Baghdad said the houses cited in the HRW report were most likely destroyed by Islamic State car suicide car bombs, one of the main weapons used by the militants to counter the assailants' advance.
"In some villages, they launched as many as 10 car bombs against us, causing lots of damage and destroying many homes," the spokesman said.
Iraqi government forces last month captured eastern Mosul and are now preparing an offensive on the western side that remains under the militants' control. The city is divided in two halves by the Tigris river.
(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Gareth Jones)