Iraqi officials discovered 50 bodies, many of them blindfolded and with their hands bound, in a field outside a village near Baghdad, raising concerns about a possible sectarian killing amid the battle against the Sunni insurgency.
The lightning sweep by Isis militants across much of northern and western Iraq over the past month has dramatically raised tensions between the country’s Shia majority and Sunni minority. At the same time, splits have grown between the Shia-led government in Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.
In an address today, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, accused the Kurdish zone of being a haven for Islamic extremists from Isis and other Sunni insurgent groups. He did not provide any evidence, and the claims are likely further to strain Baghdad’s ties which the Kurds, whose fighters have been battling the militant advance in the north. The corpses, all of them with gunshot wounds, were found in the predominantly Shia village of Khamissiya outside the city of Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad.
A military spokesman, Brigadier-General Saad Maan Ibrahim, said an investigation was under way to determine the identities of the dead, as well as the circumstances of the killings. The victims were all men aged between 25 and 40, and it appeared that they were killed a few days earlier and dumped in the remote area, police said. The region south of Hillah is predominantly Shia but there is a belt of Sunni-majority towns north of the city.
While the motives remain unclear, such grisly killings hark back to the worst days of Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007. At that time, with a Sunni insurgency raging, Shia militias and Sunni militant groups were notorious for killing members of the other sect, and bodies were frequently dumped along roadsides, on empty land, in ditches and canals. As the levels of violence dropped over time, such discoveries became rare.
Mr Maliki lashed out at the Kurds in his weekly televised statement, saying “everything that has been changed on the ground must be returned” – a clear reference to the disputed territory that fighters loyal to the Kurdish regional government, which is based in the city of Irbil, have taken. He even went a step further, saying: “We cannot stay silent over Irbil being a headquarters for Daesh, Baath, al-Qa’ida and the terrorists.”
Daesh is the acronym in Arabic for Isis, often used as a pejorative term by its opponents, while the Baath was the party of the former dictator Saddam Hussein. But Mr Maliki provided no evidence to back up his claims, which are sure to be rejected by Kurdish leaders in Irbil. Evidence on the ground also contradicts Mr Maliki’s allegations.
Kurdish peshmerga forces have clashed repeatedly with the Sunni militants led by Isis in recent weeks. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have fled to the Kurdish-controlled areas to escape the militant onslaught. Shia-dominated Iran, a close ally of Mr Maliki, has also been helping Iraq’s military – help that is believed to include military advisers.
This week, an Iranian military adviser who was helping co-ordinate Shia militias was killed by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, two Shia militia commanders said.
The officer was killed on Sunday in Salahuddin province while helping organise Shia militias in the defence of a Shia shrine in the city of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. Previously, only one Iranian has been confirmed killed in Iraq’s recent crisis – a pilot who Iran’s state news agency said died defending holy sites in Samarra.
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