50 found dead amid Iraq turmoil
Published 09/07/2014 | 10:29
Some 50 bodies have been found in Iraq, many of them blindfolded and with their hands bound, raising concerns over a possible sectarian killing amid the battle against a Sunni insurgency.
A lightning sweep by the insurgents over much of northern and western Iraq in the past month has dramatically hiked tensions between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority.
At the same time, splits have grown between the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomic region in the north.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has today accused the Kurdish zone of being a haven for the extremists and other Sunni insurgents. The claims are likely to further strain Baghdad's ties with Kurds, whose fighters have been battling the militant advance.
The bodies, all of them with gunshot wounds, were found in the predominantly Shiite village of Khamissiya outside the city of Hillah, some 95 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan Ibrahim added that an investigation is under way to determine the identities of the dead and circumstances of the killings.
Those found were all men between the ages of 25 and 40, and it appeared they had been killed a few days earlier and dumped in the remote area, said a local police officer and a medical official.
The area south of Hillah is predominantly Shiite, but there is a belt of Sunni-majority towns north of the city.
Mr al-Maliki lashed out at the Kurds in his weekly televised statement, saying "everything that has been changed on the ground must be returned" - a reference to disputed territory Kurdish fighters have taken.
He went a step further, saying: "We can't stay silent over Irbil being a headquarters for Daesh, Baath, al-Qaida and the terrorists."
Daesh is the acronym in Arabic for the Islamic State group, often used as a pejorative by its opponents, while the Baath was the party of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
But Mr al-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 his allegations.
While the motives in this case remain unclear, such killings hark back to the worst days of Iraq's sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007. At that time, with a Sunni insurgency raging, Shiite militias and Sunni militant groups were notorious for killings of members of the other sect.
Bodies were frequently dumped by roads, in empty lots, ditches and canals. As the levels of violence dropped over time, such discoveries became rare.
But sectarian tensions have soared once more and authorities have once again begun to find unidentified bodies since the Sunni militant offensive swept across much of northern and western Iraq.
The militant surge is led by the Islamic State extremist group, but other Sunni insurgents have joined, feeding off anger in their minority community against the Shiite-led government.
On the other side, Shiite militias have rallied around Mr al-Maliki's government to fight back against the militant advance.
In the far north, Kurds have taken advantage of the mayhem to seize disputed territory - including the city of Kirkuk, a major oil centre - and move closer to a long-held dream of their own state.
Kurdish fighters say they only want to protect the areas from Sunni militants. Many of the areas have significant Kurdish populations that they have demanded for years be incorporated into their territory.
These moves have infuriated Mr al-Maliki, who is under pressure from opponents as well as former allies to step down.