Iraq's Shiite militias have abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians with the tacit support of the government in retaliation for Islamic State group attacks, Amnesty International said Tuesday, as a suicide car bombing claimed by the Sunni extremists killed 23 people, including a Shiite lawmaker.
The Shiite militiamen number in the tens of thousands and wear military uniforms but operate outside any legal framework and without any official oversight, the London-based watchdog said, adding that they are not prosecuted for the crimes.
The accusations were based on interviews with relatives of victims and survivors who claimed that members of four prominent Iraqi Shiite militias — Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Brigades, the Mahdi Army, and Ketaeb Hizbollah — were behind many abductions and killings of Sunnis in the country, the rights group said in a 28-page report, entitled "Absolute Impunity: Militia Rule in Iraq."
Sunni grievances have metastasized since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and handed power to the long-oppressed Shiite majority. Sunni anger helped fuel the rampage across northern and western Iraq by the Islamic State group and the onslaught has aggravated sectarian tensions elsewhere, again driving Iraq to the brink of civil war.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Hezbollah Brigades were among a group of Shiite militias backed by Iran that carried out lethal attacks against U.S. bases in June 2012.
A spokesman for the Iraqi military, Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim, dismissed the Amnesty report, saying that the government would "in no way be an accomplice for killing its own citizens." He added that the Iraqi government and its military "do not support any group, including militias, which work to kill innocent people."
Amnesty says the fate of many of the Sunni abductees remains unknown and that some captives have been killed even after their families paid ransoms of $80,000 and more.
Waleed Khalid, a shop owner in Baghdad's Sunni-majority Slueikh district, was headed to Sadr City for his weekly trip to restock his store when he received a call Monday from a Shiite friend warning that the militias were out in force, kidnapping Sunnis they came across in the Shiite stronghold.
"He told me not to come," Khalid told The Associated Press Tuesday, adding that one of his neighbours was recently kidnapped, and Shiite militias have allegedly demanded $60,000 from his family for his release.
The Amnesty report underscores an apparent new layer in the complex violence that has gripped Iraq since the Islamic State group's lightening offensive this summer. The Sunni militants seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, carving out a self-styled caliphate, imposing strict Islamic law and expelling hundreds of thousands of Iraqis of religious and other minorities from their homes.
After Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, fell to the militants in June, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called upon volunteers to reinforce the humiliated military, and many Shiite militias quickly reported for duty. But with different leaders and divided loyalties among the militias, they were impossible to control.
Sectarian violence has been relatively subdued in the capital compared with the bloodshed during the 2006-2006 civil war. However, the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on Shiite neighbourhoods in the capital in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, Ahmed al-Khafaji, a Shiite lawmaker, was among 23 people killed when a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a military checkpoint in Baghdad's northern Khazimiyah neighbourhood. At least 52 people were wounded in the attack, police and hospital officials said.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the bombing in a statement posted on websites frequently used by the group, saying that he is a politician who "long fought the Muslims and waded deep in their blood."
The U.S. State Department issued a statement strongly condemning "the vicious string" of suicide bomb attacks carried out by the Islamic State group that killed scores of Iraqis, including al-Khafaji and others prominent figures. It accused the Islamic State group of trying "to tear apart the diverse fabric of Iraqi society" and pledged to work with the Iraqi government and coalition partners "to end this terrorist scourge."
The Sunni militant group also claimed responsibility for two bombings that tore through Baghdad Monday, on the Shiite holiday of Eid al-Ghadeer, killing 44 people.
"There's a lot of tit-for-tat these days," said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "In some areas like the Baghdad belt and Sunni Turkmen areas, militiamen are actually destroying infrastructure" so that Sunnis don't return to their homes.
"They are making demographic changes to places," he said.
Amnesty accused Iraq's Shiite government of not only failing to prosecute Shiite militia crimes but also condoning them.
"By granting its blessing to militias who routinely commit such abhorrent abuses, the Iraqi government is sanctioning war crimes and fueling a dangerous cycle of sectarian violence that is tearing the country apart," said Donatella Rovera, a senior adviser with Amnesty. She said she has documented cases of alleged abuses by the militias in a number of cities, including Baghdad, Samarra and the northern city of Kirkuk.
Amnesty described one case in which a man, held for five months, was tortured with electric shocks and threatened with rape with a stick before being released without charge.
Abu Youssef, a Sunni taxi driver, told the AP he often encounters Shiite militiamen manning checkpoints alongside Iraqi soldiers when he drives between Baghdad and Kirkuk.
"While the Iraqi soldiers are at the checkpoints, the militiamen take the responsibility to check passengers ID's and arrest anybody who looks suspicious," said Abu Youssef, who spoke on condition his full name not be used for fear of retaliation. "They always question the Sunni passengers and abduct some of them."
Al-Maliki's successor, Haider al-Abadi, has pledged to reign in the Shiite militias and establish a national guard to appease Sunni communities that were disenfranchised under al-Maliki's regime. But Sunni grievances stretch far beyond harassment and intimidation by the Shiite-led government and Shiite militias.
When it overran Mosul, the Islamic State group targeted Shiites, who they consider to be apostates for their differing interpretation of Islam. Video propaganda released by the group showed militant commanders questioning truck drivers on the number of times they kneel down during prayers, since the protocol differs for Sunnis and Shiites.
Those whose answer revealed they were Shiites were killed.