Iraqi security forces found 53 bound and blindfolded bodies in a town south of Baghdad today, in an incident reminiscent of the sectarian violence that gripped the country in 2006 and 2007.
The victims, who were male and found in an agricultural area outside Hillah, had been shot in the head and chest at least a week ago, AFP reported. Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim told AP that the circumstances of the killings and identities of the victims would be investigated.
Against a background of increased sectarian tension, the deaths will be a cause for concern. Between 2006 and 2007, Shiite and Sunni militias engaged a cycle of brutal killings, usually unceremoniously dumping bodies by roadsides or in ditches and alleys.
Hillah, around 60 miles south of the capital, is majority Shiite, although there are a number of Sunni towns to the north which saw heavy fighting during that period.
Tensions had eased, but now, after hardline Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran large swathes of northern Iraq, sectarian violence appears to be on the increase again. Many Sunnis feel that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has been corrupt and his policies sectarian, and so sympathize with the rebels.
Meanwhile, Shiite militias have mobilized to protect Baghdad and elsewhere, and have been fighting alongside government troops. Iran, Maliki's key Shiite ally, has been providing assistance to the Iraqi armed forces.
This is not the first mass killing since the ISIS-led attacks. On June 27, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that analysis of photographs and satellite images strongly indicated that ISIS killed between 160 and 190 men in Tikrit after seizing the city on June 11. ISIS claimed to have "exterminated" 1,700 Shiite soldiers on June 12 and subsequently posted photographs apparently showing the executed men.
Massacres appear to have taken place on both sides. On June 23, a number of prisoners died while being transferred to a Baghdad jail. Officials said the convoy transporting the victims was attacked by militants and that 10 were killed in the resultant firefight. However, sources told Reuters that all 69 men were actually killed by police. Just a few days before that, 44 prisoners were killed in Baquba, north of Baghdad. Again, the versions of events differed.
Also today, Maliki said that Erbil, the capital of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, is being used as a base by ISIS fighters. "We will never be silent about Erbil becoming a base for the operations of the Islamic State and Baathists and al-Qaeda and the terrorists," he said, during his weekly televised address, Al Jazeera reported.
His comments came after Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish territories made the first step towards independence for the region on July 3 by asking the Kurdish parliament to form a committee that would organize an independence referendum. The request placed Barzani at direct odds with Maliki, who accused him of exploiting the situation.
Kurdish forces moved into disputed areas in the north of the country — including taking singlehanded control of oil-rich Kirkuk — when a lightning offensive by ISIS-led militants routed Iraqi troops in the region last month. Barzani has since said that Kurds would hold on to the disputed regions.
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