BAGHDAD Iraqi Shi'ite militias have drawn up hit lists of suspected Sunni insurgents to be kidnapped, executed and hung in public, security and police officials said, raising the stakes in a sectarian war tearing the country apart.
The militias became a vital line of defense for the Shi'ite-led government after the army collapsed in the face of a June advance by Sunni Islamic State militants who seized large swathes of land in the north and aim to march on Baghdad.
The militias' increasingly ruthless tactics, in towns north of the capital, near the front line with insurgents, could radicalize Sunnis who say innocent people are being swept up in the fighting.
"They have a hit list of Sunni individuals that are considered a threat to security forces and the Shi'ite population," said a senior security official in Diyala Province who works with the militias.
"Every one on the list should be eliminated to clear the province of groups supporting the Islamic State."
While the militias say they are removing a threat from terrorists, critics accuse them of pushing Iraq into a sectarian abyss. Shi'ite militias are also helping security forces fight Sunni militants who have taken control of parts of Western Iraq.
Iraq's ongoing conflict rivals the worst of the last decade's sectarian war, posing the greatest risk to the OPEC member's stability since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
"CRUELTY SOMETIMES CAN PAY"
Events in Baquba, an ethnically mixed town 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad, this week illustrate the methods the militias are adopting to discourage Sunnis from joining Islamic State, which believes Shi'ites are apostates who deserve to die.
Basim Amir al-Jubouri left home on July 20 to run his small food shop. He was kidnapped en route by Shi'ite militia forces who were suspicious of his background, relatives and police say.
Jubouri, 27, was arrested in 2006 and held in a detention center run by U.S. forces who suspected him of supporting al Qaeda. He was released a year later, relatives said.
Jubouri's body was hung from an electricity pole in a public square in Baquba on Wednesday, along with 14 others, a warning to anyone with sympathies for Islamic State.
Jubouri's relatives are too scared to retrieve his body because Shi'ite militias are still roaming Baquba, eager to hunt down other suspected Sunni Islamists.
"Basim was kidnapped by militia and early today we got a call from a policeman friend informing us that he was killed and stayed hanged on a pole all yesterday," said a relative who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
"We can't go to get the body. hit squads are stationed near the morgue entrance to snatch more Sunnis. Police warned us."
Police and security forces need the help of Shi'ite militias such as the Iranian-trained Asaib Ahl Haq, which now rival the army in their ability to confront Sunni insurgents.
Cooperation with them, despite their methods, appears to be considered acceptable because the likely alternative is worse - being taken over by Islamic State fighters who routinely execute security forces.
"We can't hide the fact that without the Shi'ite Asaib militia's help, Islamic State flags would be flying on top of the Baquba government headquarters now," said a police captain who runs joint patrols with the militias.
"They are too cruel, yes, but cruelty sometimes can pay off especially with a merciless enemy like the Islamic State."
A Baquba police captain who described the executions as "part of war" said his men routinely share information with the militias. "They are not operating randomly but they carry out the arrests depending on carefully set lists," he said.
Critics say Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has marginalized Sunnis, prompting some to find common cause with Islamic State, putting Iraq's survival as a nation in jeopardy.
As sectarian tensions deepen, Shi'ite militia leaders like Abu Ridha al-Tamimi, who is based in Baquba, will keep working their way through hit lists.
"They decapitate Shi'ite heads if they catch us and we hang their bodies on electricity poles. That's fair because it's an eye for an eye," he told Reuters by telephone.
"We have to be tough. Our main objective is to clear out Baquba from any possible sleeper cells supporting terrorists."
(Editing by Michael Georgy and Robin Pomeroy)