BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Sunni politicians and tribal chiefs from Iraq’s eastern Diyala province accused Shi’ite militias on Monday of killing more than 70 unarmed civilians who had fled clashes with Islamic State militants.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan denied the claims, saying IS was trying to undermine the reputation of Iraqi security forces.
A local Shi’ite official said it was too soon to draw conclusions and suggested IS could have been behind the deaths in the eastern village of Barwanah.
The accusations followed a three-day offensive in which Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite militias captured two dozen villages from Islamic State fighters in Diyala.
The assault, which began on Friday, enabled Shi’ite militias, the Iraqi army and Sunni tribesmen to push the militants out of the Muqdadiya area, the closest Islamic State outpost to the Iranian border 40 km (25 miles) to the east.
Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, has been trying to push back Islamic State since it swept through northern Iraq in June.
Diyala’s governor, Amir Salman, and Nahida al-Daini, an MP from nearby Baquba, called on Baghdad to intervene in Barwanah, 5 km (3 miles) northwest of Muqdadiya where pro-government militias and some security forces took control of about two dozen villages from IS fighters earlier on Monday.
“This evening the militias entered the village of Barwanah and executed more than 70 residents. This is a real massacre by the militias,” Daini told Reuters.
Sagar al-Jabouri and Ahmed Ibrahim, Sunni sheikhs from Muqdadiya, confirmed the reports. “The militias are acting above the law. The security forces are unable to restrain them,” Jabouri said. “We will defend ourselves. We are afraid we will be next.”
Reuters was unable to independently verify these claims due to the security situation in the area.
“Daesh terrorists might have killed those people because they refused to fight with them,” said Amal Omran, a Shi’ite member of the Diyala provincial council, using a derogatory acronym to refer to Islamic State.
Hadi al-Amri, head of the Shi’ite paramilitary group Badr Organization, told a news conference broadcast on state TV at least 58 soldiers and pro-government fighters were killed in the Muqdadiya offensive and 247 wounded.
“We managed on Jan. 25 and after three days’ tough battle to defeat the terrorists in northern Muqdadiya and we cleansed all the villages of Daesh,” Amri said.
About 65 Islamic State fighters were killed, Sadiq al-Hussaini, chairman of the security panel of Diyala’s provincial council, said, adding other militants had fled but did not specify where. Mountainous terrain could make it difficult to eliminate Islamic State from the area.
Previous seizures have often been followed by a counter-offensive.
Residents and security sources said Shi’ite militias had destroyed several mosques and set fire to dozens of houses in the village of Shirween, even some belonging to Sunni fighters who had participated in the offensive.
“After liberating some villages in northern Muqdadiya, a group of militias assaulted us and accused us of being IS members. After they restricted our movement, they began to blow up the large houses,” said Salam Abdullah al-Jobouri, a Sunni tribal fighter.
An army major, a local official and a Sunni tribal leader confirmed the reports. The major said security forces were unable to stop the militias.
The Interior Ministry spokesman denied government forces had intentionally destroyed residents’ homes. He accused IS of planting bombs as they retreated in order to ambush the troops and undermine their reputation.
While Islamic State’s advance has forced thousands of people from their homes, government attempts to regain territory have also displaced many.
Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Stephen Kalin and Saif Hameed; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Janet Lawrence