BAGHDAD — The first signs of sectarian reprisal killings of Sunnis appeared in Iraq today, as 44 Sunni prisoners were killed in a government-controlled police station in Baqouba, north of Baghdad, and the bodies of four young men who had been shot were found dumped on a street in a Baghdad neighborhood controlled by Shiite militiamen.
A police source in Baqouba said the prisoners were killed after militants who had been advancing on Baqouba attacked the police station, where the men, who were suspected of having ties to the militants, were being held for questioning.
“Those people were detainees who were arrested in accordance with Article 4 terrorism offenses,” he said, referring to Iraqi anti-terrorism legislation that gives security forces extraordinary arrest powers. “They were killed inside the jail by the policemen before they withdrew from the station last night.”
Militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Monday night took several neighborhoods in Baqouba, which is just 44 miles from Baghdad, according to security officials in Baqouba.
Brig. Gen. Jameel Kamal al-Shimmari, the police commander in Baqouba, said officers had repulsed the militants after a three-hour gunbattle. “Everything in the city is now under control, and the groups of armed men are not seen in the city,” al-Shimmari said Tuesday.
Officials at the morgue in Baqouba said two policemen had been killed in the fighting.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed in a Twitter post on a feed associated with the militants that the prisoners had been executed by the police.
An Iraqi government military spokesman, Gen. Qassim Atta, blamed the deaths in Baqouba on the militants, saying the prisoners died when the station was struck with hand grenades and mortars. However, a source at the morgue in Baqouba said that many of the victims had been shot to death at close range. Like many of the official sources in Iraq, he spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In eastern Baghdad, the bodies of four young men were found without identity documents on a street in the Benuk neighborhood Tuesday. They were believed to have been Sunnis, because the area is controlled by Shiite militiamen. The area is largely Shiite but also includes Sunnis, and no one had initially claimed the young men’s bodies, according to a police source in the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad.
The victims were between 25 and 30 years old and had been shot numerous times, he said.
The killings fit the pattern of death squads during the sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007 at the height of the U.S.-led invasion. Bodies would be dumped in streets and empty lots after execution-style killings, often without identity documents. Many of these extrajudicial killings, as well as kidnappings, were the work of Shiite militias, often in cooperation with the Shiite-dominated police force, although Shiites living in Sunni neighborhoods were killed as well. At the peak of the violence, as many as 80 bodies a day were found in Baghdad and its immediate suburbs.
The fighting in Baqouba was particularly worrying, because it represented the closest that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and its allies have come to the capital. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has encouraged what he has said are hundreds of thousands of volunteers — nearly all of them Shiites — to join with Shiite militias in the defense of Iraq against the Sunni extremists.
After capturing Mosul a week ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has advanced more than 230 miles, mostly down the valley of the Tigris River toward Baghdad. The militants also took the northwestern city of Tal Afar on Monday, apparently consolidating their gains around Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. On Tuesday, the militants were reported to have attacked the village of Basheer, nine miles south of Kirkuk, according to Reuters.
Angered at what he has called a conspiracy by all of Iraq’s enemies to destroy the country, al-Maliki has lashed out at fellow Arab states with Sunni majorities, particularly Saudi Arabia, accusing them of fomenting the insurgency in neighboring Syria that has nourished the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. On Tuesday al-Maliki was reported to have dismissed security force commanders whom he blamed for allowing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters to seize territory in northern Iraq over the past week.
The Obama administration, increasingly exasperated with al-Maliki, took exception Tuesday to his allegation about the Saudis. Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman in Washington, described it as inaccurate and “offensive.”
White House officials also announced that on Wednesday President Barack Obama would hold meeting on Iraq with congressional leaders, who are increasingly concerned about the administration’s strategy in dealing with the crisis. Obama, who declared the Iraq War over when the last U.S. troops left at the end of 2011, has repeatedly said he would not drag the United States into another conflict in the country. But on Monday he announced that 275 members of the U.S. military were deploying to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, said Boehner expected Obama “to offer a coherent strategy to ensure that Iraq does not descend further into lawless barbarism.”
“We spent years, vast sums of money, and — most importantly — thousands of American lives to improve Iraq’s security and make America safer,” Boehner’s spokesman said. “Squandering that legacy would be a tragic mistake.”
Baqouba, and the surrounding province of Diyala, is a mixed Sunni and Shiite area and was the scene of some of the worst sectarian violence in past years. As the fighting creeps closer to Baghdad, the offensive is being led by Sunni fighters drawn from other Sunni militant groups, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Islamic army, in alliance with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, according to an Iraqi intelligence source. Both of those groups have long had a presence in Diyala province and were involved in some of the bloodiest fighting during the past sectarian battles. The 1920s Brigades were formed by disaffected Iraqi army officers who were left without jobs after the Americans dissolved the military in 2003.
Residents of Baqouba said they feared a renewal of sectarian warfare.
“The violence in Baqouba will lead to civil war because the villages that surrounded Baqouba are Shiite,” said Jassim al-Ubaidi, a lawyer in Baqouba.
Shiites are fearful, said Jaafer al-Rubaie, a retired government official. “We are afraid of a massacre of the Shiite minority if the security situation collapses.”
In Geneva, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed fears that the fighting could ignite sectarian violence across the region and called on Iraq’s government to become more inclusive.
“There is a real risk of further sectarian violence on a massive scale within Iraq and beyond its borders,” Ban said, expressing his concern over the reports of mass executions by forces linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Ban said he had been urging al-Maliki, a Shiite, to “reach out” and engage in an inclusive dialogue.
“What is important is that the Iraqi government should have one state, whether it is Sunni or Shiite or Kurds,” he said. Ban also said he was trying to accelerate the search for a successor to Lakhdar Brahimi, who resigned at the end of May as the United Nations and Arab League mediator on Syria. “I will try to minimize the vacuum” left by Brahimi’s departure, Ban said.