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Human Rights Group Alleges Shiite Militias Killing Sunnis in Retaliation for ISIS Attacks

The Islamic State has been slaughtering Shiites by the thousands as it rampages through Iraq and Syria. A new report by Amnesty International claims that members of Iraq’s Shiite majority are retaliating with atrocities of their own. The report, released on Tuesday, alleges that since the self-proclaimed Islamic State started grabbing territory in Iraq, Shiite ...

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

The Islamic State has been slaughtering Shiites by the thousands as it rampages through Iraq and Syria. A new report by Amnesty International claims that members of Iraq’s Shiite majority are retaliating with atrocities of their own.

The report, released on Tuesday, alleges that since the self-proclaimed Islamic State started grabbing territory in Iraq, Shiite militias supported by the Iraqi government have abducted and shot dozens of Sunni civilians, apparently in retaliation for the Sunni extremist group’s attacks on Shiites. Many of the Sunnis being killed have no apparent connection to the Islamic State, and just seem to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, the report says.

"Scores of unidentified bodies have been discovered across the country handcuffed and with gunshot wounds to the head, indicating a pattern of deliberate execution-style killings," the international human rights group stated on Tuesday. The group’s report is based on six weeks of interviews with victims, observers, and government officials in central and northern Iraq between August and September.

The report finds that some captives have been killed even after their families paid ransoms worth tens of thousands of dollars to the militia groups. An Iraqi government official told Amnesty’s team that "those who are kidnapped by these [militiamen] have little chance of survival, no matter how much their families pay." Bodies of targeted Sunnis have later appeared in local morgues, some bearing injuries consistent with torture, such as bruises, open wounds, and burns, the report says.

The militias, which include Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Brigade, the Mahdi Army, and Kataib Hezbollah, several of which receive direct Iranian support, "have further risen in power and prominence since June, after the Iraqi army retreated, ceding nearly a third of the country to IS fighters," Amnesty reports. It adds that the attacks are occurring at a level not seen since the country’s worst period of civil violence, in 2006 and 2007.

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-based government in 2003, Shiites have taken over most key Iraqi security and intelligence services and enjoyed strong Iraqi government support, which has allowed them to act with impunity, the report says. Government oversight is scant amid the chaos wrought by the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL.

A government official told Amnesty, "Sunni men of fighting age who come from, go to, or live near areas where there are IS groups tend to be considered by many militias to be terrorists or terrorist supporters and that is why they often get killed, whereas some militiamen target Sunnis in blind revenge for the crimes committed by Sunni terrorist groups."

"The new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi must act now to rein in the militias and establish the rule of law," Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera said in the group’s statement.

The report adds that the Iraqi Army itself has also been involved in human rights abuses, and that the government is responsible for allowing the militias’ abuses to occur.

While the claims in the Amnesty report are terrible in and of themselves, their consequences are perhaps even more frightening: that they could encourage more people to sympathize with and join the Islamic State.

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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