Last Tuesday, the bodies of 44 Sunni prisoners were found in a government-controlled police station in Baquba: a town on the front lines of the battle between government forces and the Islamic extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) to control Iraq. The prisoners had all been shot in the head or chest the previous night. While Iraq’s government rushed to blame the killings on ISIS, Amnesty International recently published evidence that Iraqi forces were behind the brutal act of reprisal violence, and it wasn’t an isolated incident.
The mayor of Ba’quba, Abdallah al-Hayali, counts his 21-year-old nephew among the up to 50 prisoners killed inside the al-Wahda police station by members of a Shi’a militia on the morning of 16 June. The mayor told Amnesty that his nephew had been held for nearly a month without trial and repeatedly tortured in custody. The governor of Diyala, the province where Ba’quba is located, described how he spoke to the lone survivor of the massacre. “Armed men in the presence of the head of the police station entered and started shooting at us,” he said. Hours later, the man was abducted from the hospital where he was receiving treatment and killed by the militia.
Diyala’s Chief of Police blamed the deaths on indiscriminate shelling by ISIS militants, leading the press to report that ISIS was behind the killings. The interviews collected by Amnesty, however, stand in contrast to the government’s official version of events. “The killings suggest a worrying pattern of reprisal attacks against Sunnis in retaliation for ISIS gains,” Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser who is currently in northern Iraq, said in a press release.
ISIS — also called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — got its start fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the Syrian Civil War, and aims to create an Islamic state spanning across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Jordan. While fighting Assad, the al Qaeda breakaway group has also launched attacks against virtually every other actor in the conflict. Despite that, its core focus over the last year in Iraq has clearly been Shiites, bombing multiple Shiite-majority areas throughout the country.
In January, ISIS captured Fallujah. Over the past few weeks, they launched an offensive that brought the major cities of Tikrit and Mosul under their control as well, allegedly killing hundreds of detained Shiite soldiers in weaving their path of destruction. Now, the terrorist group is closing in on Baghdad. As ISIS is known to regularly free prisoners in order to expand its ranks, Amnesty’s allegations that Shiite militias are killing detainees rather than imprisoning them and seeing them return to the battle field seem plausible.
According to Amnesty’s findings, the killings in Ba’quba were not an isolated incident. Relatives of victims and survivors report that up to 50 prisoners were killed by Iraqi forces on June 15 before they lost control of the city of Tal ‘Afar to ISIS. None of the prisoners being held in the city’s Anti-Terrorism Agency building had been tried. Community members in Mosul describe a similar scene. On June 9, Iraqi soldiers allegedly shot 13 detainees and detonated a grenade in a locked prison cell, killing six more.
“Even in the midst of war there are rules that must never be transgressed,” remarked Rovera about the extrajudicial murders. “Killing prisoners is a war crime. The government must immediately order an impartial and independent investigation into the killings, and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.” Unfortunately, the likelihood of the government voluntarily carrying out an investigation is slim. Last month, the Iraqi government denied dropping crude, terrifying “barrel bombs” on civilian targets in insurgent strongholds, despite strong evidence. And Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has shown unwillingness to heed Secretary of State John Kerry’s urgent call to form a coalition government capable of bridging the nation’s sectarian divide. Injecting an investigation into the killing of Sunnis into the mix could fray al-Maliki’s willingness to work with the minority group further.
Donatella Rovera offers the reminder that ISIS and the government have both dropped to a low standard in waging Iraq’s rapidly escalating civil war. “Those among the warring parties in Iraq who are committing war crimes should know that the impunity they currently enjoy won’t last forever and that they may one day be held accountable for their crimes,” Rovera said.