BAGHDAD: Iraqi Shia militiamen machine gunned minority Sunni Muslims in a village mosque on Friday, killing dozens just as Baghdad is trying to build a cross-community government to fight militants whose rise has alarmed Western powers.
A morgue official in Diyala province north of Baghdad said 68 people had been killed in the sectarian attack staged on the Muslim day of prayer. Ambulances took the bodies 60 km (40 miles) to the provincial capital of Baquba, where Iranian-trained Shia militias are powerful and act with impunity.
Attacks on mosques are acutely sensitive and have in the past unleashed a deadly series of revenge killings and counter attacks in Iraq, where violence has returned to the levels of 2006-2007, the peak of a sectarian civil war.
Lawmaker Nahida al-Dayani, who is from Diyala, said about 150 worshippers were at Imam Wais mosque when the militiamen arrived following a roadside bombing which had targeted a security vehicle. “It is a new massacre,” said Dayani, a Sunni originally from the village where the attack happened.
“Sectarian militias entered and opened fire at worshippers. Most mosques have no security,” she told Reuters. “Some of the victims were from one family. Some women who rushed to see the fate of their relatives at the mosque were killed.”
The bloodbath marks a setback for Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi, from the majority Shia community, who is seeking support from Sunnis and ethnic Kurds to take on the Islamic State insurgency that is threatening to tear Iraq apart.
An army major who declined to be named said the gunmen arrived in two pickup trucks after two bombs had gone off at the house of a Shia militia leader, killing three of his men.
A Sunni tribal leader, Salman al-Jibouri, said his community was prepared to respond in kind. “Sunni tribes have been alerted to avenge the killings,” he said. In the northern city of Mosul, Islamic State stoned a man to death, witnesses said, as the United States raised the prospect of tackling jihadist safe havens across the border in Syria.
In a regional conflict which is throwing up dilemmas for governments from Washington to London to Baghdad and Tehran, any U.S. action against Islamic State in Syria would risk making common cause with President Bashar al-Assad - the man it has wanted overthrown in a three-year uprising.
Islamic State, which this week released a video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley, stoned the man to death in Mosul after one of its self-appointed courts sentenced him for adultery, the witnesses said.
The parents of Foley, who was kidnapped while covering the Syrian civil war, called on Friday for support to free other foreigners still held by Islamic State fighters. “We do pray, we beg the international community to help the remaining hostages,” Diane Foley said on MSNBC television. “We just pray that they will be set free,” she said after a long conversation with Pope Francis, who the Vatican said called the couple on Thursday afternoon to offer his condolences.
The stoning, which happened on Thursday, was the first known instance of the punishment by Islamic State militants in Iraq since it seized large areas of the country in a June offensive. Having poured in from Syria across a desert border that it does not recognise, the movement has declared its own caliphate.
Similar stonings by the radical group have been previously reported in Syria, where it split from al Qaeda. Islamic State is the most powerful rebel group fighting Assad’s forces in a civil war which the United Nations said has claimed almost 200,000 lives at the very least.
President Barack Obama’s decision to authorise air strikes in Iraq for the first time since U.S. troops pulled out in 2011 has helped to slow the militants’ offensive. However, America’s top soldier acknowledged that the internationally recognised frontier between Iraq and Syria, over which the militants have free passage, no longer meant much in the wider conflict.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested Islamic State would remain a danger until it could no longer count on safe havens in Syria. “This is an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of- days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated,” he told reporters in Washington on Thursday.
“To your question, can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organisation which resides in Syria? The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a non-existent border.”
Obama came close to ordering air strikes on Syria last year, but they would have been against Assad’s forces which are fighting Islamic State in the complex war involving a range of factions battling each other. At least 191,369 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict up to April, more than double the figure documented a year ago and probably still an under-estimate, the United Nations human rights office said on Friday.
Obama had intended to punish Assad for using chemical weapons in the civil war - charges Damascus denied - but the air strikes were cancelled after a Russian-brokered deal under which Syria surrendered its chemical arsenal.
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