Iraqi rebels die in ‘tit-for-tat massacre’

A suspected Isis militant is detained by Kurdish security forces. Picture: Reuters

A suspected Isis militant is detained by Kurdish security forces. Picture: Reuters

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SIGNS emerged yesterday of revenge massacres in Iraq following accusations that Sunni militants committed atrocities against Shiites last week.

Police said pro-government Shiite militiamen had killed dozens of Sunni detainees after the insurgents tried to storm a jail and free their colleagues.

The Iraqi military insisted the inmates died when the attackers shelled the facility outside the city of Baqouba, 40 miles north-east of Baghdad.

But the allegation of Shiite killings of Sunnis was the first sign of the beginnings of a return to sectarian warfare that nearly tore the country apart.

Sunni militants have been accused of atrocities in areas they have captured over the past week.

The insurgents were repelled, but the fighting around the jail was the closest to Baghdad since the al-Qaeda breakaway group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) began its lightning advance, seizing several key cities in the Sunni heartland in northern Iraq.

There were conflicting details about the fighting in the al- Kattoun district near Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province on how the detainees were killed.

Three police officers said the police station, which has a small jail, came under attack on Monday by Islamic militants who tried to free the detainees, mostly suspected Sunni fighters.

They said Shiite militiamen, who rushed to defend the facility, killed the detainees at close range. A mortuary official in Baqouba said many of the slain had bullet wounds to the head and chest.

However, Iraq’s chief military spokesman Lieutenant General Qassim al-Moussawi, said that 52 detainees died when Isis shelled the jail with mortars. The group is active in Diyala, a volatile province with a mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds and where Shiite militiamen are deployed alongside government forces.

Nine of the attackers were killed, Lt Gen al-Moussawi said.

The conflicting reports could not immediately be reconciled, but if the version of events provided by the policemen and the coroner is independently verified, then the incident would be an example of the sectarian strife and atrocities that Iraq’s ongoing crisis could yield.

Iraq has been in danger of sliding back to the wholesale Shiite-Sunni bloodletting of 2006 and 2007 since Sunni militants seized at least one city and significant parts of the countryside in Anbar province west of Baghdad early this year.

Continuous bombings blamed on Sunni militants in Baghdad and elsewhere, and targeted assassinations of members of both communities have deepened fears of outright sectarian warfare.

During the United States’ eight-year presence in Iraq, American forces acted as a buffer between the two Islamic sects, though with limited success. The US military withdrew at the end of 2011, but it is now being pulled back in – albeit so far on a limited basis.

Nearly 300 armed American personnel are being positioned in and around Iraq to help secure US assets as president Barack Obama nears a decision on an array of options for combating the Islamic militants, including airstrikes or a contingent of special forces. The White House has emphasised that any military engagement remains contingent on the Iraq government making political reforms.

The US and Iran, Iraq’s Shiite neighbour and close ally, also held an initial discussion on how the long-time foes might co-operate to ease the threat from the al-Qaeda-linked militants that have swept through Iraq. However, the White House ruled out the possibility that Washington and Tehran might co-ordinate military operations in Iraq.

Isis has vowed to march to Baghdad, and the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq’s stability since US troops left. The three cities are home to some of the most revered Shiite shrines. Isis has also tried to capture the city of Samarra north of Baghdad, home to another major Shiite shrine.

The push by Isis militants has largely been unchecked as Iraqi troops and police melted away and surrendered in the onslaught on the city of Mosul and Trikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town.

On Monday, Isis captured the strategically located city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, a move that strengthens its plans to carve out a state-like enclave on both sides of the border.

Iraqi military officials said some 400 elite troops and volunteers who have joined security forces were flown to an airport outside Tal Afar on Monday, but were immediately pinned down by heavy artillery shelling from the militants.

Isis shows keen grasp of Twitter power

Fighting a propaganda war has always been a key aspect of conflict, but in these days of social media it has taken on a whole new dimension.

The Iraq crisis has seen the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) make unprecedented use of Twitter during an online campaign of huge sophistication and reach.

Pictures released on Twitter have showed Isis militants executing members of the Iraqi army near the Syrian border. And a picture from the prison of Tal Afar showed more than 12 bodies in bloodied civilian clothes piled in a heap.

These chilling images are just two examples of the way social media is being manipulated to get out the message of Isis, the Sunni militia that drove the Iraqi army out of Mosul.

The sophistication of the way the internet has been used by the terrorist organisation has been compared by online analysts with the most up-to-date marketing techniques.

Isis has developed a Twitter app for Android phones called The Dawn of Glad Tidings. It offers users news and information about Isis.

When users sign up, they give Isis permission to send tweets through their own personal accounts.

According to experts, the methods used by Isis enable it to manipulate its social media presence to give the impression that its activities are far more widespread and popular than they actually are.

The sending of tens of thousands of tweets, many with gruesome images, are done in the hope that they will boost recruitment and raise funds from sympathisers.

There is also the hope that a dominant online presence will help Isis in its battle with al- Qaeda for leadership of the global jihadi movement.

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